December 27, 2012

My "Home Alone" Is a Far Cry from Pico Iyer's "Joy of Quiet"

I posted yesterday about my "best Christmas ever" despite spending it "home alone with no presents." I woke up this morning to this view from my living room window:

When I turned on the computer, "Weather Channel" popped up to advise me that it would be like this for the rest of the day, except the snow would change to rain. So, I decided, another day of "home alone." By lunchtime, I was feeling quite smug about how much I was enjoying another day by myself and living with solitude.

Then I realized I'd been far from alone. In the morning, I'd exchanged emails with at least half a dozen people. I'd checked out what my Facebook friends had to say about their Christmas holidays. I'd looked at a couple of YouTube videos. I'd checked the NY Times online.

Hardly home alone. The only time I'd really been "home alone" (and awake) for an extended period was during my hour-long meditation at 4am.

Facebook Addicts
Yes, there actually is now a support group for Facebook addicts. Ironically, it's on the web. If you're ready to sign up, here's the link:

"We could not resist the temptation to add a 'like' button," says Dan Pequine, a founder of Face/Anonymous. Since going online in late July, it's received nearly 4,000 "likes."

Facebook Employee #51 Unfriends
Mark Zuckerberg's former ghost-writer and Facebook's 51st employee, Katherine Losse, unfriended Facebook in early 2011 and moved to Marfa, Texas, a town known for its artsy vibe and desert air where she decided to make friends the old-fashioned way -- in person.

One of Losse's concerns was the vast amount of personal data Facebook gathers. She says:
They are playing on very touchy private territory. They really are. To not be conscious of that seems to be really dangerous.
Losse is now writing a book and finding it technologically intense. She's reactivated her Facebook account. Rejecting it altogether was too extreme, she decided. But she's gone back to Facebook with new wariness, using it mostly to cultivate an image as a new author, not to make friends.

It wasn't just Facebook. Losse, like many others, has developed a skepticism for many social technologies and the trade-offs they require. Today she's found a balance, a mix of technological connection and disconnection that, for now, suits her. She says:
You can't get away from it. It's everything. It's everywhere. The moment we're in now is about trying to deal with all this technology rather than rejecting it, because obviously we can't reject it entirely. We can avoid one site or another; but we can't leave our phones at home anymore.
Or can we?

"Joy of Quiet" vs. The Internet

As I started writing this post, I remembered I had in my files a clipping of a New York Times article written a year ago by Pico Iyer, titled "Joy of Quiet -- Trying to escape the constant stream of too much information." I recommend reading the piece in full --

What follows summarizes some of Iyer's musings.

In barely one generation we've moved from exulting in the time-saving devices that have so enhanced our lives to trying to get away from them — often in order to make more time. The more ways we have to connect, the more many of us seem desperate to unplug. Like teenagers, we appear to have gone from knowing nothing about the world to knowing too much overnight.

The average American spends at least eight and a half hours a day in front of a screen, Nicholas Carr notes in his book The Shallows, in part because the number of hours American adults spent online doubled between 2005 and 2009 (and the number of hours spent in front of a TV screen, often simultaneously, is also steadily increasing).The average American teenager sends or receives 75 text messages a day.

The urgency of slowing down — to find the time and space to think — is nothing new, of course, as wiser souls have always reminded us. Here's a sampling:
  • “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries,” the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in the 17th century, “and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.” He also famously remarked that all of man’s problems come from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone. 
  • Henry David Thoreau reminded us that “the man whose horse trots a mile in a minute does not carry the most important messages." 
  • Marshall McLuhan, who came closer than most to seeing what was coming, warned, “When things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself.” 
Iyer gives this excellent description of our quandary:
Yet few of those voices can be heard these days, precisely because “breaking news” is coming through (perpetually) on CNN and Debbie is just posting images of her summer vacation and the phone is ringing. We barely have enough time to see how little time we have (most Web pages, researchers find, are visited for 10 seconds or less). And the more that floods in on us (the Kardashians, Obamacare, “Dancing with the Stars”), the less of ourselves we have to give to every snippet. All we notice is that the distinctions that used to guide and steady us — between Sunday and Monday, public and private, here and there — are gone.

We have more and more ways to communicate, as Thoreau noted, but less and less to say. Partly because we’re so busy communicating. And — as he might also have said — we’re rushing to meet so many deadlines that we hardly register that what we need most are lifelines.
So What Can We Do? 
The only way to do justice to our onscreen lives, Iyer says, is by summoning the emotional and moral clarity that can't be found on any screen. He speculates that this may be why more and more people he knows are turning to yoga or meditation or tai chi. These are not New Age fads, he says, so much as "what could be called the wisdom of old age."

In his case, Iyer says, he has turned to eccentric and often extreme measures "to try to keep my sanity and ensure that I have time to do nothing at all, which is the only time when I can see what I should be doing the rest of the time."

Iyer certainly has resorted to some extreme measures. He reports:
I’ve yet to use a cellphone and I’ve never Tweeted or entered Facebook. I try not to go online till my day’s writing is finished, and I moved from Manhattan to rural Japan in part so I could more easily survive for long stretches entirely on foot, and every trip to the movies would be an event.
None of this is a matter of principle or asceticism; it’s just pure selfishness. Nothing makes me feel better — calmer, clearer and happier — than being in one place, absorbed in a book, a conversation, a piece of music. It’s actually something deeper than mere happiness: it’s joy, which the monk David Steindl-Rast describes as “that kind of happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.”
As we get ready to close the book on 2012 and open a new one for 2013, Iyer gives us something to contemplate.

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