I sit here in my London home, thinking of the thousands of things I need to do. Plus the other hundred things I want to do beside them, and ultimately I end up on the internet doing approximately nothing.
As I sit here I realize that increasingly people are never alone. Oh they may be able to walk around the house naked and drink coffee out of a dirty cup without the fear of social impropriety, but that sense of alone. Of being factually, not just emotionally or mentally, disconnected from all of the other beings on earth, is being lost.
I spent a lot of time alone as a kid. I had friends, particularly as I got older, but since I lived in the countryside I found myself outdoors surrounded by green with the nearest neighbor 500 meters from my door. But when I wasn’t at school or over visiting a friend’s house (which always required a car ride) I was outdoors listening to the sounds of the world or hiding in my room reading a book.
I came to the internet early. At a time when most of the rest of the world had no idea that the internet existed I was busy on bulletin boards and logged onto the educational dial-ins of the 80s internet. Telnet, Archie, Gopher. I know what the word ping actually means. I remember being given Timothy Leary’s email in 1991 by Steve Aukstakalnis and thinking I had just gotten the key to a secret cult.
There was no google then; hell there was no such thing as a browser. But there was IRC (Internet Relay Chat) which gave rise to chat boards both on the internet and on offline hubs (BBS). People had much the same communication they do now with facebook, but with fewer pics and no video.
Even then I didn’t really like chatting. I would join a group to ask a tech question and then log out. I just wasn’t interested in group discussion. I wanted to sit and think out some problem. To paint or to make something or most importantly to read. To be in my head and without any intruding opinions or thoughts from the outside world.
Times have changed. I find myself on the internet every day. Responding to people’s questions about my work, talking to people about future projects. Coordinating the madness of my schedule between large doses of coffee. I get drawn occasionally into an public exchange. Especially those created by a handful of artists and writers who I find interesting. I even try to start a conversation once in awhile.
Any time of the day or night, there are people online. But this isn’t just true for a few of us, its true for everyone. As time goes on we find ourselves always able to go online and talk to people. To have ideas and exchange words. To argue and discuss and make each other laugh.
While this forum of constant 24 hour a day communication is great in that it allows those of us isolated by distance to communicate with the world, and while access to information provided by the world is an amazing gift that in my youth was just a fantasy, we have forgotten the art of being alone.
When was the last time you couldn’t pick up a phone and call, or go on the internet and communicate with someone? A half day on a vacation some months ago? When you forgot your phone at home before going out for a night of drinking? We have, in the modern world, the ability to be constantly in touch, constantly without the feeling of true isolation that being alone provides us. We no longer know the pain and pleasure of having no one to talk to, of being forced into ourselves to confront who we are.
We are a society that does everything it can to avoid introspection.
The older I get the more I long for the great disconnect. To move someplace outside of the reach of the internet, of mobile phones, of fiber optics. But these places are ceasing to exist. Even in the remote jungle you can use the phone, check your email. So I realize that in order for me to have distance, to be able to return to those extended periods of contemplation I will have to choose to disconnect. To choose not to communicate, to extract myself from this wonderful world of endless conversation and simply think without the urge to reach out for human interaction.
Until then I will continue to move about my day fully aware that millions of minds are in the world, talking and discussing and engaging. Debates and arguments from continent to continent raging, illict messages sent and plans made. The world is happening and in order to live in it we find ourselves having to swim in this stream of personalities, in this conversation of life.
But we must remember what it means to be alone. How left to our own measure we begin to question who we are, what we believe, and how we intend to live. It is in these moments of silence filled only with the hum of our own mental processes that we can fully approach an understanding of ourselves.
-RSH March 21 2013