The Loss of Solitude

In Leaves of Grass, American poet and writer Walt Whitman writes about solitude —

Give me solitude — give me Nature — give me again, O Nature, your primal sanities!”.

Aldous Huxley wrote that the most powerful and original of minds lean towards solitude. Guru Nanak preached that he who meditates in solitude attains supreme bliss. Solitude is, as 20th century inhabitants and spiritual leaders put it, a treasure. Solitude is not loneliness. Unlike loneliness, solitude is pleasant. It signifies strength, and allows contemplation. Loneliness is distant, it is crippling and empty, it is the realisation of alienation. Solitude is the profound moment that one achieves harmony with oneself.

Three days ago, a new application called Facebook Home was launched. Home, by Facebook connects your android phone home screen to your Facebook home screen. Now you don’t need to log in, or be notified, but every time you look at your phone, there will be a steady stream of posts and streams flowing in. Likes can be executed with two taps, and customized scrolling can launch Facebook messenger. The mission of the new Facebook Home is to blend in your Facebook with your goings on so naturally, that soon, they are one. As a Facebook spokesperson put it:

If this [Facebook Home] is a success, it’s going to be something that most people don’t really even notice.

With this, solitude has been lost.

The first form of virtual communication I ever witnessed was in that of Windows Live Messenger. Almost every evening we would all be online, where we would spend hours after school talking about things that seemed relevant to a thirteen year old. Even though we’d see each other everyday, talk on the phone and chat on the Internet, being connected didn’t feel like it does today. During the age of Hotmail, e-mail, and chat, communication in the form of social media was separate from routine.

Today, at every moment that I exist, I know I am connected to a million. Social network instruments like Facebook and Instagram make us constant voyeurs into the lives of others. An animate window into the lives of the others has replaced the instruments of description and retrospect. We are through Facebook and live sharing, omnipresent in one other’s personal domains. I know right now what my friend in New York is doing, what my cousin in London is eating. I know, through Facebook, that some others who I may never speak to in person are holidaying, working on a certain project, or spending time with their dogs. And I didn’t ask to know, I just do. Not only am I allowed to know all this, but with the ‘like’ button Facebook enables me to appreciate, to express admiration or support, to perform human emotional gestures in a mere click.

Facebook, unlike Orkut, MSN space and it’s other forerunners looked to replace human experiences and put them online. In 2010, it introduced the ‘Like’ button, with which it brought about the aspect of online approval. In 2011, it introduced the Timeline, with which your entire time on Facebook was chronologically arranged online.

Facebook took real-life, structured it, fool-proofed it of disorder, and put it on the Internet.

In her NYRB article on Facebook and David Fincher’s The Social Network, writer Zadie Smith makes a distinction between the generation 1.0 human, and the generation 2.0 human, the latter belonging to the era of Facebook. She says that Generation 2.0 deserves an “interface to reality” that is better than Facebook. According to Smith, selves have been diluted; humans have been reduced and put onto a platform that is easy to digest. It is easy to believe that your life is your Facebook profile, devoid of complexities, complete with friends in hundreds, and just a series of happy photos of laughing people with drinks in hand. But she says that the real human cannot be put onto Facebook.

Smith wrote this article in 2010. But she also says that, despite all this, she is being nostalgic.

“But here I fear that I am becoming nostalgic. I am dreaming of a Web that caters to a kind of person who no longer exists. A private person, a person who is a mystery, to the world and — which is more important — to herself. Person as mystery: this idea of personhood is certainly changing, perhaps has already changed. Because I find I agree with Zuckerberg: selves evolve.”

When I enter my house I see my mother and sister in a tussle at the dinner table. My mother is peering into my sister’s computer screen.

“How does she know you went on holiday!? What does mean ‘is everything okay?Why must you put everything on The Facebook!”

To this my sister laughs and says matter-of-factly.

“No ‘the’, Ma. Just Facebook.”

I see two kinds of people that are planets away from each other. The first to whom online-sharing is natural, it is normal, it isn’t first hand experience but it is quick gratification. The other is uncomfortable. She doesn’t understand why everything must be put on a page where everyone can see. To her, sharing is a one-on-one experience, not a one on hundred.

What Facebook has done is overwhelming. It has kicked off an unexpected phase of human evolution. The new human, the human who exists in the cocoon of social networking is different from his predecessors of even ten years. The new human, the citizen of Generation Facebook takes connectedness as a natural phenomenon. To be connected is a pre-existing norm. The ideas of exhibitionism, the notion of being watched, the non-existence of privacy a renatural to this new kind of human. Generation 2.0 is one of hyper-connectedness and Youtube trends. It is about being in several places at once.

You are always on Facebook. Even if you are not logged in, there is a version of you in the form of your profile that is dispensable as your being. When you log into your Facebook, you engage through this being with others, but even when you are offline you are still constantly accessible. This brings into light the idea that even when you are alone, someone is watching a construction of you that exists on the Internet. On Facebook we create a version of selves that is not the original. This is the version that is available to hundreds, but it is the one we construct and modify. This is a self that can be devoid of error because we can simply ‘Hide’ it from our timeline. Facebook is a dream realised. It allows us to be who we want to be, and not who we are.

The average Facebook user uses Facebook for 55 minutes a day, posts 25 comments, likes 2 pages, clicks the like button 9 times, and is invited to 3 events. He/she also spends 20–23 minutes on Facebook on every log in. As an average Facebook user, I concur with these statistics. Everyday, on our Facebooks, we actively connect to other people’s lives. Through their live feeds we know what their lives look like, whom they are connecting with, through their wall posts we know who are their better friends. Everyday I am connected to 373 people, through them I am connected to millions more. On every birthday I am wished by at least two hundred. How, now, can I go back to being alone? Being by myself? Being without the 373 plus a million, that though don’t matter, are always only a click away.

During my hasty reading (Generation 2.0 likes to skim through pages) of Jaron Lenier’s ‘You are not a Gadget‘ for college last year, I remember something that he said:

Information doesn’t deserve to be free. It is an abstract tool; a useful fantasy, a nothing. It is nonexistent until and unless a person experiences it in a useful way.”

Lanier too like Smith, is nostalgic. Today, we live in a world in which all information is validated through superficial viewing. The Internet has enabled for us to be included in things we have not seen, touched, felt or heard. The new human has a sixth sense in the form of a keyboard and a wireless connection. Through Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, we are constantly made part of things that we never need to examine or do for ourselves.

As I go through my word document and capitalise the Fs on Facebook, I can feel its predominance in the world that we inhabit. I look at my interests page and there are bands there I have never heard of. I look into my causes and realise I haven’t done much to serve them. I look at my profile photo and realise it is two years old. When people can look at my Facebook self — my skinnier, happier, more eclectic self, will they ever be able to acknowledge the person that I really am? The person, who like all persons, is complicated, volatile, and messy? Are we going to get so used to simplified versions of people, that soon human contact that involves more than two minutes is going to become horribly strenuous?

In January this year, Two German researchers from Humboldt University and Darmstadt’s Technical University conducted a study, and derived results that most of us have already experienced. The study involved 600 people and it was found out that amongst a majority of Facebook users, Facebook is the trigger to envy and distress. According to them the mass projection of ‘perfect lives’ on Facebook led to others contemplating the deficits in their own life and therefore becoming envious. The main spark to these feelings was vacation photos and other proliferation of happy times by Facebook friends. In February, a stream of posts titled ‘How to get rid of Facebook envy’ had begun. The psychological effects of Facebook that have been brought to light have been massive. In 2012, three studies were conducted which proved that Facebook creates mental health issues, and makes people more self-conscious and insecure. It is often assumed that teenagers are the only victims of social networking, but he most number of Facebook users, and those injured by “Facebook envy” lie in the age bracket of 18–35.

I remember logging into my Facebook the first time and being fascinated by how I didn’t need to talk to anyone anymore to know how they were. Facebook as social system has integrated itself into us so rapidly that we didn’t realise it was happening. It has changed the ways of communication, the methods of perception, the modes of sharing. It has created its own lingo and dominated human routines. I cannot argue whether Facebook is a blessing or a curse because I feel it is redundant to do so, and I also cannot decide. But I do know that Facebook though good or bad, is a powerful presence in all the social spheres we inhabit. This is not a rant against Facebook, a plea to boycott it and go back to the way things were. But an acknowledgment that there is no the way things were.

As my friends sit around a computer looking at the Google Glass website, I mope about how technology is taking over the human soul. They say something about ‘SHARING HAS BEEN REVOLUTIONIZED!’ and I sulk about the death of romance and drink a sip of my beer. But I am scared as to what we might become. I am scared we might become devoid of personal touch, indifferent to anticipation, restless, and easily bored because soon we have said everything we have to say, or seen everything we have to see on the internet. I am scared we might be the generation that is oblivious to actual suffering, real experiences, because we have buried our faces into a computer screen. I am scared we will be the people who are full of superficial knowledge but bereft of wisdom. That we will be the ones who fall weak without approval, the ones who do not have the strength to be alone.

Maybe I too, am nostalgic, or Facebook didn’t work out for me, but I worry about how everything seems so easy and accessible. Like the whole world is always lying at our feet to pick up and peep at through our computer screens.

Because I know that the world is not a small place. Facebook is.

This article was written for News Yaps, an online news portal based in New Delhi in 2010.

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