Silence, solitude, and self-discovery in an age of mass distraction

“[T]he internet seizes our attention only to scatter it. We are immersed because there’s a constant barrage of stimuli coming at us and we seem to be very much seduced by that kind of constantly changing patterns of visual and auditorial stimuli. When we become immersed in our gadgets, we are immersed in a series of distractions rather than a sustained, focused type of thinking … There are messages coming at us through email, instant messenger, SMS, tweets etc. We are distracted by everything on the page, the various windows, the many applications running. You have to see the entire picture of how we are being stimulated. If you compare that to the placidity of a printed page, it doesn’t take long to notice that the experience of taking information from a printed page is not only different but almost the opposite from taking in information from a network-connected screen. With a page, you are shielded from distraction. We underestimate how the page encourages focused thinking — which I don’t think is normal for human beings — whereas the screen indulges our desire to be constantly distracted.”

— “Information and Contemplative Thought: We Turn Ourselves into Media Creations,” Interview with Nicholas Carr, The European, January 31, 2012

“Has it really come to this? In barely one generation we’ve moved from exulting in the time-saving devices that have so expanded 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 all but overnight. Internet rescue camps in South Korea and China try to save kids addicted to the screen. Writer friends of mine pay good money to get the Freedom software that enables them to disable (for up to eight hours) the very Internet connections that seemed so emancipating not long ago. Even Intel (of all companies) experimented in 2007 with conferring four uninterrupted hours of quiet time every Tuesday morning on 300 engineers and managers … [T]he average American spends at least eight and a half hours a day in front of a screen … The average American teenager sends or receives 75 text messages a day … We have more and more ways to communicate, as Thoreau noted, but less and less to say … The central paradox of the machines that have made our lives so much brighter, quicker, longer and healthier is that they cannot teach us how to make the best use of them; the information revolution came without an instruction manual.”

— Pico Iyer, “The Joy of Quiet,” The New York Times, December 29, 2011

“I am encouraged by services such as Instapaper, Readability or Freedom — applications that are designed to make us more attentive when using the internet. It is a good sign because it shows that some people are concerned about this and sense that they are no longer in control of their attention. Of course there’s an irony in looking for solutions in the same technology that keeps us distracted.”

— Carr, “Information and Contemplative Thought”

“Once upon a time, in what seems a far-off land, if you saw someone walking down the street talking to himself, you’d think he was, well, crazy. Not any more. Ninety percent of American adults own cell phones and, whether talking or texting, it seems that 90 percent of the time, they are using them. ‘These days, the minute that people are alone, at a stop sign, at the checkout line in a supermarket, they panic, they reach for a phone,’ said MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle. She says high-speed connections have left us more disconnected than ever. ‘I studied families who are having breakfast together, and every member of the family is texting,’ said Turkle. ‘I study funerals and people around texting.’ She pointed to a recent New Yorker cover that captured the phenomenon: A family is at the beach, and each person is on their phone. Turkle’s book, Alone Together, surveyed hundreds of people about their plugged-in lives. Her conclusion: We have lost the art of conversation.”

— “Texting: Can we pull the plug on our obsession?” CBS Sunday Morning, September 30, 2012

“The telephone’s such a convenient thing; it just sits there and demands you call someone who doesn’t want to be called. Friends were always  calling, calling, calling me. Hell, I hadn’t any time of my own. When it wasn’t  the  telephone it was the television, the radio, the phonograph. When it wasn’t the television or radio or the phonograph it was motion pictures at the corner theater, motion pictures projected, with commercials on low-lying cumulus clouds.  It doesn’t rain any more, it  rains soapsuds. When it wasn’t High-Fly Cloud advertisements, it was music by Mozzek in every restaurant; music and commercials on the busses I rode to work. When it wasn’t music, it was inter-office  communications, and my horror chambers of a radio wrist watch on which my friends and my wife phoned every five minutes. What is there about such ‘conveniences’ that makes them so temptingly convenient? The average man thinks? Here I am, time on my hands, and there on my wrist is a wrist telephone, so why not just buzz old Joe up, eh? ‘Hello, hello!’ I love my friends, my wife, humanity, very much, but when one minute my wife calls to say, ‘Where are you now dear?’ and a friend calls and says, ‘Got the best off-color joke to tell you. Seems  there was a guy –‘ And a stranger calls and cries out, ‘This is the Find-Fax Poll. What gum are you chewing at this very instant!’ Well!

… “It was all so enchanting at first. The very idea of these things, the practical uses, was wonderful. They were almost toys, to be played with, but the people got too involved, went too far, and got wrapped up in a pattern of social behavior and couldn’t get out, couldn’t admit they were in, even. So they rationalized their nerves as something else. ‘Our modern  age,’ they said. ‘Conditions,’ they said. ‘Highstrung,’ they said. But mark my words, the seed has been sown … I’m the vanguard of the small public which is tired of noise and being taken advantage of and pushed around and yelled at, every moment music, every moment in touch with some voice somewhere, do this, do that, quick, quick, now here, now there.”

— Ray Bradbury, “The Murderer” (1953)

“Much has been written about the isolating effect of the iPod, but little has been said of its other pernicious consequence, the way it makes self-inflicted sound a constant feature of our solitude. We are each of us cocooned in noise, and can escape from one another’s only when immersed in our own … What’s new is our coping strategy. Instead of retreating into the quiet of private space, we retreat behind our headphones, blocking out the offending sounds with our own wall of noise. It’s only natural that we should seek refuge. But in our eagerness for a semblance of solitude, we’ve lost much of what made solitude traditionally valuable — namely, peace and quiet … As a culture, we are now afraid of silence, and hold suspect those who indulge in it. We are afraid perhaps because music has become our lingua franca, our common ground, the most universal means of sharing experience. Where this is true, silence means disconnection, withdrawal, social death. But only in silence can we learn to think often and well. And bad thinkers notoriously make bad actors … It’s high time we seriously consider what effect the sound-culture is having on our self-awareness and faculties of thought.”

— Brian Patrick Eha, “The Sound of Solitude,” The Atlantic, March 21, 2012

“Speed up the film, Montag, quick … Uh! Bang! Smack! Wallop, Bing, Bong, Boom! Digest-digests, digest-digest-digests. Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline! … Whirl man’s mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought! … [The banning of books] didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God … If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the Government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.

… “[We book-burners are] the Happiness Boys … We stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought. We have our fingers in the dyke. Hold steady. Don’t let the torrent of melancholy and drear philosophy drown our world.”

— Captain Beatty in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

“My hope is that we will have a more balanced experience of the technology and become willing to turn it off for substantial periods in order to engage in more contemplative thinking. My view of recent history suggests that we won’t do that and that we will continue in the path we are on. We like to be distracted and technology keeps expanding its hold over our waking hours — for business, social or shopping reasons. The internet is a culmination of a much longer-term social trend that goes back to the beginning of mass media. People place less and less value on contemplative thinking and more on practical, utilitarian types of thinking, which are all about getting the right bit of information when you need it and about using it to answer very well-defined question. We are in a long-term process of altering our view of what constitutes the ideal intellectual life: Moving away from the ideal of conceptual thinking, reflection and taking the big picture and moving to this very utilitarian mode of constantly collecting little bits of information, not really ever wanting to back away from the flow. Society and individuals can change, but to me the trend is in the direction of interruption, distraction and shallow thinking.”

— Carr, “Information and Contemplative Thought”

“Man may be a social animal, but solitude has traditionally been a societal value. In particular, the act of being alone has been understood as an essential dimension of religious experience, albeit one restricted to a self-selected few. Through the solitude of rare spirits, the collective renews its relationship with divinity … Solitude becomes, more than ever, the arena of heroic self-discovery, a voyage through interior realms made vast and terrifying by Nietzschean and Freudian insight. To achieve authenticity is to look upon these visions without flinching … We are not merely social beings. We are each also separate, each solitary, each alone in our own room, each miraculously our unique selves and mysteriously enclosed in that selfhood. To remember this, to hold oneself apart from society, is to begin to think one’s way beyond it … [N]o real excellence, personal or social, artistic, philosophical, scientific or moral, can arise without solitude … [I]f solitude disappears as a social value and social idea, will even the exceptions remain possible? Still, one is powerless to reverse the drift of the culture. One can only save oneself — and whatever else happens, one can still always do that. But it takes a willingness to be unpopular … Those who would find solitude must not be afraid to stand alone.”

— William Deresiewicz, “The End of Solitude,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 30, 2009

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici /

About Matt Cardin


Posted on October 28, 2012, in Psychology & Consciousness, Society & Culture and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. The entire problem would be solved if they further developed the technology of e-ink for e-readers like kobo. Apple should be coming up with ways to lessen the brightness of computer screens somehow .

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