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The End of Alone

Posted this on the KWC blog today:

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Look around the next time you walk across KWC’s campus. More likely than not, you’ll see lots of students with their heads down, fingers cranking out a text message or their heads bobbing to an invisible beat, earbuds snaking their way down to a pocket that holds an iPod. Or maybe they’re on their cell phone, chattering away to an unseen important someone.

This is the age we live in, and in many ways, it’s good, says Neil Swidey in The End of Alone in Sunday’s Boston Globe Magazine:

I love technology. It’s magical how it makes the world closer, and more immediate. Take, for instance, the real-time way we learned about the plane that skidded off a Denver runway and burst into flames in December. One of the passengers on Continental Flight 1404 used Twitter to share everything (including) his initial profanity- and typo-laced reaction to making it out of the fiery jet (”Holy [bleeping bleep] I wasbjust in a plane crash!”)

But, as with most good things, there is a downside if we use it too much. The downside of immediate, constant connectedness?

Because of technology, we never have to be alone anymore.

With Facebook, Twitter, texting, blogging (yes, I’m aware of the irony that this is a blog post) and cell phones eating up our days, there’s not much time left to just be alone, to sit and think, to focus on the people in front of us without being simultaneously entangled in nine other things.

Swidey explains how society has changed:

“We’ve gone from an American ethic that championed the lone guy on a horseback to an ethic of managing multiple data streams,” says Dalton Conley, a sociology professor at New York University … “It’s very hard for people to unplug and be alone — and be with the one data stream of their mind.”

Why is all this happening? Why the constant need to stay connected?

Conley says it’s “anxiety borne out of a deep-seated fear that we’re being left out of something, somewhere, and that we may lose out on advancement in our work, social, or family lives if we truly check out. “The anxiety of being alone drives this behavior to constantly respond and Twitter and text, but the very act of doing it creates the anxiety.”

This is particularly true among young people, mainly because they don’t know life when it wasn’t like this.

A fear of being left out. Anxiety about being alone. In the past, we’ve had to learn to deal with our discomfort by starting a conversation or becoming comfortable with our own thoughts. Many of history’s great thinkers purposely created time alone:

… they were all able to remove themselves from the bustle of daily life for long stretches, in order to contemplate and create. We’re all the richer for their having done that. Now, ask yourself, when was the last time you were truly alone and unplugged for a long spell? How many of you can even say you’ve gotten this far in this essay without having once stopped to answer a call, reply to a text, or check your in-box?

Swidey even confesses he hasn’t made it through writing the piece without checking his e-mail, etc. All of this isn’t true all of the time for all people. But a lot of it is true especially for college students, who have never known any other way of life.

So try this sometime: take a couple of hours one afternoon and go outside alone, without anything electronic. Take a walk, sit and read, think, take a journal. Find a friend, have a face-to-face conversation without glancing at your phone every couple of minutes. Be fully present, not a distracted data stream manager.

And then when you get back, you can scratch the itch and check Facebook.

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Check out an online chat with Neil Swidey about the article. Also, watch a video from the Boston Globe of college students talking about being connected.

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