Book recommendation: Solitude

I wrote this summary a while back and wanted to reshare it. I’m an introvert who values quiet time. Those who are more extroverted and social may not. This book makes a great case for everyone to find some alone time.

Part I: The Uses of Solitude 

We are motivated to have people like us. And when our primary connections happen through the computer instead of through face-to-face, we can be more strategic about how we present ourselves to other people to have even more people like us. Not only do we want to be liked, we also have a compulsion to be available.  Roughly half of Americans now sleep with their phone on their bedside tables. In today’s world, not being connected and intentionally choosing solitude is what is abnormal.  Until we see the value in solitude, we will not seek it. But we have to get away from the crowd even know who we are and we cannot get away from the crowd when we choose to constantly be connected. In Solitude, Michael Harris presents a research backed argument for the benefits of spending time alone.

Part II: Bolt from the Blue 

The norm in the modern, trendy environment is collaborative working and learning. Many businesses now have an open floor plan and glass walls to ensure people are staying connected. This implies the need for solitude is no longer even seen as beneficial. This connectedness expands beyond the workplace.  

Look at some of the popular games, such as Candy Crush, which have no meaningful point to them.  It speaks to a culture that is not able to rest and relax. We look for something that we can do to either show off our accomplishments or receive some sort of external validation.

Back to Candy Crush. It reached 1.6 billion daily game plays in the early 2015 and as the author says “ we don’t play Candy Crush so much as get played”. The game offers repeating loops of pleasure that drive people to keep playing over and over again to get the smallest hit of dopamine. Humans look for repeating patterns which these game makers are only too happy to provide.  Silicon Valley – the center of our tech world – invites this addictive behavior even more than Las Vegas. Both play to our response to intermittent rewards yet Silicon Valley has machine learning and algorithms on its side to learn how to make things even more addictive.  

The forward to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World has a quote that seems to sum this up quite nicely: “In an age of advanced technology, inefficiency is the sin against the Holy Ghost”. What technology does is tell us that solitary thinking and time alone is not valuable. And many of us become preoccupied with things that we allow others to put upon us.

Part III: Who Do You Think You Are

Emoticons and emojis are characters we can use to a smiley or some other simplified expression to our communications. They present us with a limited list of feelings from which to choose rather than needing to describe what we are feeling. This only adds to the pressure to conform as we no longer even need to find the words to express ourselves; we can just pull from a stylistic catalog to quickly express how we feel. 

We not only express emotions in a societally approved way; we also share who we are in a way that is socially acceptable. Social media platforms provide analytics showing us people like they respond to what we post. Once we see what gets attention and affection from others, it influences us to continue posting more of that rather than things that reflect our authentic voice. Our posts are not about us but they are about responding to the positive feedback of other people 

Even the things that we think we like have become crowdsource rather than a reflection of who we truly are. As we spend time on Netflix or Amazon, the suggestions presented for the next video or purchase are based on crowdsourced info and data crunching. The truth is that we let other people make decisions for us. 

I can’t be too quick to criticize though because it’s clear why this appeals to so many of us. The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz discusses how the amount of choices before us can result in a feeling of paralysis. As a result, we go with items that are seemingly “perfect” for us because we become trapped in “algorithmically defined notions” of what a computer tells us we like. What happens is “you won’t be exposed to things you don’t know” and “personal growth becomes stunted [while] the idea of what you ‘like’ is grossly caricatured”. We miss opportunities to discover new things.

 Part IV: Knowing Others

Although my preferred form of communication is face-to-face, I understand the appeal for communicating electronically.  You can edit and sanitize it until you present yourself in the best possible way and a tool that forces people to think before “speaking” is a good thing.  All of us would benefit from a self-imposed filter at times, but does it impact our ability to connect with others when our communication is in the well thought out written word only? 

Admittedly, I read Solitude with a very strong bias. I love this topic. Even though I worked in the technology field for years, there are times when I definitely see it as a curse rather than a blessing. It gives the appearance of being more connected with hundreds of “friends” and always in the know about what’s happening in the community or the world around us. And yes, being connected is a good thing. But not at the expense of solitude. Or the expense of stillness.  Look around you in the grocery store or at a traffic light. The default behavior is to look at one’s phone rather than have a few moments alone with one’s own thoughts. 

But Harris does not preach on this topic as I tend to do. He backs it up with solid research for each of his arguments. It’s rare that I mark up the notes section of his book, but his references for the book are compelling and invite further study.  Anyone touched by technology – in other words, everyone – would benefit from this book. Whether you are biased like me and have a deep appreciation for solitude or you don’t know what you would do if you were truly alone. My hope is that even the diehards who sleep with their phones will reflect on the insight shared by Harris and recognize that solitude – even in short bursts – is a privilege we all have and can learn to appreciate.

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