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Finding Solitude In The Connected World

FacebookCheckMeAs we race headlong into a world of connectivity and virtual-social interaction, we are simultaneously –perhaps subconsciously—seeking isolation from all the noise of a connected life. Are we overloading ourselves?

We’re all familiar with the attraction of connected life; cartoon images like this always earn a chuckle because at the core there is a common truth: we have a hard time stepping away from the lure of connectivity.

With the advent of always-connected smartphones, in only a short decade we’ve transitioned from being mostly self-entertained individuals to a mute crowd reliant upon an electronic devices to keep us amused. The next time you stop at a traffic light, look at the cars around you and see how many people pick up their cellphones immediately.

That minute and a half sitting at the light can be excruciatingly long, apparently. And God knows, we are too impatient or ADHD to just sit still without having to something, anything to do.

Today we find ourselves addicted to Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, Pandora, Vine, email, the web, online porn, Candy Crush, and the endless search for the perfect App for our tablet or phone. We have DVR’s that silently churn away the hours archiving TV shows for us to fast-forward through later while we simultaneously check out the latest batch of viral videos online.

Swimming like sharks in this ocean of devices clamoring for our attention are advertisers who secretly compile information about where we are and what we are doing at so they can place the perfect ad that grabs our eyes for just a moment and plants a subliminal seed.

Did you know that TV advertisers spend an incredible amount of money on compelling psychological visuals because most commercials are fast-forwarded through on DVRs? Try searching “Subliminal Advertising DVR Fast Forward” sometime: it’s a little scary.

You didn’t think you paid attention or even noticed that 30 second commercial that flashed by in 3 seconds, but yet, somehow… It’s 9pm and a Chicken Gordita Supreme somehow seems like a really great idea.

Simultaneous with the change in how people connect socially, our workplaces are changing. Either with a misguided modern vision of increasing teamwork, or born from a culture of mistrust, companies are rapidly tearing down offices and cubicles in favor of life in the fishbowl. I’m a writer and engineer by trade, and both of these professions require a certain amount of solitude and peace to really be effective, yet in 2014 I am far less effective in the office than I was 15 years ago.

15 years ago those cubicle walls were a polite reminder to visitors that you were busy working, and intrusions needed to be worth the interruption. Today, work that used to take 4 hours now takes all day, you waste time and effort trying to block out or ignore the loud speakerphone conversations of your coworkers, and can feel the spray on the back of your neck when someone at the desk behind you sneezes. Amid all that, visitors assume that you’ve got nothing better to do than to talk to them.

You are sitting right there in the open, after all.

Where does my best work happen today? At home in my own office, where I can focus and dig in to the task at hand without being constantly bombarded by the cacophony of the modern office.

The net effect of this sudden change in social norms is that we have become overwhelmed and overloaded. Not only are we buying devices and services to be more connected, but we are also buying devices and services to filter out and quiet our suddenly noisy lives. Popup and adblockers for our social networks, filters for our email, cruises and mountain cabins as vacation getaways to give us an excuse to disconnect from “life” for a short while, and medications to help us disconnect for the night.

Maybe our kids will be better suited to this kind of life, but people over 35 who have grown up in a mostly disconnected world have a big problem with it. We’re used to thinking before acting, we’re not afraid to have long stretches of time where we are alone with our thoughts, and we don’t need to be constantly in communication with someone, something, somewhere at all times.

It’s 2014, and I am reclaiming my solitude.

I’ve taken Facebook and Twitter off my phone. I only check my email 3 times a day. I turn my phone off at night. I’ve purchased a set of noise cancelling headphones so I can focus on my work while I am in the office.

I’ve already been told, jokingly, that I am being “anti-social,” but I know behind most humor is seed of truth: these people actually think seeking solitude is a bad thing that needs to be corrected.

That mindset both offends me and worries me: have we managed to re-program people that much in only 15 years that they are frantically afraid of being disconnected and can’t even stand to sit idle for a minute? I hope not. I hope this is just another fad, a reaction to the rapidly changing pace of technology, and in 10 years we’ll all look back at this time with the same kind of amusement that we have for big hair and tube socks from the 80’s.

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