Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Sherry Turkle And Solitude



I noted that I’m reading Sherry Turkle’s book Reclaiming Conversation.

She inveighs against device addiction both intrinsically because it’s addiction and consequentially because it minimizes conversation—the basis of human exchange—and, so, minimizes face to face communication and, so, empathy. She argues not to do away with devices but to use them judiciously. She diagnoses that those enslaved by their devices cannot stand being alone or bored or the burdens of unmitigated human exchange and friendship.

Her evidence for her thesis is her compilation of years of interviews with many different people.

I’m waiting to be convinced of this widespread loss of empathy, keeping an open mind. But her recounting of and generalizing from her interviews come across to me like she’s relating a series of anecdotes. 

Here’s one conceptual puzzle she presents me with.

She emphatically touts solitude as an intrinsically good thing and as an antidote, and an answer, to our need for constant distraction and immediate connection: “We share, therefore we are,” contrasting connection with real live conversation and friendship.

But her conception of solitude is unclear to me. Denotatively, it means being alone without being lonely, the contrast being between solitude and loneliness. By the way she talks about solitude, however, almost as a kind of mindfulness, but not quite, I sense she means being alone and undistracted for lengths of time beyond the few minutes mediation typically involves, a time for reflection and self creation emerging out of boredom. 

But if we listen to music are we undistracted? Does it depend on the kind of music, soothing sounds compared to raucous music? Classical music, for instance, covers that span. If we’re reading, are we undistracted? Does it depend on what we’re reading? These kinds of questions multiply themselves. If we’re writing are we undistracted? Does it depend on what we’re writing, say poetry compared to texting? If we walk and have a lively sense of our surroundings, are we undistracted? Do our surroundings matter: something pastoral against some active urban scene? 

So my point is that it seems unreal to me to prescribe mindfulness as solitude even as that may be a good but brief daily practice. I don’t think Turkle has mindfulness in mind. As I say, I think she means something more enduring by solitude than a few minutes of mind clearing. The unreality is that for the vast most of us us, who really, achieves anything like a pure state of solitude for any length of time? Who among us when alone doesn’t want some form of engagement: music, something to read, writing, checking out our surroundings and so on?

That being so how do we distinguish from the perspective of solitude what is and what isn’t distraction? Maybe the line between checking our texts, emails and reading, enjoying music alone and so on isn’t so clear and bright. Maybe one person’s distraction is another person’s solitude. 

So I need to understand better what she means by solitude and how it exists in people’s lives when they’re alone as opposed to it being an abstraction as it seems to be in her discussion of it so far.

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