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Learning to Disconnect: the Virtues of Solitude and Patience

March 7, 2012

I’ve often told people that I learned patience in Africa. I typically am referring to the pace of life or the often frustrating slowness of travel and bureaucracy on the continent. However, this was (and is) also very true of technology. Outside of South Africa, I never once encountered a truly high-speed Internet connection.1 At the Internet cafes I frequented in Mozambique, I would often type in the website, sit back, and then literally twiddle my thumbs while the page loaded onscreen. I had returned to those long-forgotten days of the 56k connection.

From 1983 to 2012. For those not mathematically inclined, that's less than 30 years.

These days, it’s easy to forget just how different everything is and how much it has changed. More unthinkable even then the changes to the technology itself is how quickly it’s all happened. I think of it in the following way: in 2009, the year I moved to Mozambique, the BlackBerry was a little over five years-old and the iPhone was two. Today, some two-and-a-half years later, some 50 percent of Americans have smart phones.That’s astonishing! In less than a decade, smart phones have carved out a 50 percent share of the mobile phone market!

The history of the mobile phone is itself rather incredible. In 1983, the Motorola DynaTAC received approval from the FCC and became the first commercially available mobile phone in America. In the late 90s, many people were still using pagers and landlines. Today, almost no one uses landlines, and the number of mobile phones worldwide has exploded to over 5.6 billion (billion!). In less than thirty years, we’ve gone from the DynaTAC and a tool used mostly by the wealthy to iPhones and the most ubiquitous communication device on the planet.

1977

We’ve seen this same rate of rapid development in the computer world. Apple debuted its Apple II model in 1977; it released the first Macbook Air in 2008, a little over thirty years later. In other words, in the time it took George Lucas to complete his six Star Wars films, Steve Jobs and Apple went from an 8-bit home computer to a 13.3 inch, highly portable laptop with 1.6 GHz of processing power.

Think too of the Internet. A little over a decade ago, some people were still using a 56k home dial-up modem. In the late 90s, the 56k modem was a big improvement over the much-slower 28k modem. Then came sudden, tectonic shifts in connectivity. Broadband connections such as cable and wireless made accessing the Internet faster and more convenient than ever before. Today, Google is using fiber optic cables to connect Kansas City at a speed of 1 Gigabit per second (to put this in perspective, one of the fastest commercially-available Internet connections in America reaches only 150 megabits per second)! How long did it take for all of this to happen? Around fifteen years.

2008

All of these shifts have dramatically changed the ways in which we communicate, none more than e-mail. There was a time when we savored the hand-written letter. When a letter was the best way to show a person that you cared. Perhaps this is why people still stare nostalgically into the distance when talking about so-called “snail mail”. There is something special about receiving a letter in the mail. It’s a joy born from some magical combination of thoughtfulness and unexpectedness. Here, in our hands, is something thought through, agonized over, and meant just for us.

Sad then that we have become so addicted to e-mail. We compulsively check our inbox. We wait for that special, unexpected e-mail, the one from that long out-of-touch friend, but it is an e-mail that will probably never come. We want our e-mails to simulate the experience of snail mail, but they won’t and never will. E-mails are the very opposite of hand-written letters; they are compulsively written, immediately received and digested, and they are often completely banal.

This same shift can also be seen in social media. Among users is this almost overpowering desire for instantaneous communication and connectivity, prevalent from the very beginning of the Internet. I remember the power of AOL instant messaging; suddenly you could be whoever you wanted and communicate with people from all across the globe. Today, users combat their loneliness the only way they know how. Not by deep, meaningful, personal connection, but by “friending,” “poking”, and “Facebook stalking” the people within (and sometimes without) their social circle. People are imitating real connection.

Our constant connectivity, driven by this rapid technological change, has made us slaves to our mobile devices and hungry for instant gratification. It has driven us further apart, both as neighbors and as fellow human beings. Worse, as a society, we have forgotten the twin virtues of solitude and patience, and the value of disconnectedness.

Solitude has long been a part of the human experience and deeply connected with religious revelation. Moses withdrew to Mount Sinai to be with God and receive the tablets of the law. In the New Testament, Jesus Christ withdrew into the wilderness to face temptation before beginning his public ministry. The prophet Mohammed received his visions in a cave. The Buddha attained enlightenment through solitude and meditation. Today, in our desire for constant connectivity, we have lost this simple art of quiet solitude.

My Walden

I can personally attest to the creative powers of solitude. In my life, I’ve always struggled to complete my creative projects. Most ended incomplete. Some never even made it onto the page. It wasn’t until I lived alone on the other side of the world, with no Internet, almost no mobile service, and no distractions that I finally tapped my inner creativity, defeated my Resistance, and completed a story. By learning patience and disconnecting (“letting go”), I finally “connected” with my creative self.

I wonder: does instant gratification through connectedness make us bad people?

Probably.

This new connectedness, brought on by the technological changes of the past thirty years, has fundamentally altered our behaviors. It has created a culture of impatience and entitlement. It has diminished our capacity to enjoy simple pleasures. It has reduced our creativity and taken away our ability to enjoy true solitude. Worst of all, it has taken away the many joys of true, real connection.

1 This is all relative, of course. To me, the speed in South Africa was unbelievably fast. To my friends, visiting me from America, the speed was unbearably slow.

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