Monthly Archive:: July 2013

Modern solitude

Being alone without being lonely is an art – something that everyone strives to learn when they realize how important it is to do well. To figure out how not to get encumbered by the expectations of a society that seems to look down upon people who like to be by themselves for a period of time. They are labelled introverts, and their lives are just assumed to be drab and depressing. An especially telling example of this is a large number of parents forcing a naturally reserved child to “go out and play” lest they become shunned by all their peers.

It is historically well established that the best artists and thinkers have produced some of their finest work in seclusion, free of outside influences crippling the creative thought process. As Tesla once said,

“Be alone, that is the secret of invention; be alone, that is when ideas are born.”

And it wasn’t just a scientific thinker who approached things this way. Rilke, one of my favorite poets, had this to say on the subject,

“Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away… and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast.

Be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend.”

More recently, after hearing various different people bring up a similar point in passing, I’ve tried to fashion some time out of my day to spend quietly reflecting on whatever it is that comes to mind, without a fixed agenda. The way I generally do this is to grab a book and find a comfortable spot to sit in, and as I start to read, be receptive to the thoughts that spring up as a result. Sometimes, I tend to do this while simply listening to some Pink Floyd on my earphones and staring into space. In my head, disconnecting myself from what’s happening around me and focussing on a particular stream of content – be it music or words – will help me stay on track and not get distracted by something else. Or atleast that’s what I thought till a few days ago, when I was hit by a question.

While I may think I’m spending time alone with my thoughts, creating a fertile ground for my imagination to run free and dream up ideas for my next startup or essay, is it possible that the primary content I’m ingesting is actually preventing original thoughts from bubbling up? Would I be better off sitting in a park without any external distractions and immersing myself in the world around me, like people have been doing forever? There is much to be said for random events that can lead to interesting connections between seemingly unrelated thoughts that come from observing people and things around us.

I think that is what both Tesla and Rilke were going for when they commented on solitude. Most people today (including me) are averse to the idea of sitting at one place doing “nothing”. We try to hyper optimize our time doing as much as we can fit in a timespan, be it work or otherwise and rely on external crutches like music or books when we want to “be by ourselves”.

Perhaps it’s time I gave doing nothing a chance. Forcing myself to disconnect from everything and go off on a long walk to someplace quiet might very well be the best thing that happens to me that day. And I’d highly recommend others try it too.

Facebook is making us dumber.

A few years ago when it first started as an invite only service, Facebook had all the allure of any place where all the early adopters and “cool kids” hung out. Cutting edge, social, and a place to connect with your classmates, it was definitely something to check once every day, if not more. Over the years however, it transformed into a place where your entire universe of friends and acquaintances would give you updates on what was interesting and important in their lives, and through likes and comments, your feedback on their activities would leave you (perhaps) with a warm and fuzzy feeling of being “in the loop”. Connected. Social.

The Facebook status update, just like a tweet, is a very interesting beast. It offers you the ability to convey a thought very quickly and have it broadcast to people in your network with minimal effort. And that is indeed a powerful thing to have. But what it doesn’t offer is for you to pause and consider the implications of that thought, and whether it may deserve more cycles before it’s shot out into the ether for everyone to consume. More importantly, just like there is research that shows people read long form articles better on paper, and that our collective attention spans are decreasing with the multitudes of sensory inputs vying for our attention, I think more and more people are losing the ability to craft their thoughts and ideas into writing because the idea of simply updating a one line status is tempting, and it “offers you time to do other things” right after. We’re trying to optimize our time to do as much as possible in a limited amount of time.

Two days ago, I was reading about the recent death of Doug Engelbart – one of my heroes for having basically invented computing as we know it today. He was most famous as being the inventor of the mouse, but back in the 1960s, he gave to the world what is popularly termed “the mother of all demos” – a presentation which illustrated not just the mouse, but actual implementations of now-common technologies like networked computers, the web, hyperlinks and information retrieval systems controlled with graphical user interfaces. (It was his work that enabled the US Department of Defence to fund the ARPANet, a precursor to what has today become the internet). This set him far apart from all the pure visionaries who might have the ability to predict the future, but may not actually done anything about it.

My first instinct on reading this was to get on to Facebook and update my status with a simple “RIP Doug Engelbart – you’ll be missed” or something on those lines. A simple acknowledgement of my respect and admiration for a man whose work will continue to inspire generations. And in thinking about this, I was hit by a very fundamental realization.

All that I had thought about, and wanted to say about his impact on the technology industry, as well as who I am today, was completely lost with this one “token” action.

It might be seen by a few people in their feeds, and someone outside of the technology world might wonder who Doug was, and why I chose to mention him in an update. There might’ve been a few likes, and perhaps even a few comments. But is that really the kind of interaction I would want from my friends on something that I care about? Predominantly superficial, and quick? Facebook (and most web technology in general) has made our interactions limited, where a single like or comment proxies for an actual conversation over phone or email. Where the short term pleasure of taking this action makes one mistakenly believe that they’re in “touch” with whoever it was they connected with.

I believe that people tend to evolve and learn by reading what others write, talking to them on a wide variety of subjects and by putting down their thoughts in writing, to channel and focus them in a longer form. It requires discipline to do so consistently and with some frequency, but the gains are much much more valuable. But given a choice between the ease of updating their status on Facebook, and that of reserving a not-insignificant chunk of time to pen their thoughts on the topic – most people would pick the former. And further erode their ability to think deeply and write. Might it not be true then, to consider that as more and more people use these services, our collective intelligence is bound to go down? I realize the same has been said for every new medium that has been available to mankind to communicate – telegrams vs letters, email vs letters, SMS vs email, and now status updates vs email.

I came across a very interesting article in the Guardian a few weeks ago that talked about the “intelligence” level of the US State of the Union speech, historically given by the president to both houses. They track each speech across the last 150 years through the Flesch-Kincaid score, which quantifies the linguistic standard of a given piece of text. The results are quite interesting!

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/interactive/2013/feb/12/state-of-the-union-reading-level

Of course, one could argue that Facebook enables you to share what you’ve written with people who would read it – and thats a fair point. After recently resurrecting this site, I’m still not sure how best to get an audience that is both interested in reading what I write, and is engaged enough to start a discussion around it. But I’m sure there’s a way.

So in order to test out some of my thoughts, I’ve decided to take a hiatus from Facebook for two weeks by deactivating (not deleting) my account. I’ve always been a voracious consumer of social media, and I definitely feel the symptoms of withdrawal. I hadn’t realized how much of my time goes away in scouring Facebook feeds without even realizing that I was doing so – in the last 2-3 days alone, I’ve realized that my finger has been hovering on the Facebook icon on my phone on every occasion that I have had some down time – and every single time, I’ve taken a conscious decision to refrain from doing so and focusing on things outside of the internet or my phone. Going even further, for the next 4 days, I’ve switched off all but one email account from my phone, and disengaged myself from various messaging service alerts. I plan to focus on things that are important to me, such as communicating with people I haven’t had a chance to do so with for a while, get back into writing my thoughts out, and join some communities that will encourage me to do so with some frequency.

And I’ll write about how it works out!