The Pull of a Lonely City

The Coliseum of Rome. It strikes me as an incredibly memorable experience and yet a building that appears lonely. Starkly contrasting all surrounding it and watching generations of people pass by as though we are simply its Twitter feed.

The thoughts of loneliness have been on my mind a lot lately. Not loneliness in the common sense of having no one around but the idea of people drifting away in our technological fueled lives. It’s not the technologies fault. In fact, technology fuels my life and even the books I read, jumping between traditional paper books, electronic books on the iPad and audiobooks on my phone. Loneliness in the sense of connection to what it is we want to do with our lives and ourselves. Picking up a book like Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City plants a stake in the ground at your feet and says this is what loneliness can look like. It doesn’t judge you though; it informs, through the lives of some of the most well-known artists of a generation who struggled with their own forms of loneliness.

There is a sense in Olivia’s own story, weaved throughout the book, that she understands what it means to be lonely in this world of technology. Recounting her own story of living in New York and being holed up in her room with the distractions slowly welcomed into her life. Welcomed, and in some cases requested. I sat on my bed and watched YouTube videos for almost an hour today. You do this and realise the mind is enthralled with it. The phone goes down and you are left wondering what did you take away from the mindless scrolling, pausing to take in what is going on, moving on.

A self-proclaimed loner, for the most part, I have lately thought about the impact of social media and technology on my own life. It’s ability to let time slip by even though I’ve spent years learning about, reading, and practising methods of mindfulness and ways to stay alerted. The truth is technology fills a gap and fluidly at that. It fills the gaps we allow to remain open and unfilled. Being alert in this present moment is important but technology can shift our own internal gaze away from being alert to being numb without the realisation that it’s happening. Let’s say I really need to find something or perhaps I’d like to listen to a specific piece of music; great. YouTube or Google are the first choices. Play the song. Check. Enjoy the song. Check. What else is on here..oh wow let’s try this song and I’m off. That hour today began as a single moment of alertness to find something and share its significance. Our mind at times, seem not up to the challenge.

I remember hearing stories about how parents were worried about the impact of television advertising on children and how they spent X number of hours in front of the television each day. I wonder what the statistic is now of children and adults alike spent in front of a screen versus what now seems like the lowly television. How antiquated a technology has the television become with its simple channel structure, stuck in one physical location, and limited ability to flip around through channels. Ok I know it’s more advanced today but my TV is old by today’s standards (2009) and has no ‘smart’ features or Internet integration. The laptop, iPad, desktop computer, and two cell phones, well that is a different matter.

Is loneliness the idea that we can come home, having spent all day at work, with a good chunk of the time spent in front of a screen, and watch the rest of the evening flit by with urgent haste as technology sucks us in? I’ve spent more time as of late thinking about this very topic; a search to find the answers within my own head but also by planting ideas from other thoughts on loneliness. Is the distraction we seek for reasons other than pulling us out of our own lives? Are we capable of differentiating between what our brain reacts to on a small screen and the idea that we are trying to escape something? I’m not sure that we really can. I look around and see a good life and am grateful for a lot of things going on but also recognise there are areas where I need to put in work and find the distraction easy. Work or scroll through Instagram? Make difficult decisions or look at Book Outlet? Write a blog post or scroll through Instagram again.

Olivia Laing’s reference to the network as our ability to connect socially is enlightening:

“It’s easy to see how the network might appeal to someone in the throes of chronic loneliness, with its pledge of connection, its beautiful, slipper promises of anonymity and control. You can look for company without the danger of being revealed or exposed, discovered wanting, seen in a state of need or lack. You can reach out or you can hide; you can lurk and you can reveal yourself, curated and refined.”

Distraction and loneliness no longer come in the form of a book. A form of escape that lends itself to somehow teaching us something. Why does a book, even though potentially read to escape, seem less intrusive? Perhaps it is the pace of the story and how it develops over time. Escape but prolonged and in a pace, we can accept. Technology bypasses this through 140 characters, endless streams of videos and images, and up to the minute commentary, news, and opinion on the world around us; good or bad.

Social media adds its own nuance to the mix providing a sense of grandiose sense of community. I’m guilty of falling into the trap myself. There is a sense of belonging when you get to a certain number of followers lets say. Do those followers truly represent anything more than a random assortment of other people following you for their own reasons is the question I ask myself. It’s no longer as simple as picking up the phone to call our friends in this world of social media; we trust in these connections perhaps to the same degree as our old world friendships without any of the benefits. Olivia Laing’s own personal experience sums up this very feeling:

“And it only took a few missed connections or lack of likes for the loneliness to resurface, to be flooded with the bleak sense of having failed to make contact.”

There are times, in my own experience, where this very feeling comes to the surface. A poorly performing picture loaded to Instagram based on my own expectations or the knowledge that I have a certain number of followers but at times very little interaction with the very community I’d hoped to enter. An odd problem to have considering this is all happening in a network and community that exists solely through technology. Turning off the phone essentially ends that connection.

Olivia Laing’s book comes at a time when I question my own motivations and thoughts about the idea of loneliness and at times it’s incredibly poignant. A lot of the artists featured are ones I’d heard of but knew little about; Andy Warhol for example. The look into the lives of lonely creators feels close to my own heart in that my friendship base is quite small and that seems to be the way I’ve always chosen to live my life. Looking back on the books I’ve read, such as Matthew Crawford’s works, tells me my own mind is wrestling with these very issues. The want of connection amongst the vast network of social media that can create even more loneliness at times. So what did I take away in a situation like this?

For one this is a problem we all face and will continue to be confronted with as technology becomes more advanced and qualified as invasive. The ability to pull oneself away from technology is going to become a skill that we must teach ourselves. I grew up before cell phones and know what it’s like to simply write or read a book. Do a younger generation still hold this as a value to take up? To see my own feelings and reactions to likes, followers, and all other forms of acknowledgement give rise to the question within myself of what I’m hoping to gain by all of this. That awakened sense of being aware of what a like means in truth and having an open conversation with how it feels to walk away. I’ve no interest in truly walking away because there are creative aspects that have developed because of technology. This blog and photography would not have existed without some form of social reward system that consciously and subconsciously I’ve created for myself. (i.e. I’ll take photos and see what other people think).

At the end of the day, we need to look for ways to stay alerted to the influences of technology on our live and question whether we accept full intrusiveness or want to maintain some level of disconnect. I’m looking forward to reading Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation which seems to cover this very topic. Thomas Friedman’s Thank You For Being Late acknowledges this very issue in some detail noting that the pace of technology has moved so fast that humans are simply in a state of shock without the ability to adapt at a realistic pace. Some of us are better at it than others while some of us simply choose not too. Either way, it is a part of the world we live in so it’s important to find those moments of awareness to really understand where we stand.

We also need to realize that connection through the network is available and with effort, no different than with real world friendships, we can form connections. That feeling of loneliness resides a lot of times within the story lines we tell ourselves and not based on anything more than how we view the situation; how I view the lack of likes or my own disinterest in that moment. There really is nothing wrong with being a loner either as it affords me a lot of time to do the things that interest me. As in the real world, people don’t drift away without us letting them.



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