Reflections on the Stories of Solitude: Performance, Technology and Digital Overload Conference

This post was originally published on the CityLIS blog


This event was part of York Mediale, a new UK festival bringing together artists and technologist. Part celebration, part investigation, part space to question the ethical, social, political, economic and personal implications of digital culture, it is an exciting initiative with significant relevance for Library & Information Science.

The conference featured papers from artists, curators and scholars on the subject of solitude. It proved to be a broad yet subtle and sometimes evasive theme. The anxiety of social media use by iGen has brought the subject into the public arena but is often discussed with very little reference to research into its cultural impact. Debates regarding Facebook’s and Twitter’s effect on the tone of public discourse is all too often expressed with wild optimism by some or moral panic by others; neither position helps us study and investigate what these platforms are ‘doing’ to us and the world we live in. It was invigorating to attend an event where such extreme positons were absent. Doubt and ambivalence are underrated qualities at a time when clicks and likes and shares constitute a significant part of the public conversation.

What follows are some brief descriptions and reflections on a selection of the papers. A full list of the speakers is available on the York Mediale website.

What does it mean to be alone in a hyper-connected world? The fear of being alone and the manifestation of that fears shapes much of our lives. But there are many different states of alone-ness. ICTs are designed – ostensibly, at least – to bring people closer together without the need for physical proximity. Connectivity is a fundamental part of our lives. This was true before the internet. The roots of globalisation that took root in the nineteenth century would have been impossible without effective communication systems. It is said that shorter communicative distance shrinks the world and thus alleviates feelings of isolation by increasing the channels that connect us. Yet pervasive connectivity does not necessarily produce intimacy. Henrik Ibsen’s astute question, ‘What is the difference in being alone with another and being alone by one’s self?’ captures the struggle to establish true feelings of connection. The study of communication technologies is the study of ourselves.

The difference between loneliness and solitude was a recurrent topic throughout the day. Taking the image of Hamlet’s famous ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy, Matthew Causey argued solitude is the state where we experience freedom, which electronic communication disrupts. Social media creates a validation feedback loop where feelings of loneliness are only temporality alleviated with likes and shares. In online spaces, we exist as part of a ‘digital swarm of data subjects’ where our critical agency is comprised of algorithmic calculations. By becoming the subject of communication we turn ourselves into a project and so our relationship with society is altered. We present ourselves as communication nodes that can only exist through online interactivity. Causey reminded us that solitude is the prerequisite of individuation in modern drama and provides a strategy for differentiation from the herd. Solitude is more than a state of being; it is an event of thinking. But we avoid it in order to remain in service to the technological. Digital culture does not allow us to be forgotten, meaning we can never be truly alone, even when we are away from the screens.

Explicating this theme, Zeena Feldman opened her paper with two quotes. The first from John Steinbeck, ‘All great and precious things are lonely’, sits in stark contrast to Kurt Vonnegut’s imploration for young people to ‘create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured’. Both writers point to the potentialities latent with loneliness and solitude. They are states which exemplify a subject’s uniqueness but can also act as a catalyst for collective action, a state to be overcome. Feldman’s Quitting Social Media project looked at the possibilities that opened up by disconnecting ourselves from technologically mediated networks. She believes we are living through a ‘digital mediated crisis of solitude’ Communication technologies alter experiences of temporality by privileging short form content. A recent ONS report showed that we check our portable devices every twelve minutes on average; maintaining the feeling of connection requires consistent up keep, which becomes amplified when information comes at us in such small but frequent doses. Participating in social networks is seen as necessary to live and a waste of time; it is necessary but morally suspect. Self-improvement through expansive exercises in interactivity and network growth underpin its societal value. But the contradiction of today’s digital technology is that we use to also disconnect ourselves from networks. There now exists a digital detox industry. South Korea and China now host internet addiction camps, the principle of which is not unlike drug rehabilitation centres, while apps to help us sleep or exercise or ration social media use continue to grow in popularity. Both technological mediation and non-technological mediation constitute a project of self-valorisation, which is at the heart of digital culture. These activities and values foreground an anxiety about the future by narrowing our attention on our present (perceived) inadequacies, all the while making us fixate on an analogue, idealised past. Using technology to reduce our dependence on technology is not viable, but nevertheless points to a concerted if misguided effort to re-claim solitude as a morally important state of being that is worth preserving.

Natalie Kane gave a moving paper on the history of the chatroom. She described the function of these prototypical social media platforms as ‘negotiating the narrative of ourselves’. Online communication spaces require users to adapt themselves, where ‘everything becomes a difficult feeling to work out’. They can becomes spaces of survival and solace, and provide a means of working out how to express one’s identity through networked dialogue. Kane’s description of social media as a space to practice ‘radical softness’ was an important reminder that expressions of outrage and intolerance are not the only way we can communicate online. The colonisation of online spaces seeks to homogenize the messiness of human emotion by treating each utterance as an expression of preference, not as a means of reaching out to others known and unknown. But if the purpose of social media can be re-orientated towards the project of deconstructing our emotional selves then technology alone isn’t enough. We need a politics of networked thinking to legitimate the public performance of solitude. This is not a politics that celebrates isolation but recognises that intimacy and connection are temporary, variegate experiences, not statuses to be reached and maintained.

Causey, M. (2018) ‘Now I Am Alone’ : Dwelling in the Technological

Feldman, Z. (2018) Beyond Time: On Quitting Social Media

Kane, N. (2018) Intimate Objects: In Search of Loneliness Online