I belong to a unique time-space in the history of mankind, which is a sandwich between two—what I want to call—eras. I do not wish to devalue other eras by using this term, so I should take it in a weak sense if one is comfortable with its usage as a matter of concern. Most of the words I am going to use shall be used in their weakest sense, without any strong claim to the truth being made. I am very localized and do not wish to speak more than what particulars suggest. (And yet, what else do we have but particulars? And aren’t universals already in the particulars?)
Going more specific, I am locating myself to the twenty-year period between 1994 and 2020. It is, in my (humble) opinion, one of the most significant periods in history that mankind has seen since man started becoming self-aware. It is during this period that “self-awareness” started getting most acute… when the self-awareness became aware of its own awareness. The observation is an intuition, which cannot be wholly shared via words. One has to look around and merge himself into the era to know it… share in its ”care”.
In 1994, I became aware of my existence as an existence in society. And in 2004, Facebook was born. Of course, Facebook took birth after a lot of what can be called “major” historical technical developments. For example, the internet had been in public use for a long time, and there was Orkut, and there were “ways” via which the communication between two entities (people, places, communities, nations, groups etc.) was faster than ever before, but with the birth of Facebook, something new occurred. And even though that something new was not as momentous as say the French Revolution, in the course of next ten years, it turned out to be a pivotal point, a middle point between two eras, for the world changed after that.
After Facebook started affecting the lives of people as it does today, the world was never the same. Of course, there is Twitter and Instagram and the like, but I see Facebook being the progenitor, the guardian figure, the tectonic shift. When I use “Facebook”, I mean all other elements of the internet that constitute the internet today (for most of us).
And yet, I should not give it so much value, and rather than looking at who made what and who was or was not responsible, I should ponder on what transpired as a result of the same. And it does appear clear to me that what transpired was, to put in simple terms: the death of solitude.
Of course, one can begin playing with definitions of words and say things like solitude differ from loneliness, and it is a more positive term than loneliness which is negative, but I do not wish to go into that. I want to believe that these differences won’t matter when I define exactly what I mean by solitude.
I had to give this a separate heading because it is a crucial moment in the piece. Any perceptive reader can easily pre-think what I am going to say about the times in which this essay was written by understanding the meaning I ascribe to “solitude”. And yet my meaning is not so different than what the world uses.
I am not a concept developer; I do not want to be. And yet, when we say something about something, we need to be sure what we are implying and what the other is trying to understand. And the best way to make one understand what you want is by roiling about in the muck of words which are always contextual, developing/delineating a context for the words and using them and again putting them in context so that something is not “shown” but is rather “felt”.
Essays of philosophical nature should not be mathematical is what I want to suggest. Because life is not mathematical (or scientific, which deals with categorizations), and philosophy should be about life if it isn’t already.
While it is important to define words, it is even more important to define the context in which the word was/is being defined. Perhaps that is why when we have successfully outlined the context from a perspective which is already smeared (steeped, enlightened, embroiled) with our view, we don’t really need to identify our “view” separately. (There are no “theses” in this world. Everything is just a view).
Anyway, continuing with my argument—which is no argument—I am not using “solitude” in a very different way than it is usually used. It is a positive concept for me also. I want to define it as that series of moments in a person’s life when he is most himself when he is most in touch with himself. It is that collective of continuous moments when he “can” communicate and he “is” communicating with himself. Solitude is not the blank which perhaps people gain after meditation or Yoga. Solitude is full of thoughts, but it is that stage of one’s mind when he thinks by and through himself, and is not influenced by others during the course of solitude.
You cannot stop being influenced by others. The very idea of not getting influenced by others is absurd, in my opinion. In the phase (stage, series of moments) of solitude, one is not influenced by any other than himself, and this is how I see solitude. In solitude, we possess a “self”. (Perhaps that is why it is so necessary to identify it).
And as compared to solitude, and as an enemy, I define noise. Noise is the “other” which prevents one from reaching a solitude, which is one to be won over (killed, removed, exterminated). It is the anti of solitude. Not opposite; opposite of noise is peace. But one has to consider the possibility when a person can enjoy solitude in non-peace. I see a causal connection between the lack of solitude and noise. In my opinion—and I am sure everyone would agree—if there is noise, there cannot be solitude. Absence of noise is the first precondition of any solitude to exist. This is how I define “noise”.
There are various kinds of noises. I do not wish to make a chart and categorize all of them. I think this exercise will not serve my purpose, for I am interested in one particular kind of noise: the internet.
“How/when is internet a noise?” is the question I shall take up later. For now, I want to make one passing comment on”Noise of undesirable thoughts”. From the very phrase itself, its meaning should be clear. It is the noise created in one’s mind by his own self by the tumble of his thoughts. This, he can control if he has the necessary control over his self-hood and does not easily give in to akrasia (used in its loosest sense as “always”). And that is why I do not include “noise of undesirable thoughts” in “noise”.
I want to look at what is external, what is beyond control, and whose effect on us can be controlled. I remember Dumbledore putting his thoughts inside a Pensieve so that he could exclude them from his mind for a while. This is not possible with the current scientific progress among us muggles. We have to do with the idea that thoughts compel us to think, and we can stop thinking them only by thinking other thoughts, which is again “thinking”.
That is why I consider the “noise of undesirable thoughts” a necessary part of a person’s being, like two dead kidneys are a part of a kidney transplant recipient’s being. He has to live with them; he has to live with his tumble of thoughts.
Proceeding further, till now, I have said nothing substantial in my essay. All I have done is lay a little of ground for what I am going to say, and yet, if you belong to the age in which I wrote this essay (as a text can never be removed from the age in which it was written), you would already know what I am going to say. It requires just a little bit of what we usually refer to as “application of mind”.
But that is exactly what you are unable to do at this point. I am not some Plato or Nietzsche whose essay you are reading because everyone does, and you want to know what the great men said. You are reading it (it is hard for me to imagine that anyone would have reached here) because I made it public on the “internet”. The internet is noise for me, and I have used it to create noise in your life.
In the browser in which this article is open, are other tabs of the likes of Facebook, Twitter etc. open? Do you just want to skim through this essay because you are interested in knowing what I am up to? Leaving aside the peculiarity of my position viz the people in the world, even for a normal person, your attitude would be the same. You just want to finish this essay and know what is going on, just as you want to know what is Arsenal’s score and where is Kohli going to get married. And, in all this, there is little self-immersion. It is like the horn of a car honking behind you; you pay attention to it so that you can forget it and use it as an indication of something. The horn of a car is noise, but it is necessary. But the essay written by a friend/acquaintance is not a necessity. It is an imposition. It is even bigger noise just as there is the noise of the “feeds” appearing on your Facebook or Twitter timeline or whatever.
Anything you do not enjoy and anything you consider as nothing but an imposition—a necessary imposition which you choose maybe, but an imposition nevertheless—is noise. But this is not a complete analysis. One can always stop receiving the “noise” of the internet by throwing away the WiFi panels, by blocking the internet on the now ubiquitous smartphones.
For example, in my case, I have tried multiple times to rid my life of the “noise of internet” with a focus on achieving that ever-elusive solitude. I have created and deleted my Facebook account multiple times. I have done it with many social networking sites. I have used and misused WhatsApp. I have blocked everyone from my life by totally abandoning internet (and living in the metaphorical cave). I go on these long periods when I uninstall WhatsApp and install another app so that I do not install WhatsApp again. I have created a web of lies to give “normal/acceptable” answers to people even while knowing that they are all bullshit and the reasonable reason is that I am not one who can be sociable at the level of internet.
At best, I want to use the internet as a utility, but that is what exactly I am unable to do; that is what the internet won’t let me do. And I know that it is because of something lacking in me, a lack of Phronetic judgement which I never had even before (it is not akrasia. I can control myself. But I become absurd on the internet to highlight the absurdity of internet. This is a manic state). But, I do want to ask this question: can you ever attain solitude in the noise of the internet? Even if you are not as neurotic as me?
This is an important question. By virtue of the intellect we have been given, human beings desire solitude once in a while. Without that solitude, it is impossible to live a “human” life. You either become an animal, living one day after another, like a pig or cat lives, working your ass off on the weekdays and going to even noisier bullshit party these clubs and pubs provide (I am not against anything. I use words freely is all.) Noise is an important element of life, and one can always enjoy it in the pubs/clubs. Noise is available in plenty, so much so that it is available too much and that is why we are forever seeking solitude, and this makes me doubt if we really need noise in pubs when we actually have too much of it already, or you become human, even after living the life of an animal. Then, maybe once in a while you plan a holiday to a hill station (using an app) or rent a car (using an app) and go in the “lap of the mountains” or “arms of the ocean” to “find yourself”, to find that ever-elusive solitude in the midst of the noise of life, and regain that status of being human which you lost when you again lost your solitude to the noise of the machine of life when you ran back to the city which symbolizes internet.
And I remember two different times. One was when I did not have a smartphone, and I was in the lap of hills somewhere in Himachal on the top of a villager’s flat roof house, and I felt the warmth of the sun in the cool of the mountains. I sat there with myself without a smartphone, and no photos were clicked, no statuses updated. And the next time I was in Chopta (Uttarakhand) near the white mountains and solitude was just beside me, sitting with me with a cup of coffee (was it stale tea? I remember not drinking it) and range of white mountains, waiting for me, but I picked up my smartphone instead and started thinking of ways by which I could make my Instagram account look more beautiful.
Not to say I did not have moments of solitude; there were moments when my hand was free because my smartphone had gotten discharged and there are (still) places in mountains where human towers cannot reach, but my point is clear by itself. The alienation brought in by the noise of the internet, the excruciating need to be part of this new jungle which never stops humming (like the city) makes our life difficult. We want peace, and we want solitude. And we also want noise.
But the question is still relevant, and remains to be answered: “Is solitude possible for us where there is internet? Or should we once and for all, conclude that solitude is forever gone from our lives, solitude was solitude a decade ago?”
My example is not a very good one. I had failed my own phases of determination when I tried to keep myself away from the internet to attain solitude. It was not just difficult; it was impossible for me to rid myself of the influence of the internet. I cannot remain in a vacuum. I cannot help myself by not going out because there is internet which can keep me in touch with society. But even if I continuously go out and meet people in person, it is impossible to avoid the internet. It has entered our lives to rule, and the matrix about which the Wachowski brothers made a movie is slowly coming into existence, and very soon, it will take the form shown in Necromancer of Gibson. But, my mentioning it makes little sense unless you have gone through it. (Maybe I should be less like Zizek, which actually I would like to, and yet it is difficult. We, after all, live in metaphors.)
Anyway, the internet is there to stay. And it seems plausible to question the people, like me, who were born in my time. But then, I am a case of neurosis. I am not a good sample to describe the “age” about which this essay is most possibly being written. We have a perfect example of Kohli who was born before me and yet he does seem to have welcomed the internet with both hands. And yet, one can always question if it is really “him” who maintains his social media accounts! Does any celebrity, for that matter?
And in any case, my question is quite different. I am after solitude, and my question is: Is solitude possible in this world of internet? Can one remain connected with the cyber world and still have moments of solitude?
If not for the likes of Kohli (for whom whole firms of humans work to keep him connected with the internet, and by extension with other people) but for the likes of me, this question is important. And yet there many normal people “like me” who have to face this very difficult question. But they seem to answer in a much better way. “Seem to” is an important phrase.
Now I am entering a territory in which I shall be more generalizing than I want to be. I do not want to say anything broad which applies to everyone, and yet with my experience (just 30 years on this pallid earth; of course, I need more time to be a decent philosopher!), it does seem to me that I am not so wrong. So, I will say it; it’s not that this is a very serious work of introspection that shall be read by very serious minds.
Rest of what I am writing is a very truncated version of what I actually wrote:
“…Where is solitude if you are always connected? And when is it that you are “not” connected?…
…Do you consider yourself “not connected” when you don’t have your smartphone with you? I don’t think so, and you will agree with me…”
Averagely speaking, today when a person wakes up, the first thing they do is pick up their smartphone. The smartphone is not smart if it is not connected to the internet. They pick up their phone and take a dip into the internet, if not before breakfast, but after, definitely, or during the ride to work (or school). I can highlight many such symptoms, without being critical, to prove how deeply immersed we are in the world of internet. But that is known to all, and in the coming years, it shall be the norm. We are already as used to the internet as we were when the television was introduced into our lives.
One can even argue that the internet is not noise; it is a part of our lives. But then, the horn of a car is not noise either. The hum of the engines all around us is not noise. So, it is a useless idea to suppose that the internet is not noise. To get rid of the noise of cars and buses, we use these very means to find solitude in the lap of nature. To get rid of the noise of the internet, we use the internet apps (without internet, apps have no existence. One would be foolish to think that the offline app has an existence independent of the internet. They feed on their updates) to run away from the internet.
This is interesting. But even more interesting is the idea that we can leave back our cars and buses, but we cannot leave our smartphones. Have you ever left your smartphone back in your bag before a “hike” in the mountains? Did you find solitude in the mountains with your smartphone in your hands clicking pictures? Isn’t a smartphone an extension of the internet? A tentacle which keeps you hooked even though there is no connection and you cannot check your Facebook timeline? Haven’t you realized that the very invention of a smartphone (with a selfie stick and selfie mode) owes its existence to the internet? Can you use a smartphone without the internet forever?
Solitude in times of internet seems impossible to me, as of now. I am a special case as because of my illness; I am anyway hooked to machines (perhaps that is why I seek dissociation from smartphones ever so more). But for generally healthy (I seldom find people who are healthy, though. Sometimes I tend to feel that I am healthiest of all. At least I know my illnesses) people, too, it does appear to me that solitude is impossible in the cyber world.
People who are intelligent and who understand that solitude is impossible in the world, which is getting more cyber dependent by the minute, either become crazy or like most, tell themselves a couple of lies and pretend that since such is life, and one has to live with it (while suffering because of the lack of solitude in their lives for the same reasons; a suffering which they have given another name). And people who are not intelligent, end up becoming the backbone of the world of internet, feeding it with their sense of selves and living in continual pain, being even more intelligent than intelligent people, being sure of the fact that they are already too foolish to care, and telling themselves that it is the intelligent anyway who lead painful lives.
There are many who live away from the internet, but then, they lose friends and live in a continuous fear that they are outcasts. The web of the internet is such that one does not want to be a part of it, but can’t help but be. I guess it is now a necessary poison.