On those rare moments when we can not connect, whether flying, deep under a building, or out beyond the edges of mobile coverage, when we glance into our palm and see NO SIGNAL, we feel the tug and pull of this new, invisible organ. We want to connect, even if we have no reason. The reassurance we find in one another’s presence has become a persistent feature of our lives.
Yet when we connect with another person, we conform to the needs of a dynamic created whenever we come together. Communication is a dance, and like any dance requires the full engagement of both parties. Otherwise, someone might trip and spill to the floor. Two people, connected, can be quite intense. When it becomes three, four, or more, it becomes a party. Parties are hard work: when you’re at a party you’re only thinking about the other people at the party. It becomes your whole world.
Now the whole world has become a party. The moments when we are not connected to at least one other person have grown vanishingly rare. Most often we connect to many others, via SMS and chat and Twitter and Skype and Facebook and Google+ and Yammer and Foursquare and, and, and… The ways we connect have multiplied as we grow more connected, a process accelerating as we come to understand how to use our connectivity toward specific ends.
We can spend all of our waking hours connected. For the generation born and raised during the last half billion seconds, that isn’t even a choice: it’s simply the way things are. Connection is the default posture for Homo Nexus, even at the expense of the real. People stare into their mobiles while they wait at bus stops; pedestrians walk into traffic, obliviously absorbed in their mobile; drivers get into accidents trying to send or read a text message at speed. Connectivity is pervasive, and connectivity is addictive. Once we have it, we will not willingly do without it. Yet we must.
When we connect and involve ourselves immediately in the lives of others, we surrender the ability to be involved within ourselves. This is no mere narcissism, but rather its opposite: the capacity to be with oneself, and within oneself, to reflect and meditate, is the root of our private experience. Without the silence that comes from solitude, there is no self.
We find ourselves in a perilous situation. We have embraced hyperconnectivity and the constant companionship of others, but in order to be authentically ourselves with others, we need to pull away, nursing within ourselves our own distinctive qualities – emotional, intellectual, physical, and spiritual – that come only when we face ourselves alone. The self itself is under threat, not because of the erosion of privacy, or the inversion of public and private spaces, but because we can not find the time to tend it.
We need to strike a balance between the power and joy of connection and the internal strength which comes from solitude. Neither is wholly good, nor entirely the answer: our future lies somewhere between the hermit and the hive. We know that we need to cut our connections in order to focus our thoughts, but we must extend this obvious truth into a broader recognition of the importance of feeding both halves of our nature.
We must admit that we are not very good at managing the ‘hygiene’ of our connected selves. Our parents taught us to brush our teeth and wash behind our ears, but no one has shown us how to pull the plug, or why we should. This is all brand new, and it is all brand new for all of us. There was no vanguard of Homo Nexus who could pass along the lessons they learned. We became this new thing all together, and all at once. We have been robbed of the most fundamental form of mimesis – the imitation of our parents and elders – because there are no parents, no elders. We must learn from one another.
Our children, who have grown up constantly connected, have no role models to show them that disconnection will make them great. They look to us, see us fumbling through emails at the dinner table, reaching for the phone every time a text message arrives, recognizing us as captives of connectivity. This is the behavior they reproduce – doing as we do, not as we say – and for this reason we can not rely on them to develop the habits of healthfulness around connection. They have no innate sense of the importance of solitude, nor any external examples of its value. We must first teach ourselves, and only then can we presume to teach our children – by example.
Our predicament is not a matter of fault, or blame. It is as if a car we were driving along suddenly acquired a rocket engine. For a while we zoom along dangerously, but eventually we learn how to tap the accelerator pedal gently, so that we can keep within the speed limit, and avoid a wreck. Now that we are connected, our first most important task must be to master the balance between our drive to connect and our need for solitude. We must develop the skills to nurse ourselves – every day – for our own good. At present, we’re like overexcited toddlers, filled to overflowing with all of the day’s events, and unable to go to sleep. We must soothe ourselves, and we can only do that in solitude.
Solitude is not the opposite of connection, but its complement. Turning the mobile off and putting it away – for an hour, an evening, or a day – does not separate you from the body of Homo Nexus. We are all so well connected that none of can easily slip through the common net of connection. But we have neither protocol nor etiquette for the practice of solitude. We must be able to slip away gracefully, leaving others with the understanding that this brief parting will only deepen the moments to follow. We must look forward to solitude, embracing ourselves. For many, solitude feels unfamiliar, unfriendly, and unpleasant. We need to share the joys of solitude, so they, too, tug at us, when we have been away from ourselves for too long.
For the last half billion seconds we have gorged ourselves at the banquet of connection. Now we need some time to digest what we have taken in. Pausing will only make the meal more delicious, when we return to it. Some have launched their own “Technology Sabbath” (invoking the strict Jewish practice of no work from sunset Friday through sunset Saturday), putting aside their mobiles and computers for one day in seven, using that time to focus themselves in prayer or meditation, in uninterrupted playtime with their children, or anything else that brings them into quiet and reflective contemplation.
The specifics may not work for everyone, but all of us need something like this. We need to be able to draw a line around our connected selves, containing what we have become before it leaves nothing of us. That line evolves from strict to supple as we become comfortable moving back and forth between connection and solitude. Like children, at the beginning we require boundaries. As we mature, and internalize the new rules of Homo Nexus, we will be better able to decide for ourselves the space we make for being.
A half billion seconds ago, we knew solitude well, and were not afraid of it. Today, aware only of continuous connection, we have almost forgotten this other side to ourselves. It must not be lost as we turn this corner. It is the seat of our soul.