Magazine

The end of alone

At our desk, on the road, or on a remote beach, the world is a tap away. It’s so cool. And yet it’s not. What we lose with our constant connectedness.

Don’t get me wrong. I love technology. It’s magical how it makes the world closer, and more immediate. Take, for instance, the real-time way we learned about the plane that skidded off a Denver runway and burst into flames in December. One of the passengers on Continental Flight 1404 used Twitter to share everything from his initial profanity- and typo-laced reaction to making it out of the fiery jet (“Holy [bleeping bleep] I wasbjust in a plane crash!”) to his lament that the airline wasn’t providing drinks to the survivors who’d been penned into the airport lounge (“You have your wits scared out of you, drag your butt out of a flaming ball of wreckage and you can’t even get a vodka-tonic.”)

Technology also makes life infinitely more manageable. It’s what allows me to begin writing this essay from a packed coffee shop on a snowy winter afternoon while still being connected with my editors and finish writing it from my kitchen in the middle of the night, when all the interruptions of the day have faded away (unless I want to check Facebook to see how many of my friends are also nuts enough to be staring at a computer screen at 3 a.m.). And technology simply makes things more fun, like the way my wife will hold her iPhone up to a restaurant ceiling speaker and instantly be told that the vaguely familiar tune of funky ‘70s cheese she hears is “Sky High,” by the one-hit-wonder band Jigsaw, rather than letting that little mystery make her cerebrum ache for the rest of the day.

So please don’t confuse what I have to say for that tired Luddite screed about how technology is ruining us. It isn’t.

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Because of technology, we never have to be alone anymore. And that’s the problem.

I’M SITTING IN A PEW near the back of St. Anne’s Church in Fall River, a soaring structure of Vermont blue marble that could rival a lesser European cathedral. It was built in the late 1800s, when the southeastern Massachusetts mill city’s French Canadian community was big enough to warrant a church able to seat 2,000. On this blustery afternoon, the crowd is more like a tenth of that. The priest is talking, but the lousy PA system makes it hard to hear what he’s saying. So I’m doing what I’ve done before in this situation: trying to keep my young daughters occupied by whispering for them to study their surroundings -- the exquisitely carved red-oak woodwork near the high ceiling, the enormous pipe organ in the rear balcony, the colorful stained-glass windows on every wall. With its combination of architectural grandeur and crumbling-plaster fatigue, the place is like Venice in the unforgiving light of morning, rather than the soft-lit romanticism of night. It’s honest and beautiful.

Then I hear an odd chirping. My eyes follow my ears to a pew to my left and behind me, where a guy with slicked black hair and dark glasses is sitting. He’s chewing gum and wearing one of those Bluetooth cellphone attachments in his ear.

Hey, man, I’m bored, too. But, c’mon, take that infernal thing out of your ear. Say a prayer. Collect your thoughts. Or just do what my 4-year-old is doing and stare at the ceiling.

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Did I mention it was Christmas Day Mass?

Not long ago, I was sitting in the “quiet study” section of my local public library when a middle-aged woman wearing an annoyed expression plopped down in the green upholstered chair next to my table, her teenage daughter in tow. She flipped open her cellphone and dialed her daughter’s therapist. After giving the therapist’s secretary her full name and slowly spelling her daughter’s -- loud enough for every soul in that wing of the library to hear -- she said, “We have an appointment for next week, but I want to know if he has any availability before that. She is really not doing well.”

I looked up from my laptop, incredulous that a mother could be so blase about violating her daughter’s privacy, not to mention library decorum -- and convinced that the therapist and the daughter must have no time to discuss anything besides mother issues.

Now, I know what you’re going to say. There have always been boors blabbing in places where they should be quiet, blithely ignoring the shushes from librarians or the stares from fellow elevator passengers while behaving as though they’re the only ones whose problems matter. Bad manners are bad manners, irrespective of technology, right?

Yes, only technology has vastly expanded this bad behavior, eroding much of society’s stigma against it, and making it everybody’s problem. But here’s the real point: It is dulling our very capacity to ever be alone, or alone in our thoughts. The late British pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott popularized the phrase “the capacity to be alone” in the 1950s, to describe a pivotal stage of emotional development. Winnicott argued that an adult’s capacity to be alone had its roots in his experience as a baby, learning to function independently while still in the presence of his mother. Yet today we’re seeing this capacity weakened, whether we’re in public places known for contemplation, like churches and libraries, or whether we’re just sitting by ourselves at home, losing the fight to resist answering our BlackBerries (just ask our new president) or checking our laptops for Facebook updates.

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“We’ve gone from an American ethic that championed the lone guy on a horseback to an ethic of managing multiple data streams,” says Dalton Conley, a sociology professor at New York University and author of the new book Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got From the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms, and Economic Anxiety. “It’s very hard for people to unplug and be alone -- and be with the one data stream of their mind.”

What’s fueling this? Conley says it’s anxiety borne out of a deep-seated fear that we’re being left out of something, somewhere, and that we may lose out on advancement in our work, social, or family lives if we truly check out. “The anxiety of being alone drives this behavior to constantly respond and Twitter and text, but the very act of doing it creates the anxiety.”

This is particularly true among young people, mainly because they don’t know life when it wasn’t like this.

I HAD A GREAT TIME in college and was fortunate to make lots of close, lasting friendships. But if I want to be honest with myself, I can remember plenty of times when I felt uncomfortable. And many of the earlier ones involved eating alone in the dining hall. I didn’t eat by myself often, and when I did, it was usually a simple matter of conflicting schedules with my friends. But my unease sprang from my inability to convey that to the strangers around me. Honest, I’m not a loner. I had to learn to deal with the discomfort. Sometimes, it would force me to strike up conversations with strangers or be receptive when they engaged me. Other times, I would just sit alone and read or think. The discomfort never went away entirely, but it sure receded with practice.

If I were in college nowadays, I doubt that would happen. I would be filling my alone time texting any friend I could think of.

Whenever I’m on a college campus these days, almost all the students I see sitting by themselves are furiously thumbing their iPhones or BlackBerries. For all I know, they could simply be playing Sudoku. Yet the message they’re sending is unmistakable. I am not alone.

Sure, texting a friend can make you feel less awkward. But, in the long run, so can learning to step outside of your shell, or becoming at peace within it.

This change in campus life isn’t restricted to dining halls. The quads are teeming with ear-budded students texting and talking on cellphones rather than sitting with an open book or talking to the person next to them. In important ways, they’re not fully there.

To see how these technological patterns are changing the college experience, University of Toronto researcher Rhonda McEwen tracked the communication behavior of students across their freshmen year. She found them delaying the full plunge of forming new friend networks and breaking away from their old ones. In their first semester, the freshmen generally hold on tightly to their high school friends, talking with and texting them frequently and keeping up with them on Facebook. As the year moves on, they generally shift their high school friends to Facebook and instant messaging while focusing more of their texting and phone calls on their new college pals. In the summer, they shift back, with high school friends returning to the top of the communication hierarchy.

There are things to be happy about in these patterns. The lifeline of old friends can help staunch the feelings of loneliness that are as common to the freshman experience as rapid weight gain.

But those old contacts can also turn into a crutch that prevents students from truly engaging with the new world around them or learning to be alone in their own mind. One of the freshmen McEwen interviewed confessed that every day she spent her lunchtime sitting on the steps outside a campus building, calling or texting her sister. That was less painful for her than sitting alone. Yet like the helicopter parents who hover over their children at the playground in the hopes of shielding them from bumps and bruises, we can delay the hurt only so long. As the Talmud tells us, sometimes a little bit of pain can be a blessing.

“Loneliness is ubiquitous,” says Amherst College political science professor Thomas Dumm, whose new book, Loneliness As a Way of Life, grew out of his experience of losing, in short order, his wife and mother to death and his daughter to college. “But people are less equipped to deal with it. Rather than going deeper, they try to push it aside.”

How will this all play out in years to come? Leysia Palen, a University of Colorado computer scientist, worries that “how to be alone in a public space is a skill that is going to disappear.” And that hole could become glaring when people’s life circumstances change. “As friends die, do you find yourselves in a different reality than before? I don’t have any problem being alone, but it’s something I learned -- through living it.”

More than anything, McEwen found in her University of Toronto study that college students are constantly connected to the point of having no concept of a truly unplugged life. There’s a time-honored tradition in Canada of “going to the cottage,” usually in the summertime, and being blissfully disconnected from the rest of the world. “The participants in my study had real discomfort going to the cottage,” McEwen says. “If there’s no cellphone reception, no Internet access, they think, ‘What the hell am I doing out there?’ “

It’s hard to imagine a Henry David Thoreau emerging from this millennial generation, someone motivated to log two years and two months alone in the woods around Walden and wax about how he “never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” He’d have no time to observe the bullfrogs or water his bean plants. He’d be too busy searching for a Wi-Fi signal.

DESCARTES, NEWTON, LOCKE, Spinoza, Kant, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard -- they share the distinction of having been some of the greatest thinkers the world has known. They also share this: None of them ever married or had their own families, and most of them spent the bulk of their lives living alone. In his provocative 1989 book Solitude: A Return to the Self, British writer and psychiatrist Anthony Storr made a persuasive case for the value of deep, uninterrupted alone time. He found it in ample supply in the lives of not just philosophers and physicists, but also some of the greatest poets, novelists, painters, and composers.

Maybe this concept of the lone genius is somewhat exaggerated. While Newton was celibate, many of these other thinkers had transient affairs and interacted to varying degrees with the world around them. Even Thoreau would leave his cabin every once in a while and stroll into downtown Concord to visit with friends. But the point is, they were all able to remove themselves from the bustle of daily life for long stretches, in order to contemplate and create. We’re all the richer for their having done that. Now, ask yourself, when was the last time you were truly alone and unplugged for a long spell? How many of you can even say you’ve gotten this far in this essay without having once stopped to answer a call, reply to a text, or check your in-box? I must confess that I haven’t. (Another confession: To ensure that I finish writing this, I’ve now moved myself to an undisclosed remote location where I’m sitting in a small windowless room with some sort of orange carpeting material on the walls -- no lie -- and where no Wi-Fi is available. Something tells me Descartes never had to go to these lengths for quiet time.)

It’s important to distinguish between being alone and being lonely. In the new book Loneliness, University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo and his Massachusetts coauthor William Patrick argue the pangs of loneliness that we sometimes experience are the evolutionary equivalent of the shooting pain we feel after touching a hot stove. These pangs are ingrained reminders of how bad social disconnection is for our well-being. Cacioppo uses everything from brain imaging to blood-pressure analysis to demonstrate the serious drag on our health that loneliness can have.

At first pass, this line of thought would seem to contradict the argument Storr made in Solitude and pretty much everything I’ve written to this point. Yet that’s not the case at all. It turns out that research shows people who feel lonely are no more likely to be physically alone. Cacioppo acknowledges that solitude can be very healthy, and he compares loneliness to a sort of thermostat, a state of mind that kicks in at different points for different people.

While we humans need social interaction, he’s in agreement that we won’t find it through Twittering and texting. Cacioppo points to research showing that electronic communication can increase social isolation and depression “when it replaces more tangible forms of human contact.” Another team of psychologists termed this form of communication “social snacking.” But, as he writes, a snack is not a meal.

So why do we feel so compelled to swap messages with people who aren’t next to us and rack up hundreds of friends to keep electronic tabs on?

Dalton Conley, the NYU professor, says it’s worth looking back several decades, to two groundbreaking social-science studies. (Both, as it turns out, are tied to the Boston area -- who knew we cold New Englanders could be so social?) The first is the 1967 experiment that indirectly made us all aware of the disturbing pervasiveness of Kevin Bacon in our lives. Psychologist Stanley Milgram gave a letter to a bunch of people in Omaha, Nebraska, and instructed them to hand-deliver it to someone they knew. The unstated goal was to get a copy to a stockbroker in Sharon, Massachusetts. The experiment laid the groundwork for the popular notion of “six degrees of separation.” (Conley says newer research suggests the number is actually closer to eight.) The second study, based on interviews with Boston professionals that psychologist Mark Granovetter conducted in 1972, suggests that your closest friends are less valuable to you in finding new jobs or new mates than the friends of friends whom you don’t know that well. The idea is that you’re probably already aware of the same job openings or single people that your close friends know about. But those tangential acquaintances hold the key to new and potentially valuable information. Granovetter’s paper, called “The Strength of Weak Ties,” could have been used as the business plan for LinkedIn, the fast-growing site for professionals that is like Facebook except stripped of all mildly interesting content and about as much fun as a Chamber of Commerce networking night.

Here’s the irony: The explosion of all this electronic networking and friending may ultimately rob weak ties of most of their strength. If we’re all linked up with hundreds if not thousands of people, there is no longer much value to the information they possess. It’s no longer exclusive. A stock tip whispered in your ear by someone in the know can make you a mint (if it doesn’t land you in jail). But what good is a stock tip broadcast on CNBC?

SCHEHERAZADE QUIROGA has a heavy name but a buoyant personality. In August, the 28-year-old left her parents’ home in Caracas, Venezuela, where she has lived her whole life, and moved here to begin a master’s program in television management at Boston University. The first time she left her family was 10 years ago, when she and her sister took a guided tour of Europe. As soon as they arrived in Madrid, the first stop on the tour, she found a pay phone and called her mother in tears. “Mama, Mama!” she cried, “I miss you so much!” This past November, when she returned to Venezuela to vote and saw her family for the first time since moving to Boston, her mother came running over, saying, “I need to hug you!” Quiroga thought to herself, “It’s no big deal.”

Sure, she’s a decade older than that girl crying from the pay phone in Madrid. But the real difference is that, although she’s living abroad now, she hasn’t really had to leave her family. Every night at 9 o’clock, she logs on to the Internet video chat service Skype and catches up with her mother, usually for two or three hours at a stretch. “I don’t feel the distance as much,” she says.

What’s wrong with this? On one level, nothing at all. Quiroga is sociable, happy, and well adjusted. She’s managed to form close friendships with other students in her program while still keeping strong ties with her family.

But if international travel and study were once surefire ways for people to learn deep truths about themselves as they experienced new cultures, that’s probably not the case anymore. Contrast Quiroga’s Boston experience with the backpacking tour Dalton Conley took alone across Bolivia and Peru in the early ‘90s. Once, after making vague plans to meet up with a friend in La Paz, he took a hellish bus ride clear across the country, suffering altitude sickness along the way, only to arrive at the station in the Bolivian capital and find out that his friend had just left. He spent much of his time in South America feeling lost, miserably alone, and utterly disconnected from his normal life. “But I look back at it as one of the greatest experiences of my life,” he says. “It helped in forming a sense of who I am.”

I ask Quiroga when she feels truly unplugged and off the grid. (I’ve learned to be specific with this question. Another college student I posed it to said her definition of being unplugged was keeping her cellphone on vibrate.)

She pauses. Her green eyes widen. Then she smiles. “Hmm. I think only when I’m on the T and we go into the tunnel. As soon as the Green Line train hits Kenmore and goes underground, I think, ‘Well, that’s it. No one can reach me now.’ “ She smiles again. “Isn’t that sad?”

Neil Swidey is a staff writer for the Globe Magazine. E-mail him at swidey@globe.com.