woods, staring at the ocean and talking to trees.
I noticed how frighteningly frequent was the
impulse to reach for a phone, to run from the fact
Consider for a moment the current ecosystem
of permanent social buzz. Every second that you
spend reading this, 2. 5 million emails are sent,
2,430 Skype calls are placed, 7,482 t weets are
t weeted, and 67,847 You Tube videos are posted.
The internet’s tendrils wave all around you in a
permanent invitation to such constant connection and perpetual social grooming that to step
away from it all feels like a kind of sin.
We forget how radical a shift has taken
place. A decade ago, only about 18 percent of the
world was online; today it’s about half, and the
percentage climbs continually. A quick check
informs me there are an estimated 7. 4 billion
humans roaming the planet’s crust at present,
and, for the first time in our history, every one
of them is potentially connected to all the rest.
(In case you’re interested, that works out to a
little over 27 quintillion how-do-you-dos.)
And yet. Despite our being positively
marinated in social media and connectivity, we’re
still lonely. Studies of Americans have found that
rates of loneliness have actually risen since the
advent of the internet. But we turn to our technologies with a constant solicitude, expecting
the easy fix. Type “Fear of being without a” into
your Google search bar and it auto-completes
to “Fear of being without a cell phone.” A 2015
study showed that, among Facebook’s 1. 8 billion
regular users, usage spikes among those with
social anxiety and depression. Such platforms
have become a kind of salve, a shortcut to
Some important questions bubble up from all
these stats: Why are the most connected people
in history so awfully lonely? Have we been too
focused on making more connections and forgotten to deepen the connections we already had?
Back at the cabin, four days into my time
alone, something shifted in my head. Yes, I
was able to think more calmly about my own
positions, look more closely into the natural
world around me—all those expected benefits
of disconnection were coming up in spades—but
there was a surprise, too: Within my solitude,
I found myself, oddly, connecting with others in
absentia. Once my desire for that ambient buzz
of surface connectivity finally fizzled away,
I found myself thinking more deeply, more
sincerely, about the people in my life.
The great writer Rebecca Solnit describes
in her essay “ We’re Breaking Up” how our networking technologies encourage us to explore
neither pure solitude nor pure connection.
Solnit believes we are “assuaging fears of being
alone without risking real connection. It is a
shallow bet ween t wo deeper zones, a safe spot
bet ween the dangers of contact with ourselves,
with others.” Without occasionally visiting the
one pole—true solitude—we may not be inspired
to inhabit the other—true companionship.
When I packed up my things and hiked back
to the ferry after my week alone, I found myself
chatting and smiling with folk in a more sincere
way than I’d managed in years. It didn’t matter
how simple the conversations were. I really did
want to discuss the weather; I really did hope
that guy at the news stand had a good day.
When I got home, my dog Murphy came
crashing towards me as though I’d been brought
back from the dead. After a good minute of ear
scratches and belly rubs, Murphy let me greet
my partner, Kenny, too. I hadn’t felt so excited
to see him since we’d started dating. The reboot
had made me happier than ever to connect.
Of course, I can’t run away to the cabin all
the time. Instead, I now try to think in terms
of a strategic balance bet ween connection and
disconnection. I ask myself: For every hour
spent emailing or chatting or sharing, how many
hours do I need on my own? I try to map out my
day so I can spend more time at those poles of
total solitude or total contact—and less time
splashing around in the shallows in bet ween. ■
“Once my desire for that ambient buzz of surface connectivity finally fizzled away, I found myself thinking more deeply, more
sincerely, about the people in my life. ”
Michael Harris is the author of the ne w book
Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a
Crowded World (April, Thomas Dunne Books).