On Solitude


I’ve spent the last few days reading Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. For the uninitiated, Newport is something of a unicorn. He’s a computer science professor and writer who is now in his early 40s, making him an elder millennial, and – wait for it – he’s never had a social media account. Suffice it to say that Newport is a rarity in our times. I have followed his work for a few years ever since I came across his TED Talk, so even though I initially looked upon the aforementioned book title with scepticism, I was curious to read it nonetheless. And I’m glad I did because I was struck by how convincing the ideas in the book are, as well as the sheer amount of resistance and barriers that prevent their widespread adoption. 

One idea resonated with me so much that I’ve made it the subject of this post, and it is the idea of solitude. This one word may mean different things to different people, but I’m willing to bet that on seeing it on your screen, your mind conjured up an image of a person sitting cross-legged on a mountaintop or sandy beach or flower field, against a backdrop of multi-coloured sky, with the sun rising (or setting) on the horizon in the distance. 

If you happen to be among the minority of humans that experience aphantasia, such that your mind’s eye is unable to conjure images of objects that are not present, then all you have to do is type the word in your favourite search engine or social media platform, and you’ll see what I mean. You might even find a few profound-sounding quotes overlaid on these images. If, on the other hand, you instantly recognised and pictured what I described in the previous paragraph, then this underscores my point, that we’ve all bought into a serene, idyllic idea of solitude. This idea, however, is flawed. Solitude isn’t a state of being isolated in a beautiful, remote place. It can be, but it isn’t necessarily the case. Solitude is a state of being alone with one’s thoughts, so technically speaking, it can be achieved while in a room with others, and conversely, being alone on a mountain peak isn’t a sine qua non for solitude, for instance, if you’re there with a podcast or audiobook or music in your ears. 

Today we have an abundance of technology at our disposal, so that (in the developed world, at least) at any one time, you can endlessly occupy yourself and your mind with some form of content that provides entertainment or educational value. This is all to say that you can almost always eschew boredom. But this wasn’t always the case, as Newport argues. There was a time – and I remember this time vaguely from my childhood – when we had no choice but to deal with the occasional case of boredom. We only have to flip the calendar back to the 90s to reminisce about when we didn’t have our ears plugged constantly while on the go. We had Walkmans and Discmans and headphones and earpieces, sure, but the iPod hadn’t been invented yet, and its successor, the iPhone was perhaps even inconceivable at the time. Today, I'm as guilty as anyone of leveraging every walking or commuting moment to get in some quality time with my music or podcasts. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I even, on occasion, plug my ears with my Bluetooth earbuds while I’m out and about, not necessarily because I’m listening to something, but because I’m using them as an excuse to not have to talk to other humans. Access to audio content on the go isn’t the only thing that has changed drastically in the last few decades. Real-time access to technology – maps, web browsers, and pertinent to this blog, social media and instant messaging – has significantly changed our lives and our expectations, and not necessarily for the better. 

Now, I can almost hear you wonder, isn’t this just a case of looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses? I had the same thought as I made my way through Newport’s arguments, and as if he knew what I was thinking, he promptly offered the admission that this technological revolution has made some things slightly better, emphasis on slightly. For instance, parents of young kids who go out on date night will probably experience more peace of mind because they know the babysitter can easily reach them via call or text if there’s an emergency at home. School kids can call their parents’ mobile phones to say they’re ready to be picked up after soccer practice as opposed to relying on set times for pick up or having the option of only calling a landline without knowing whether anyone’s home. And a tourist visiting a new city can rely on up-to-date digital maps to navigate the endless rows of identical streets as opposed to relying on out-of-date paper maps and the goodwill and navigational competence of strangers on the streets. These are the sorts of minor conveniences that constant connectedness, reachability and availability afford us. 

But there’s a flip side, and it is this: all this connectedness and reachability and constant access to content and information fosters a landscape that chips away at our solitude and erodes our ability to be alone with our thoughts, all the while masquerading as the cure for boredom. We ignore this flip side at our peril because solitude and boredom aren’t just Instagrammable moments to pursue or nuisances to combat. Rather, solitude and boredom are key ingredients for a healthy mind and spirit, and germane to this post, they are essential for creativity. Study after study shows that the rise in anxiety (and anxiety-related disorders) correlates with the increasing availability and ubiquity of smartphones and technologies that facilitate hyper-connectivity, i.e. social media and the likes, if you will excuse the pun. 

Every artist I know experiences a tug-of-war between the desire to seek solitude to feed creativity and the necessity to be always connected and available on social media as the primary medium for sharing and engaging with art, yours truly included. These two states of being are at odds with each other, hence the friction, the tug-of-war, the tension that chips away at the artist’s soul. But what’s the solution? How does one seek solitude when the primary, most accessible medium for art dissemination has been engineered to compel the artist to be online 24/7 lest they miss out on opportunities? How does one take the time to create when platforms are engineered to reward polarising content and endless (often pointless) engagement? How does one thrive in a world where the artist has to spend as much, if not more, time trying to hack the algorithm than the time devoted to making art? 

Have I mentioned that this is a bit of a struggle for me? Last year, I briefly mentioned in a blog post that I limit my social media usage to 5 minutes per platform per day, and I’m pleased to say I have maintained this usage policy for the most part. That said, I find that even now, I need to tighten this policy which might mean staying off the platforms entirely for designated amounts of time. I know this because I and others like me are up against the collective, gargantuan efforts of the capitalist machinery, because for every individual that wishes to limit their social media usage to (say) 5 minutes a day, some very clever people are working to turn the 5-minute curfew into 15 minutes, and then 30 minutes, until hours go by while browsing and engaging on the platforms. 

If it is a contest between my desire to limit my time on the platforms and the platforms' desire to keep me glued to my screen, I can say I’m winning, but only just. What’s worse is that it constitutes a pyrrhic victory at best, because even if I succeed in staying away from the platform, I come away feeling slightly worse about my creative prospects because I worry about all the things I may miss out on while I’m not using the platforms. Through social media, I’ve had some fantastic opportunities, made some wonderful friends, and learnt some remarkable things that have all propelled my career. But now I ask myself, is it even possible to excel in this day and age as an artist, without the endless connectivity that social media dictates?

For what it’s worth, I choose to remain cognisant of the fact that true joy and purpose stem from the art itself – the making of it, the creativity process, the end result – and that everything else is icing on the cake. I intend to never lose sight of that. That said, I also want to be able to share my art with the world without feeling like I have to become a slave to an algorithm or trade my solitude for endless connectivity, because if I can’t hang on to my sanity, what chance do I stand of making art that is true to me? 

Am I crazy? Am I being unreasonable? Am I misguided?

PS: Just a reminder that my latest single, Feels Like Rain is out now, everywhere. You can listen to it on several platforms. Please share it with a friend, share it with your social networks, and consider subscribing to the newsletter (below), my YouTube channel, or wherever else you listen to music.

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