Friday, April 27, 2012

Loneliness vs Solitude

Following last week's post about 'being alone together,' I ran across the May edition of The Atlantic; its cover story: 'Is Facebook making us lonely?'  Turns out, it isn't, but this is an interesting read about trends toward alienation, even as we are more connected. In sum, 'Loneliness is certainly not something that Facebook or Twitter or any of the lesser forms of social media is doing to us.  We are doing it to ourselves.  Casting technology as some vague, impersonal spirit of history forcing our action is a weak excuse.  We make decisions about about how we use our machines, not the other way around.' (p. 68)

What does it mean to be 'alone.'

In his New York Times Best Seller, Hamlet's BlackBerry, William Powers draws the distinction made by philosopher Paul Tillich between loneliness and solitude. Powers writes, "the word 'loneliness' exists to to express 'the pain of being alone,' while 'solitude' expresses 'the glory of being alone.' When we think of our greatest learning, our deepest connection with who we are, we recognize that along with elements of loneliness, we may have experienced the great 'glory' of solitude with our own self.  This reminds me of a dear friend and personal mentor, who kayaked from Washington state to Alaska alone, as he says, 'to find out if he liked the person he was traveling with.' 

The irony of new forms of self-expression is the constant tendency toward conformity.  Powers puts it well. 'Society is constantly throwing up obstacles (to solitude), telling us that we're worthless without the crowd, that everything is riding on its approval. In a country built on ideals of individual freedom and autonomy, one might think such messages wouldn't get much traction.  But freedom can be a heavy burden, and in a certain sense, the more we're responsible for managing our own destinies, the more appealing conformity becomes.' (p. 42)

I like Powers' book a lot and highly recommend it. In fact, it was the book I intended to write during my sabbatical. I proposed writing a 'practical philosophy for a connected world,' which is precisely what Hamlet's BlackBerry is.  I discovered his book about 3 months before leaving for Cambridge. Bummer!  But, better to find it before attempting to do a better job than he has done.  Besides, now I can spend more time on my blog. ;-)

For a great video on the subject of solitude vs being out there with the crowds, see Susan Cain's TED Talk on 'The Power of Introverts.'

Friday, April 20, 2012

'Connected, but alone?'

Sherry Turkle's recent TED Talk, entitled, 'Connected, but alone?' is well worth watching (and would add a point-scoring gee whiz factor to a class presentation).  Turkle has written several books on human-computer interaction, mostly of geeks (i.e., Life on the Screen).  She is generally neutral or upbeat about technology's role in society.  However, her latest book, Alone Together, is a somewhat frightening look at the state of human-computer relationships, wherein some of us expect more intimacy from our connective devices (screens) than we do from each other.  'Those little devices not only change what we do, but also who we are.' In her view, we are 'heading for trouble.'

In her TED talk, the M.I.T. professor suggests several drivers of the over-use of technologies (hyper-connectivity) that 'is taking us places that we don't want to go.'  First, she notes that many of us want to control the amount of attention we give to those around us, so that we can also give part of our attention to things and others elsewhere.  A room full of people texting or emailing is a situation of being 'alone together.' Second, she suggests that our near-constant media use reduces our ability to reflect upon--and therefore learn--from experience.  Third, in mediated space, we get to revise and 'clean up' our projected image to others, thereby avoiding the messiness of real-time conversation required for relationship building. Moreover, since conversations with others help develop our self-understanding, a loss of conversation brings the threat of alienation from others and ourselves.

Turkle identifies 3 myths of connectivity.

1. We can put our attention wherever we want to.
2. We will always be heard.
3. We never have to be alone.

She summarizes that, 'we slip into thinking that always being connected means we never have to be alone.' Ironically, even as the world becomes more and more inter-connected, each of us must still learn how to be alone in order to be capable of true, deep and meaningful human-to-human relationships.

FYA - I agree with Professor Turkle's assessment that gaining the 'attention' of others (often on-line), while avoiding the attention of others (often those in the same room) will be a challenge, not only for families, but also for organizations in the future.  Information is cheap, but attention is precious and fleeting.

Note: I recognize the irony in my new blog title.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Engaged, or just connected?

In his recent Harvard Business Review blogNdubuisi Ekekwe has taken up the discussion of when, where and how much connectivity makes sense in terms of productivity and personal well being.

As in any good debate, there is a natural, back-and-forth, on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand quality to the blog posts, i.e., we need to serve our customers in a globalized economy, but we also need to have a life.

Judi MacCormick, Kristine Dery and I have an article in press (see 'Engaged, or just connected?' forthcoming in Organization Dynamics) that identifies three types of smartphone user, namely 'hypo-connectors,' 'dynamic connectors,' and 'hyper-connectors.'

A typology of smartphone users provides a good starting point for understanding variations in smartphone (connectivity) behaviors.  Of course, we need to understand more about what makes one person a 'hypo-connector' and another person 'hyper-connector,' whether 'dynamic connectors' have better work-life balance, etc.?

Darl Kolb
Cambridge, UK

Key words: connectivity, HBR, Judith MacCormick, engaged or just connected