Monday, October 21, 2013

making things worse by making them better

On the television last night, a rather dreary psychologist was questioned and addressed the issue of the loneliness that is nourished by the rise of social media like Facebook and Twitter. It is a topic I find interesting -- the solution that promotes the difficulty it promises to avert.

The psychologist had written a number of books on the topic and was clearly capable of displaying and dissecting the facets of the problem at hand -- the electronic connections of voice and text on portable devices that a growing number of people carry everywhere and have increasingly come to rely on as a means of getting the next social fix.

So great is the reliance on these devices and their marvels that face-to-face social connections have been relegated to a social back burner. No one wants to be alone -- ever -- and Facebook and Twitter are the answer. Only of course the hand-held devices that deliver reassurance are as much a living proof of the problem as they are a solution to it: How come I feel so alone when I have so many connections?

The rather dreary psychologist went on and on and on and on, and in one sense, that was her job ... she was being interviewed. People were unschooled in the ability to be alone, she observed, and social media, as they are called, tended to underscore rather than ameliorate that ignorance. And more than that, the lack of schooling in alone-ness had a impact on the ability to actually-factually be together.

On and on and on and on she went. It was intelligent and thoughtful and ... a bit dreary and boring and self-serving. The woman had a horse and she was flogging it. She had written several books, thus buttressing her credentials at the university where she taught, and showed no signs that she was not planning to write another.

On the one hand, the topic interested me. But on the other, she made me wonder how lonely and bereft    she might feel if the topic itself were simply wiped from her memory banks.

There is something to be said for identifying and dissecting a problem. How else could solutions be found? But there is also a problem with problems: At what point do they take on a life of their own and provide a raison d'ĂȘtre that has little or nothing to do with the problem itself and everything to do with a need for reassurance and meaning in this life? Without getting too long-winded, "Who would I be without my worries, concerns or complaints?" When does "there is a problem" become "I want attention ... I don't want to be lonely?"

I guess it's part of growing up or practice if you like: Identify the problem; get a sense of its highways and byways, its facets and subphyla; gather what assets are available ... and then act. And if, as is often the case is wider confusions (politics, war, or social conundrums, eg.) there is nothing significant that can be done, then do what you can and learn to shoulder the responsibility for your own insignificance ... which is not the same as playing the lie-down-and-take-it passive card, but rather a recognition of the facts on the ground: Do what you can, but do -- don't make a profession or claim a place at the social table simply according to how persuasively you can whine.

Why? Because, like Facebook and Twitter, it is too much like solving a problem by exacerbating it.

Do what you can ... but do.

And if you can't do, well, wash the dishes.


  1. That's an interesting take on the matter. Was it Sherry Turkle? I read (half of) her book and tend to agree with her. But I see what you mean about the slippery slope toward becoming a professional hand-wringer.

    You say that one should act; does her writing and talking not count as acting? Maybe she's in the best position to do something by writing a book that will reach people and promote a change. I don't know if it has helped, though.

    Personally, I agreed with Clifford Stoll 15 years ago when he was being contriarian about the rise of the new-fangled internet, particularly the problems it would cause when forced into schools. He was too ahead of the time to become rich off of that view -- nowadays it's fashionable to hate our addictions while remaining addicted!

  2. Dave -- I agree with much of your take and agree that perhaps writing a book may in fact be DOING something. I was just interested in the possible segue into a professional ain't-it-awful lifestyle ... one I am all too capable of exercising when surveying my government and its various wars from which I would like to distance myself even though that is impossible.

  3. Considering you're retired, you have the luxury of being an amateur "ain't it awful" purveyor -- one who does it for the love of it. Others still gotta make a living, right?

    On a recent trip through Vermont, I happened to drop into a bookstore during a weekly book club meeting, the topic being related to the Vietnam war or LBJ's scheming. There was something perfectly predictable about seeing a group of aged, mild-mannered Vermonters sitting around a table outraging about awful things the government did 50 years ago. They share kinship with people the world over, from tea parties to water coolers to Occupations.

    I wish I could drum up a career in the "ain't it awful" business, but when I come down to it, the feeling is despair more than anger, and sadness don't pay a day's wages.

  4. Despair and then despair that despair doesn't put spaghetti on the table! Why oh why aren't THEY listening to ME?!

  5. The famous scientist said "it's turtles all the way down."

    I don't know why they don't listen to YOU, but if they listened to ME, it'd be ziti, not spaghetti!

  6. ... and I'll bet you extend your pinkie when sipping espresso! :p