Cellular solitude

You are reading these words on a screen. They come to you as information from a vast network of computers. Most likely, you were linked here via social media or email. Such a path to written word would have been unthinkable to people a hundred years ago, and the capability of the internet to enter and alter people’s lives is incredible. Without it, my work as a writer would be much harder. And there’s no question that I’m as intractably stuck in the world of the internet as anybody else. But as people who are both on and offline, we must find ways to negotiate technology and ridgelines in a life that spans both.

A foggy wander around the Hanging Gardens with my grandparents and mom a few weeks back.

Recently, I finished The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, a 2011 book by Nicholas Carr. Covering the important shift in brain function that results from way we interact on the internet, it should be essential reading for nearly everyone. Societal transition from books or newspapers to screens has done more than just simplified and shortened our access to content. The new format, with its hyperlinks and flashing advertisements, changes the way that our brains process information. Instead of the blank margins of a book, where the words are the focus, I know that I’ve felt the restless distraction posed by interacting and reading on the net. In some ways, this blog is part of that noisy wave. Carr summarizes this eloquently:

“And so we ask the Internet to keep interrupting us, in ever more and different ways. We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive. Tuning out is not an option many of us would consider.”

Speaking about the Twitter discussions of live events, Carr states, “Even the experiences we have in the real world are coming to be mediated by networked computers.”

Myke Hermsmeyer hightails it down the diagonal above Lunch Creek a week ago.

Tuning out. As I read, I thought hard about what it means to tune out, to become involved in activities that have nothing to do with electronics or the myriad ways they’ve come to constitute our lives. The feeling crept up that Carr is writing from the standpoint of someone who often can’t escape the things we’ve done to ourselves. Which would be the case for me–but I’ve got a serious habit of doing things that don’t occur in cell service. The blank margins of a book, that entirety of focus and deep concentration on task at hand, these are the feelings that come with being beyond the reach of text messages, email, social media. Solitude is not just getting away from people. It’s also a retreat also the maelstrom of technology that comes with us.

Tara Oster takes in the views at Stahl Peak Lookout last week.

In the centuries after the creation of the printing press, the naturally distracted state of the human brain experienced a new phenomenon. Carr writes, “To read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought, one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to single, stated object…they had to train their brains to ignore everything else going on around them”.

My time in the mountains is, for me, that concentration. When focused on the next turn in a chute or balancing to make the next clip while climbing, the wealth of distractions quiets. Nothing else is there but the moment. And I’m convinced that in the same way that books provide that depth of distraction, the outdoors free from screens and cell service are a wilderness essential to our survival.

Taylor Streit makes his first tuns of the season yesterday on Logan Pass.

Deep thought isn’t a luxury. Time to think should be a part of everyone’s life, whether they get it in conversation in a coffee shop or being battered by groppel high on a peak. Perhaps the photos between these blocks of text seem like a distraction. Instead, view them as the real point: as outdoors people, we need our solitude more than ever. There’s much to gain by what we can access with our technology. It shouldn’t supplant our ability to think, though. It can’t replicate the joy of sweating hard to achieve something physically difficult. In its frenzy, it won’t allow us the ability to retreat. So shut off your screen, turn off the nonsense, and go play for every reason you already know.

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One thought on “Cellular solitude

  1. A Thought
    The big picture: who are we, what is our total environment, where did we come from, where are we, and where are we going, will forever evade us when we only look outside for answers. The world of technology tries to steer us outside. The world of reflection, of meditation, of prayer offers us an inside look. The two together, carefully woven (or perhaps more often combined by happenstance) give us a far more usable set of answers that help us construct that big picture, an essential understanding. Many of us can live without the benefit of technology, though we temper that statement with considerable choice quibbling: most of what mankind has done to feed, clothe, shelter, protect, nurture, and provide new and meaningful experiences for themselves involves technology.

    The Navajo knew hundreds of years ago that the monolithic granite structures in SE Utah/NE Arizona were harmful/dangerous (radioactive) because of the ill effects on their sheep. Yet, some modern Navajo ignore this ancient knowledge and live close to these structures, and bemoan the cancers and other maladies that plague them. So too does research tell us of the cell phone and the radiation around it. We ignore that knowledge, sometimes in ignorance, sometimes in arrogance, and wonder at the increase in breast cancers of women who keep their cell phones in their bras and of uterine cancers when they keep their cell phones in their pockets. Men wonder about the increase of testicular cancers and prostate cancers when they keep their cell phones in their pockets. And for some, the addiction is just so pervasive.

    Isaac Asimov asked teachers’ conference participants years ago in Portland to consider the difference between the writing their students penned by hand versus that which they keyboarded. He preferred the hand-written for a number of reasons, despite the majority of participants saying they preferred the computer-assisted writing. And we have parents, who, when their young children bring home a neat computer-assisted colored drawing, as opposed to that of a hand-sketched and colored drawing, preferred the “nice neat one.” Growth is messy.

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