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Using the Internet to find empathy in solitude

by Alex in | | |

Twitter is outsourced schizophrenia. I have a couple hundred voices I have consensually  agreed to allow residence inside my brain.

So writes Adam Brault in a very thoughtful blog post, I quit Twitter for a month and it completely changed my thinking about mostly everything. Just when I think that I have read as many blog posts about digital fasts as I need to in this lifetime, along comes a deeply reflective piece like Adam’s to make me once again evaluate the merits of taking a break from one or more online activities.

Adam’s key point is that by engaging us with people we care about through a constant stream of updates, Twitter subjects us to recurring distractions that preclude sustained thought. As Adam writes:

I used to believe that time was the most important thing I have, but I’ve come to believe differently. The single most valuable resource I have is uninterrupted thought.

That’s how everything I’ve ever felt was meaningful about my entire life came to be—either people I’ve come to know, things I’ve learned, or stuff I’ve created.

I’ve realized how Twitter has made me break up my thoughts into tiny, incomplete, pieces—lots of hanging ideas, lots of incomplete relationships, punctuated by all manner of hanging threads and half-forked paths. I am perfectly fine with unfinished work—in fact, I doubt I’ll ever be a better finisher than I am a starter. But I’ve found that my greatest joy, deepest peace, and most valuable contributions come from intentionally choosing where to let my focus rest.

I couldn’t agree more with his focus on focus, but what is really interesting is the way he struggles with the tension between focus and empathy:

Empathy is, in one sense, the mental capacity to run a (poor) simulation of someone else’s thoughts and feelings inside our own head….From my experience, Twitter taps into this same mental capacity very well….But the problem that occurs is that it can be a huge mental lease we’re signing when we invite a few hundred people into our Twitter life…Mentally, we just aren’t capable of simultaneously empathizing with hundreds of people—let alone thousands or millions. The result is we either build up a calloused, jaded, or cynical defense against empathy or find a way to block out more.

This is an argument  that gets us way beyond the now-tired argument that the Internet makes us distracted and disconnected. Brault is arguing that it’s precisely because the Internet is so good at fostering real, meaningful connections that distraction becomes a problem. We’re not distracted by meaningless noise: we’re distracted by meaningful engagement.

But distracted from what? In Brault’s case, it’s distraction from projects that require sustained attention, like writing or any form of creative output. Goodness knows, it’s a problem I can relate to, since I never tweet more than on the days when I’m doing focused writing, but find myself continually hitting the mental refresh button by popping into HootSuite.

There’s a more intriguing possibility here, however. What if our model of focus — and especially, our model of focused creativity — doesn’t have to revolve around the solitary artist in his garret? After all, a garret isn’t so different from a fortress, or an ivory tower, or any of the other lonely-buildings-turned-metaphor, all of which are used to describe the state in which someone cuts off from the world — cuts off from people — in order to do their own thinking, writing or creating.

The Internet allows us a new model of solitary focus: one in which we are both alone and with others; both focused and engaged. Perhaps it’s precisely that unceasing engagement — that unceasing renewal of empathy — that will let solitary creatives create in new ways. I can’t wait to read the novel, hear the song or revel in the painting that emerges from a dual immersion in solitude and empathy.

First posted on December 12,2012
  • Jodie T

    Love this idea train…

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