Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World
title page for Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World

About the Author

Michael Harris is the author of The End of Absence, which won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and became a national bestseller in Canada. He writes about media, civil liberties and the arts for dozens of publications, including the Washington Post, Wired, Salon and the Globe and Mail. He lives in Vancouver.

About the Book

Solitude is a rapidly vanishing experience. Our society now embraces sharing like never before: time alone is being forced out of our lives by the constant pings of smartphones and prods of social media. But what if being alone still has something to offer us – something we have forgotten, but which we still desperately need?

In Solitude, award-winning author Michael Harris examines why being alone matters now more than ever before. He reflects on the paradoxical feeling of isolation that emerges from being constantly connected – and on how learning the beauty of solitude can help us escape it. After all, it is when we are alone that we realise the greatest truths about ourselves. Being alone – really alone – could be the only antidote to the frenzy of our digital age.

Rich with stories about the transformative power of solitude, and drawing on the research of the world’s leading neuroscientists and behavioural psychologists, Solitude offers a timely and profound exploration of how to be alone – and why it matters for us all.

This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorized distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

Epub ISBN: 9781473535572

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Published by Random House Books 2017

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Copyright © Michael Harris 2017
Cover photograph © Alamy

Michael Harris has asserted his right to be identified as the author of this Work in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

Peter Abelard and Heloise’s letters reprinted by permission of Penguin Books Ltd. From The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, translated by Betty Radice, London: Penguin Books, Copyright © 1974.

‘There is another Loneliness’ reprinted by permission of Harvard University Press. From The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1951, 1955 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © renewed 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © 1914, 1918, 1919, 1924, 1929, 1930, 1932, 1935, 1937, 1942, by Martha Dickinson Bianchi. Copyright © 1952, 1957, 1958, 1963, 1965, by Mary L. Hampson.

Extract from The Circle by Dave Eggers. Copyright © Dave Eggers 2013, used by permission of The Wylie Agency (UK) Limited.

First published by Random House Books in 2017

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A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN 9781847947642 (hardback)
ISBN 9781847947659 (trade paperback)

For David Anderson and Kenny Park

Contents

About the Book
About the Author
Title Page
Dedication
Epigraph
Foreword, by Nicholas Carr
The Dark-Born Magic
Part I: The Uses of Solitude
1 All Together Now
2 What Is Solitude For?
Part II: Bolt from the Blue
3 The Wandering Mind
4 Daydream Destroyers
Part III: Who Do You Think You Are?
5 Style
6 You Have to Taste This
7 Stranger in a Strange Land
8 A Walk in the Wilds
Part IV: Knowing Others
9 Social Stories
10 Love Letters
11 The Failing Body
12 The Cabin in the Woods
Notes
Thanks
Index

There is another Loneliness

—Emily Dickinson

Foreword

Every life has a rhythm. For most creatures on the planet, that rhythm reflects an ongoing negotiation between the body and its surroundings, between being and environment. There’s a time for resting, a time for hunting, a time for courting, a time for hiding. For us humans, though, it’s more complicated than that. Because we have the power to shape our environment, through laws and customs, economic and political systems, and, not least, technologies, we are also able to control the rhythm of our lives.

That, it turns out, is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it frees us from the grip of necessity. We’re able to make choices about how we spend our time. On the other hand, we can, and frequently do, fall into a daily rhythm that ill suits us or runs counter to our best interests. We fill our days with activities that provide fleeting pleasures or momentary conveniences but that leave us feeling anxious or unfulfilled. In the worst cases, we surrender control over the rhythm of our life to others—to bosses or bureaucrats, to marketers or technicians. We end up living according to a rhythm imposed on us rather than one chosen by us. We dance to someone else’s drum.

In this wise and witty book, Michael Harris examines a phenomenon that is altering the rhythm of human life in profound and unsettling ways: the loss of solitude. For more than a century, human life has been getting busier and busier. Media bombard us with messages and diversions. Work time bleeds into leisure time. The social whirl spins ever faster. Until recently, though, there were still moments in the day when the busyness abated and life’s pace decelerated. You would find yourself alone, separated from friends and colleagues, and you would be thrown back on your own resources, your own thoughts. Such interludes could provoke feelings of loneliness and boredom. Yet they also provided opportunities to tap into ideas, perceptions, and emotions inaccessible to the social self.

Now, those moments are being erased. With smartphone in hand, connectivity is continuous. We’re in a crowd even when we’re by ourselves. The chatter never ends; the rhythm never slows. Nonstop networking may feel invigorating, but, as Harris makes clear, we sacrifice much when we’re never alone. Solitude is refreshing. It strengthens memory, sharpens awareness, and spurs creativity. It makes us calmer, more attentive, clearer headed. Most important of all, it relieves the pressure of conformity. It gives us the space we need to discover the deepest sources of passion, enjoyment, and fulfillment in our lives. Being alone frees us to be ourselves—and that makes us better company when we rejoin the crowd.

The art of solitude—the art that, as Harris elegantly puts it, turns “blank days into blank canvases”—is hard to master and easy to squander. Contemporary forces of technology, society, and commerce, beneficial forces in so many ways, conspire not only to diminish our opportunities for solitude but to seduce us into believing that solitude is at best inessential and at worst a waste of time. We should resist those forces. We should remind ourselves that a life without solitude is a diminished life. What makes this book so valuable and so timely is that it serves both as a reminder of solitude’s worth and as a spur to resistance. Read it in peace.

Nicholas Carr, author of several acclaimed books on technology and culture, including Utopia Is Creepy, The Glass Cage, and the Pulitzer Prize–finalist The Shallows.

The Dark-Born Magic

Dr. Edith Bone has decided not to cry.

On this autumn afternoon in 1956, her seven years of solitary confinement have come to a sudden end. Beyond the prison gates, the Hungarian Revolution’s final, scattered shots are echoing down the streets of Budapest. Inside the gates, Dr. Bone emerges through the prison’s front door into the courtyard’s bewildering sunlight. She is sixty-eight years old, stout and arthritic. She steps from the prison’s entrance and blinks at the sky. And then she sees them waiting for her. Those suited, peering men. They are all waiting to see her tears.

Photographers and reporters hoist their barrel lenses and spiral notebooks by the gleaming bus that has come to take her to the British embassy. They watch for the mark of those seven years alone. What scar does such isolation leave on the face? On the hooded eyes? The ordinary result is a descent into madness and crippling depression. But as Dr. Bone steps slowly across the courtyard toward the iron gates, she appears perfectly sane. If anything, she now looks cheerful. The officials and journalists stare. A man from England’s Daily Express scribbles in his notebook, trying his best to dramatize things: he writes that she is limping. Later, in a week or so, he’ll be embarrassed to learn she was simply given the wrong-sized shoes.

Dr. Bone was born in Budapest in 1889 and proved an intelligent—if disobedient—child. She wished to become a lawyer like her father, but this profession was closed to women. Her options were schoolmistress or doctor; she accepted the latter. Toting her great-grandfather’s stethoscope and an ivory-handled Aesculapius stick, she enrolled in the medical faculty at Budapest University in the fall of 1908.

The Great War began soon after her graduation, and so she went to work in a military hospital. Perhaps it was there, seeing the suffering of the poorer classes, that her communist sympathies bloomed: she watched an illiterate Romanian soldier—a shepherd before the war—as he cried at the window for days, cradling a shattered arm and worrying about his lost children. He was only one broken man among many.

After the war, Dr. Bone devoted herself to Party work in England for sixteen years, and it was this foreign connection that would excite the suspicions of authorities when she returned to Communist Budapest in 1949.

Secret police stopped her at the airport on her way back to England; they packed her into their car and soon were driving her past a sheet-iron gate into their headquarters. “Haven’t we conspired well?” joked the driver. “Nobody knows where you are.” Indeed, her friends in England assumed she was staying on in Hungary and her friends in Hungary assumed she’d left for England. Dr. Bone just disappeared.

Inside headquarters, a slim man presented himself, decked in fine clothing and smooth manners. He took her into a little office and told her they knew she was a spy, an agent of the British secret service. “Until you tell us what your instructions were, you will not leave this building.”

Dr. Bone replied: “In that case I shall probably die here, because I am not an agent of the secret service.” She was then informed that her arrest was proof of guilt because the Party did not arrest innocent people.

She was escorted into the basement, and then into a narrow cell barely larger than its iron-framed bed. She could reach up and touch the ceiling. Much to the annoyance of her jailors, Dr. Bone lay herself down and fell immediately into a peaceful sleep. Later, she shivered from the cold and a guard mocked her: “Don’t be afraid.”

“I am not afraid,” she told him.

What followed—her seven years and fifty-nine days of solitary confinement—is the stuff of horror films. She was held in filthy, freezing cells; the walls either dripped with water or were furred with fungus. She was generally half-starved and always isolated except when confronted by guards. Twenty-three ill-trained officers interrogated her with insults and threats—once for a sixty-hour stretch. For one period of six months, she was plunged into total darkness.

And yet her captors received no false confessions, no pleas for mercy; their only bounty was the tally of her insolent replies. It became a kind of recreation for Dr. Bone to annoy the prison authorities on the rare occasions when she saw them.

When she asked for a barber, her guards told her women must have long hair, so she spent three weeks tearing each hair individually until she had the short cut she preferred. In the summer of 1951 she went on a language strike, refusing to speak Hungarian (“their barbaric lingo,” as she called it). She offered instead to speak German, French, Russian, English, or Italian—she was fluent in all five.

But Dr. Bone’s most extraordinary stratagem was not the way she toyed with her captors—it was the way she held sway over her self. The dogged maintenance of her own sanity. From within that enforced void she slowly, steadily, built for herself an interior world that could not be destroyed or stripped from her. She recited poetry, for starters, translating the verses she knew by heart into each of her six languages. Then she began composing her own doggerel poems. One, made up during those six months without light, praised the saving grace of her mind’s “dark-born magic wand.”

Inspired by a prisoner she remembered from a Tolstoy story, Dr. Bone took herself on imaginary walks through all the cities she’d visited: she strolled the streets of Paris and Rome and Florence and Milan; she toured the Tiergarten in Berlin and Mozart’s residence in Vienna. Later, while her feet wore a narrow furrow into the concrete beside her bed, she set out in her mind on a journey home to London. She walked a certain distance each day and kept a mental record of where she’d left off. She made the trip four times, each time stopping when she arrived at the Channel, as it seemed too cold to swim.

The accounting of these distances was too imprecise, though, so Dr. Bone decided she must have an abacus. She moulded bits of stale bread into beads and strung these along pieces of straw, which she stole from the broom that guards handed her when they told her to clean her cell. Now she could make calculations up to a trillion. On her abacus she proceeded to enumerate her vocabulary; she found that she knew 27,369 English words. She went on to tally her German, her French. And then, how many birds could she name (though she may never hear them)? How many trees (though she may never see them)? How many wines (though she may never taste them again)?

She moulded more bread crumbs into letters, four thousand in all, which she kept in twenty-six bread-crafted pigeonholes. This was her printing press of wheat, and she used it to spell out her ideas and her poetry. The guards, when they peered in, frowned and told her she was not normal. And Dr. Bone agreed.

She was given pills for her weakening digestion, and she found these included a green tint that she could use to dye her bread crumbs. And so she crafted miniature branches of holly at Christmastime. For their crimson berries, she bled.

Dr. Bone’s guards were infuriated, but she proved to be proficient in the art of being alone. They cut her off from the world and she exercised that art, choosing peace over madness, consolation over despair, and solitude over imprisonment. Far from being destroyed, Dr. Bone emerged from prison (in her words) “a little wiser and full of hope.”

By chance one day, I read a book that mentioned Dr. Bone in passing—just a line or two. I was amazed her story wasn’t better known and I became determined to learn more. Eventually, I came across her memoir in a rare book collection at York University (Seven Years Solitary was published in 1957, just a year after her release). I found her story remarkable. Her writing was offhand and authentic enough that I imagined I knew her voice—comically stern, and marbled by a youth spent in the Hungary that turned so viciously against her. As I became more familiar with her attitude toward solitary confinement—and her bottomless capacity to endure it—I felt a creeping kind of envy coming over me. I wasn’t envious of her circumstances, of course. But I was envious of her faculties. Was there, I wondered, any part of my world that inspired the accumulation of mental reserves like hers? Or would I always be fleeing the prison of myself—a luxury Dr. Bone was not afforded?

Even the handful of solitary hours it took to read her story were difficult for me to endure. I kept looking up, hoping for interruption from the hushed student librarians in the next room, wondering if a sociable scholar might plop down at the long table where I worked. I fidgeted and felt ashamed as I compared myself to the formidable Dr. Bone.

At last her story was done and I slapped shut the papers and books, wandered out into prickling white afternoon sun. But that uneasiness didn’t dissipate the way I thought it would. As I wove myself into streams of students, as I jostled my way to the crowded café and out onto a packed bus, the problem wouldn’t stop pinging in the back of my head. I wanted more time to myself but always balked when I got it. This was a problem worth tackling. More than that. Dr. Bone’s brilliant mode of being—her confidence in the richness of her own, interior life—was something worth importing to our obsessively connected world.

How to be alone. And why.

There must be an art to it, I thought. A certain practice, or alchemy, that turns loneliness into solitude, blank days into blank canvases. It must be one of those lost arts, like svelte calligraphy or the confident tying of a wedding cravat. A lost little art that, year by year, fades in the bleaching light of the future.

Part I

The Uses of Solitude

I believe I know the only cure, which is to make one’s center of life inside of one’s self, not selfishly or excludingly, but with a kind of unassailable serenity—to decorate one’s inner house so richly that one is content there, glad to welcome anyone who wants to come and stay, but happy all the same when one is inevitably alone.

—Edith Wharton

1

All Together Now

My partner, Kenny, maintains a kind of detached interest in whatever I’m writing. (“Detached” because he knows better than to encourage a writer at the dinner table.) But when I told him Dr. Bone’s story and said I’d like to write something about solitude, he put down his beer and looked at me. “Have you even been alone before? For longer than—I don’t know—a day? Really alone?”

Now my own glass was down and I frowned into middle distance. “I must have been ….” But of course I hadn’t, not really. He suggested, with annoying saneness, that I might want to try it.

I pivoted the conversation, but it was impossible to ignore that a gauntlet had been tossed. My eyes narrowed. Kenny would be away the following week, and I silently pledged to spend a day entirely alone—with neither people nor their digital avatars making any contact.

When the day arrived, however, a text came at 9 a.m., and I checked it as though fulfilling some Pavlovian law. An offer to drink in the park with friends from out of town. Disaster!

I cheated. And then I cheated again. I went to the café. I answered a call from my mom. I went on a jog and stopped to pet a puppy. By bedtime I counted up a dozen interactions in all. I couldn’t even be alone for one day.

I might have the wherewithal to leave the phone at home sometimes, to slightly curb my media gluttony, but real removal from the demands of society? This was a sensation—barely remembered—from childhood, from a time I could go hiking into the woods with my Polaroid camera and forget, for hours, about the existence of other humans.

I had changed—just grown older—and I’d acquired the webs and wires that tie adults to each other. I woke one day to find that those empty spaces had been filled in with nervous worries about the development of my friends’ children, about the happiness of far-flung relatives, about the security of my peers in a precarious economy—and to this was added more selfish worries about my reputation (my sketchy “brand”), which could be bruised at any point by a crude remark online or a gossipy insinuation. In short, I had become enmeshed.

Then again, maybe it was the world that had changed; perhaps it no longer made allowances for solitude in the same way. Or perhaps, more likely, it was a combination of the two forces—my own growing older and the world’s self-tethering to online things. It had all changed, within and without, so that now, in a haze of social anxiety, I woke each morning thinking, “What did I miss?” and went to bed thinking, “What did I say?”

The crowd, that smorgasbord of perpetual connection, left me hungry. In fact, I realized, I’d been hungry for years. But now that hunger was putting me to work. A little reading—and a hero in Dr. Bone—had turned a malaise into a mission. I wanted to become acquainted again with the still night, with my own hapless daydreaming, with the bare self I had (for how long?) been running from. I kept asking myself: why am I so afraid of my own quiet company? This book is the closest I’ve come to an answer.

To be clear: none of what follows is a pining for Thoreau’s old cabin in the woods. I don’t want to run away from the world—I want to rediscover myself within it. I want to know what happens if we again take doses of solitude from inside our crowded days, along our crowded streets.

It’s not so easy. I step outside, intent on a solitary ramble, and I compulsively observe the social exchanges of others. A forlorn teenaged couple coos on the sidewalk, performing their morning farewell; on the nearby grass, a mother plays peekaboo with her eternally delighted infant; a rabbi gets in his Audi while managing someone on the phone; a woman leans out the window of a coffee van and passes a macchiato to her customer, chirping, “Beautiful coffee for a beautiful lady.” Everywhere and anywhere, we groom each other. Indeed, it’s with these soft but persistent offerings that we ensure the survival of our culture and our species.

Living in large groups, we have learned, puts a major tax on any animal’s brain—in particular on its neocortex. In fact, all the markers of social complexity among primates—their group size, grooming cliques, mating strategies, tactical deception, and social play—are strongly correlated with the relative size of that primate’s neocortex. The bigger the neocortex, the more social the primate. The more social the primate, the larger the group they can live in without having that group implode with violence and fractious behaviour.

The data bears this out. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar, in developing his “social brain” theory in the 1990s, found that the relative size of a simian’s neocortex was directly related to how large their groups became: night monkeys and tamarins, for example, have small neocortices relative to their brain size and hang out in numbers less than ten; chimpanzees and baboons have relatively large neocortices and have groups of fifty-plus. Humans, for the vast majority of our history, have hung out in groups of around 150—and we also (no surprise) have the largest proportionate neocortex of any primate. Dunbar argues that our big brains may well have helped us become tool users, but the real advantage was that we became able to increase the size of the communities we live in. More peers means more safety, more strength, more chances to pass on wisdom, and, ultimately, more chances for survival.

Something else Dunbar discovered was that the larger a primate group becomes, the more time it devotes to social grooming. All those affections, frustrations, and aggressions need to be perpetually monitored and managed. Surviving in a large group of primates is a sophisticated bit of work. Depending on group size, the amount of time primates spend grooming each other can reach 20 per cent of a given day.1 Dunbar was struck by the fact that, given our enormous social groups, today’s human animal should be forced to “groom” for enormous portions of each day. So how did we get around Dunbar’s rule? How did we manage to grow our social groups without being forced to spend all our time picking proverbial lice out of each other’s hair?

The answer lies in the game-changing emergence of language, perhaps a hundred thousand years ago. The preverbal primate must lay hands on a friend or foe in order to groom them. A primate that can speak, that can make complex social suggestions beyond raw vocalization, can in effect “groom” several members of his or her social group at once. This is a powerful bit of multiplication. What’s more, a talking ape is not stuck squatting in the weeds while grooming; the talking ape can groom while out on a walk or while foraging for berries. This is a powerful bit of multitasking. The birth of language made grooming highly efficient and viral.2 With language, our ancestors could export complex thoughts from one mind to another, enabling the coordination of hunting and foraging, and eventually farming. With language we could maintain the stability (and thus the rewards) of larger and larger social groups.

And we didn’t stop there. We continued to discover new ways to expand and highlight our social grooming; and so the human animal (toting that mammoth-sized neocortex) was able to live in larger and larger groups while keeping some semblance of structure and safety intact. By this reckoning, every piece of communication technology—from papyrus to the printing press to Pinterest—has hijacked an elemental part of our minds. These technologies, in turn, magnify our ability to groom each other, enabling us to develop enormous cities, and eventually “the global village.” We experience empathy or hatred for humans on the other side of the planet—refugees and terrorists that we’ll never even meet. As I write this sentence there are an estimated 7,401,858,841 living humans, and, for the first time in history, each is potentially connected to all the others; that makes 27,393,757,147,344,002,220 possible connections.fn1 So, as I sit here, alone in my little office—my cell—the world outside buzzes with more than 27 quintillion possible greetings.

This change is, of course, not yet spread uniformly across the planet. As William Gibson said, “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” Indeed, many iPhone junkies are surprised when informed that less than half of the world’s population has access to the Internet. That said, the change comes fast, and neither poverty nor rural isolation will keep populations offline for long: in 2006, 18 per cent of the world was online; by 2009, 25 per cent were; and by 2014, the number had climbed to 41 per cent.3 Such a growth rate is phenomenal. Consider how messaging systems, which dominate this new reality and represent our most direct act of online social grooming, so quickly propagate: WhatsApp, a kingpin of instant message platforms, reached one billion users in 2016.

Aristotle defined humans as social animals and he was only too right. Making sure other people have positive impressions of us is one of our central motivations. And when we use screen-based social media instead of face-to-face interactions to groom each other, we’re able to be more strategic about that self-presentation. For example, when confronted with a Facebook post about someone’s new job, my lovely but nervous friend Jocelyn may write and rewrite her comment for several minutes before finally landing on the tapioca-scale inoffensiveness of “So happy for you!!!” (If she’s feeling crazy, Jocelyn may add a martini glass emoji.) Unsurprisingly, a 2015 study found that, of the roughly 1.5 billion regular Facebook users, usage spikes among those with social anxiety—in particular, those who have a high need for social assurance.4 The technology becomes a salve, a way to calm our worries about fitting in or belonging. And, with astonishing speed, the compulsion to groom online has been absorbed into our idea of the natural: Only 8 per cent of adults in the United States used social networking sites in 2005; that number blew up to 73 per cent by 2013.5 Meanwhile, nearly half of Americans now sleep with their phones on their bedside tables, using them as surrogate teddy bears. To be human is to be social; to be human in the age of screens is to be massively social.

And yet …. In the same way that many people are forced to engineer healthy diets for themselves in a world overflowing with the salts and sugars and fats we’re designed to hoard, it’s possible that we’re such compulsive social groomers that we now must keep ourselves from gobbling the fast-food equivalent. Has social media made us socially obese—gorged on constant connection but never properly nourished?

Has the neocortex—the very thing that made us human, the thing that kickstarted our cities and our politics, our religions and our art—been hijacked one too many times?

When did the online grooming impulse really get scary, though? It’s a parlour game to mark these things, but here’s a shot: 9:49 a.m. on July 14, 2004. That was the moment a fellow logged onto a site devoted to advice about digital video files and launched a new chat forum with the words, “i am lonely will anyone speak to me.” A decade later, Salon crowned the string of commentary that resulted “the saddest thread on the Internet.” But even a few days after the initial posting, anyone who typed “I am lonely” into Google’s search engine was taken there; folks left posts about their own crushing loneliness and earned some small commiseration. It turns out that many people, a couple of glasses of solo Shiraz into the night, will find themselves casting the words “I am lonely” into the Internet’s waters. But what do they expect to reel back? We are all losers and need lives, typed one visitor. It’s as if no one is real anymore, wrote another. Nobody asked about psychiatrists and medication, nor were they searching for a boyfriend or non-smoker housemate. This was, instead, just a digital howl.

It’s not so odd to ask the Internet to solve the problem of human loneliness. I’ve grown accustomed to phrasing Google searches as helpless questions. I might type, “What time is it in Paris?” Or, “How many ounces are in a litre?” These are called oracular searches (as in “ask the oracle”). It’s a simple slip to then submit a more emotional query to such an authority. Why aren’t I happy? Why does nobody love me?

9:49 a.m., July 14, 2004. A dull Wednesday morning. Perhaps that was the moment the online grooming impulse got out of hand. An anonymous guy—let’s call him Eddie—felt lonely and it occurred to him he might turn to the Internet for company. It was easy. And the oracle was inviting. “I am lonely will anyone speak to me.” There was nothing terribly new about Eddie’s desire to bolt from his own company; what was new was the ease, the technology’s soft promise that he never needed to feel lonely again. If the Internet had become a demolisher of solitude, then it wasn’t an uninvited one. We had already learned to be grateful for its little intrusions, its smiling impositions.

By 2020, anywhere from thirty billion to fifty billion objects—cars, toasters, shampoo bottles—will be connected to the Internet; that is triple the number of online things available as of this writing, in 2016.6 Once insensate items in your bedroom, your local park, the airplane toilet, will be sparked with an animating force that would have caused previous generations to marvel. (Certain members of the MIT Media Lab have taken to calling these things “enchanted objects”—which calls up Arthur C. Clarke’s remark that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”) This burgeoning Internet of Everything, wherein disconnection becomes a kind of sin, will rely on ties of constant connection and feedback—a permanent social vibe. Our environments, in other words, will be built less out of bricks and plastic and more out of cloud-based infrastructure.fn2 These digital environments will balk at disconnection, seeing it as a breed of malfunction; the result will be a mental ecosystem that does likewise.

The beginnings of the Internet of Everything are already here. We build it by imbuing our parking meters, power grids, currency, automobiles, documents, pantries, clothing, and jewellery with an online intelligence that was unthinkable twenty years ago. Meanwhile, Google Now prompts me with an endless supply of cheerful, location-specific advice. Amazon’s voice-activated Echo manages household tasks like a cloud-based servant, reordering supplies, maintaining shopping lists, and reading out recipes. Amazon Prime Air is desperate to deliver packages via drones. And self-learning home appliances track the activities of humans, syncing their behaviour in an attempt to make their functionality as invisible as possible. We’re often not aware of our position in this spiral of connections, but we have daily proof (if we look for it) that the bias of our hours has swung away from solitude and toward enmeshment.

Nor is such cyborg glory the domain of human habitats alone. We shall make over the animal kingdom in our image. Some Swiss dairy cows, for instance, send text messages to their farmers via sensors and SIM cards that are implanted in the animals’ necks. These devices can tell when the cows are in heat. The message, more or less, reads: “I am ready to be inseminated.”7 Eat your heart out, Tinder.

I cannot speak for the cows, but humans easily accept the bias toward connecting everything and everyone. As Dunbar’s research made clear, this urge is built into our most basic nature. Of course, we’re not alone in this; many species are social. But humans are one of a select few that qualify as eusocial (eu meaning “true”). It’s a term the great entomologist E. O. Wilson uses to describe a self-sacrificing, multigenerational network of animals. Like the ants that Wilson studies, we humans are super-cooperators. We’re designed to constantly give way to the needs of the larger community. We’re certainly capable of selfishness, too, but it’s astounding how often we set aside our I-minded drive to sacrifice ourselves in service to the military conquests of others; how often we serve at the altar of collective projects as humble as an elementary school choir or as awe-inspiring as the creation of the Large Hadron Collider. To Wilson, the evolution of eusocial culture is “one of the major innovations in the history of life” (up there with the emergence of wings and flowers).8

Those intense social ties then conceal other modes of being: we humans now crowd out solitude at every opportunity. A 2013 survey of nearly 7,500 American smartphone users found that 80 per cent were on their phones within fifteen minutes of waking up.9 The number rises to 89 per cent among eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds (most of whom reach for the phone immediately upon waking). In fact, one out of four respondents could not recall a time in the day when their phone was not in arm’s reach. This is a eusocial commitment if ever there was one. Our extension into massive social networks stretches far beyond practicality; it’s utterly compulsive and compulsory, a phantom umbilical cord. Type “fear of being” into Google and it auto-completes to “fear of being alone.”

Meanwhile, type “fear of being without” and it auto-completes to “fear of being without a cellphone.” Many decry the rise of FOMO—fear of missing out—but, for me, this phrase doesn’t capture the breadth of the anxiety. When I go out walking without my phone for an hour or two, it’s a fear of missing myself, and not the news, that charges my nerves. Like a lover who can see himself only under the lamp of the beloved’s attention, I seem to be always in danger of disappearing when away from the notice of others.

It doesn’t help matters that hits of social grooming via our phones release dopamine in our brains, activating our pleasure/reward system.fn3