by William Smook

In praise of social isolation and the sea

Big on social media? For some perspective, get out where you’re small and salty.

social interaction.jpg

Pictures paint a thousand words and cartoons – especially good ones – can tell a whole lot more than that. So it’s a pity that those pesky copyright rules mean I can’t show you one here: it’s a series of very simple line-drawings showing people talking and a timeline of concerns over technology wrecking humans’ communications skills. It goes like this:

•             1840: the modern bookworm is too busy reading about the world to look at it;

•             1880: no-one talks anymore. We take our daily papers in silence;

•             1910: the magazine is destroying conversation. We even read as we walk!

•             1960: television has put an end to family discussion;

•             1980: thanks to the Sony WalkMan, antisocial isolation is the norm;

•             2015: we’ve become too absorbed in our headphones to notice...,” interrupted by: “Dude, it’s been two centuries; take a hint.”

This progression from books, through magazines to personal electronic devices is certainly crimping our attention-spans and arguably reducing the time we spend face-to-face. But under the right circumstances a bit of social isolation can be splendid.

Just one such circumstance is the upcoming festive season: tragically, we still buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have when we hear audible-wallpaper Christmas songs. This tawdry, execrable din makes my fillings hurt and it’s a human-rights infringement, which is why headphones are so handy. Tom Waits insulates me from Celine Dion and Mariah Carey.

Why tune out? First, reducing our social interaction may concentrate it, in the same way that bourbon is best when not sullied with cola.

We’re in an era where complex issues can be reduced to a hashtag and a blizzard of outrage, free of nuance or analysis. We mistake being scandalised for activism, mistake noise for action and mistake slogans for solutions.

Michael Skapinker writes in the Financial Times that, “The pace of online comment and criticism means the memory of misdeeds quickly fades.”  In other words we’re so quick to react with our outrage that we reduce our capacity to address that which outrages us.

Skapinker notes that the lethal faults with Toyota’s braking systems have had little effect on the company’s performance over time and he suggests that Volkswagen’s disgrace over lying about its vehicles’ emissions will pass. It’s a cynical view, but it points to the futility of online outrage for its own sake.

For every #FeesMustFall that achieves something significant, there are a thousand blips and squeaks that simply distract. Evil succeeds when good men do nothing, but simply banging a couple of tin frying-pans on Twitter doesn’t constitute doing something.

Solitude starts to appeal when your phone goes “boing” with every new notification and when you spend a lot of time on Twitter muting promoted Tweets. You can get lost (no, I don’t mean it like that. Come back!) in the Karoo, but to me, the ocean is the last wilderness, and still the greatest. You can take your phone with you in or on the water, even with waterproof headphones, but why would you?

The sea is a great leveller, literally. You may be a Fortune 500 CEO, or command a fleet of blue-light Beamers, or be able to trounce all comers at Black Ops Whatever, but a single wave can upend you and humble you. It’s an egalitarian, salty snotklap that reminds you of your mortality, of your fragility and of all the places where grains of sand can go, irrespective of your social status or who likes you on Facebook.

Hunter S Thompson said, “Civilization ends at the waterline. Beyond that, we all enter the food chain, and not always right at the top.” We need these primal spaces where no stupid, “Now That’s What I Call A Celebration In Crass Commercialism” CD has ever gone.

These holidays, take a break from genuflecting to Our Lady of Perpetual Narcissism on social media, from feeding the overreaction, catastrophisation, “celebrities”, “media personalities” and “public figures”. Find solitude, someplace where you’re tiny.

William Smook is with Meropa Communications in Cape Town. He doesn’t surf enough

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