The story of the contemporary rock diva, Lady Gaga, who literally could not stand to be alone, is a philosophical fable for our times. A few years back, according to claims in a legal action filed by the rocker’s former personal assistant, who sued for overtime pay, the singer could not tolerate being in her bed alone. The assistant was required to be with her boss 24 hours a day (including sleeping with her), yet was not paid for the extra hours. What is going on?
A Globalised World Specialising in the torture of Sleep Deprivation
No aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation, according to Professor Matthew Walker, director of the Centre for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley.
“It sinks down into every possible nook and cranny. And yet no one is doing anything about it. Things have to change: in the workplace and our communities, our homes and families”. It’s not just margaret Thatcher who suffered from lack of sleep, you do yourself…
In the book ‘24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep’, Jonathan Crary argues that the expanding non-stop communication technology of twenty-first-century capitalism is ruining individual attentiveness and impairing perception. The 24/7 marketplace is endlessly pushing us into constant activity, damaging the fabric of everyday life.
Humans are endlessly diverted and distracted by the images, demands and noises of ubiquitous technology, including mobile phones and other electronic devices. There is never any peace.
Doctor Frank Lipman, who treats conditions of stress and fatigue, has noted that: “feeling spent is an understandable response to the 21st century. If you put a human being in a modern city, and add computers, mobile phones, credit cards, neon lights and 24-hour shopping…what do you expect?”.
The ‘Wired Life’- or the Death of Solitude
But the modern condition engenders more than just the death of sleep, chronic fatigue, and pointless frenetecism. This famous saying of the philosopher Blaise Pascal has never been more relevant to the contemporary world – yet never more violated.
“Our unhappiness arises from one thing only, that we cannot be comfortably alone in our room…That is why the pleasure of solitude is seen as so incomprehensible”.
The Wired Life of hyper-capitalism and its world-wide-web – think of a massive spider’s ‘web’ in which we are all entangled – is designed to be intrusive and overweaning. To want solitude is to be an oddity.
Experiments summarised in the journal Physiology & Behaviour suggest that, given a choice of physical pain or isolation, social mammals will choose the former. Capuchin monkeys starved of both food and contact for 22 hours will rejoin their companions before eating. Children who experience emotional neglect, according to some findings, suffer worse mental health consequences than children suffering both emotional neglect and physical abuse:
Though he wrote his short story ‘The Pedestrian’ in the era of Big Box TV pre-cable, pre-streaming media, Ray Bradbury grasped the effect of emerging electronic communication, which tended to undermine both the right of – and desire for – privacy. The pedestrian Lawrence Mead is out walking alone:
“And on his way he would see the cottages and homes with their dark windows, and it was not unequal to walking through a graveyard, because only the faintest glimmers of firefly light appeared in flickers behind the windows… In ten years of walking by night or day, for thousands of miles, he had never met another person walking, not one in all that time”.
Shortly thereafter Mead is arrested by a robotic police car and taken to a psychiatric institute for treatment for regressive behaviour, that is, seeking solitude in a world saturated by media. Unlike the rock star who cannot sleep alone, the Pedestrian wants to walk alone but a technocratic world won’t leave him alone.
Non-stop video games, omnipresent online streaming, iPhones, social media, multiple cable channels, all conspire to make humans into Outer-Directed Machines always looking to be attached to the Wired World for their amusements. Montaigne in his essay, ‘Of Solitude’ said:
“We must reserve a backshop, wholly our own and entirely free, wherein to settle our true liberty, our principal solitude and retreat. And in this we must for the most part entertain ourselves with ourselves, and so privately that no exotic knowledge or communication be admitted there”.
The reference to finding solitude away from “exotic knowledge or communication” – a harbinger of the WWW – is a battle cry for those seeking to liberate themselves from the endless distractions of a 24/7 Interconnected Info-World.
The philosopher Arnold Schopenhauer assailed those who constantly seek happiness through external stimulations (food, entertainments, games, wealth, etc). Such a life “cannot protect a man from being bored”, Schopenhauer cautioned.
The rock singer could not be alone because she no longer had the capacity to entertain herself with herself. The ability to be comfortably alone in her room was beyond her. She is a contemporary casualty of the age-old War against Solitude.
George Monbiot, who believes capitalism has inspired a generation of loneliness, has written: “Of all the fantasies human beings entertain, the idea that we can go it alone is the most absurd and perhaps the most dangerous”. He and Gaga are only half right: we should relish company but thrive too, because it is sometimes inevitable, on solitude.