Why is being alone social defeat?

Where are they now, those brave little books released into the community on Saturday – World Book Day – sometimes delivered by the very hand that wrote them? Many, I fear, will already be languishing under coffee cups, blocking draughts from windows, or gathering dust on a shelf, serving a strictly ornamental purpose.

The good-hearted people who were giving away books in the hope of winning new converts to literature were unfortunately not able to provide those other essential ingredients that reading requires: time and a modicum of solitude. Leisure now demands as much effort as work. It is easier to be swept along on the babbling torrent of busy, interactive, chatty modern life than to allow oneself the time to read a book, to listen to music, or even to think.

So addicted to movement and noise have we become that not being in company has become a source of embarrassment, associated with social defeat. A survey has just been published which reveals that, of 5,000 people questioned, more than one in four admitted to lying regularly about what they have done over the weekend. Most claimed to have gone out with friends on a Saturday night, while others pathetically invented dinner parties or claimed to have gone for a weekend break.

“It’s the horrible feeling that everyone else is having a better time than us, going away, partying or having fun,” a Professor of Stating-the-Bleeding-Obvious Studies has concluded, without asking why staying at home should be associated with dullness and boredom. The compulsion to surround oneself with company – almost any company – is a powerful modern addiction.

The great eroder of tranquillity has been the computer. Life may be easier thanks to the new technology, but the old idea that it would be a labour-saving device which would herald a golden age of leisure has turned out to be a joke in poor taste. It is work which has been liberated, and it follows us around wherever we are.

Leisure itself has become more frenetic and competitive. The computerisation of our social life means friendship has been ratcheted up into a numbers game. Quantity is all: the number of friends or followers you have, whether you are liked or unliked, favourited or unfavourited.

The restless busyness of the internet has infected every aspect of our lives. According to the American psychiatrist Dr Elias Aboujade, whose new book Virtually You adds to the growing body of evidence pointing to the neurological harm which computers can cause, those who spend a significant time online will develop an alternative personality, which is an extreme, unattractive version of their real selves – more e-abusive, more e-sexually perverse, more e-quarrelsome and e-bullying. Not only does it unleash our worst mob instincts, it allows us to remain anonymous. Aboujade argues that this dysfunctional online persona soon infects the real world.

The buzz of communication and interaction is addictive. One in five people now eat their dinners in front of computers, according to yet another depressing survey. Even when we are eating, we have to remain in touch, to be dementedly multi-tasking.

Who could be surprised that people have begun to feel ashamed about staying in, that they lie about what they do over the weekend? Not to be busy is not to be truly alive. Silence has become the enemy. Even in the debate that surrounds libraries, there is a school of opinion that these institutions should be about vibrancy and social interaction. The act of reading in an atmosphere of quiet is now eccentric, old-fashioned, out of touch with the real world.

In the noise and hectic forward movement of modern life, something quiet, personal and important is danger of being drowned out.

Independent, Tuesday, 8 March 2011