Essay published in the Inkling Annual 2013/14.


As if the earth in one unlooked-for favour
Had made them certain earth returned their love.

[1. Robert Frost, ‘Two Look at Two’]

In the Robert Frost poem, two look at two; but I was alone when I saw the deer. She paused at the side of the road, and we looked at one another with the nervous energy of strangers in a strange land. Only, she’s local. Her gaze was direct; the intensity made me blush a little. Or perhaps, in the midst of this potentially transcendent communion with nature, I blushed at the contents of my backpack. I only saw the deer because I was sneaking to a neighbour’s house to pick up some Wi-Fi.

Deer sightings are not so unusual on the shores of Lake Pend Oreille, the picturesque area of the Idaho Panhandle that I’ve called home this fortnight. Some context: we are staying with my boyfriend’s uncle and aunt, at the close of several weeks of travel in the U.S. They have a dog, a sit-down lawnmower, several methods of attack for destroying the insect population, and no internet. There’s been some talk of Dial-up, but that’s worse than nothing.

And it has been wonderful, truly. It is beautiful here, and quiet enough that I can hear myself think – but perhaps that is what makes me uneasy at the same time. I’m hardly isolated – I have curious neighbours, fauna and lawn-mower owners both – and thus can enjoy the quietude without feeling lonely, mopey. Or can I? On a Google browser that cannot connect, the bearer of bad news is a pixelated dinosaur. The loss of one’s online extensions is akin to a loss of limbs, they say; a T-Rex, with its useless little arms, might be a close enough approximation.

Connectivity is a right; its lack, a loss. The United Nations confirms this: in 2012, all 47 members of the Human Rights Council signed off on freedom of expression online and access to the web as a basic human right. And, as the new connectivity redefines humanity’s basic precepts, so too does it work to redefine previously held notions on the benefits of disconnection. True isolation, in an increasingly crowded world, is ever more difficult to achieve. So, it becomes desirable.

There is a great tradition of self-imposed isolation as a necessary means to artistic self-discovery. As with anything of a serious nature, to write seriously has always been linked to self-discipline. You work on your masterwork that will then go out into the world; you do not, as it were, work on it in the world. Kate Zambreno describes those solitary men of literary greatness – Nietzsche, Flaubert, Eliot – and their obsessive processes, solo. “And lines built upon lines. That is how one writes. Slowness. Wait. And in the isolation of that room, a belief in oneself that could be construed as monstrous.” [2. Kate Zambreno’s Heroines, which I cannot recommend more.]

The internet, in all its open, info-saturated sovereignty, closes in on these rooms we might call our own. It is an invasion as much as an opening out. Like a well-meaning Mom who simply wishes to discuss plans for dinner, our browsers play host to digressions both necessary and disruptive. Writers, a single-minded bunch whatever their era, have always sought respite from distracting influence: the city, their lovers and, today, web connectivity. We talk now more than ever of a desire to return to “off the grid” living, with revelations of Obama reading our emails (etc.) prompting media coverage on “digital detoxing” alongside the usual juice diets. Throughout my North Idaho jaunt I am haunted by a sense that I really ought to finish reading Walden (65% on my Kindle since sometime last year, natch). It is Thoreau, after all, who originally set the bar high for simple living in nature. He moved into a single-room cabin on Walden Pond in the spring of 1845, declaring his independence and staying there for two years. Prompting all kinds of reflections on materialism, progress and spiritual awakening, Thoreau’s little cabin became the metaphorical homestead of each subsequent generation’s desire to simplify their life. As Updike puts it in 2004, “in a time of informational overload…the urge to build a cabin in the woods and thus reform, simplify and cleanse one’s life…remains strong.” [3. Updike wrote a Guardian article on Walden in 2004]

So what are the cabins at our disposal today? In the age of the app store, Walden’s shack has become a toolshed. Productivity tools garner an entire genre of application, designed to accelerate the creative process by saving us time and saving us from ourselves. Turns out that to switch off and walk away – well, it’s the hardest thing to do. One such app, SelfControl, with its oddly menacing logo a skull and crossbones, allows you to block yourself from sites of your choice (and its a personal saviour, make no bones about it). These apps cash in on our human fallibility – our distraction-in/action – and, what is more, they’re on the rise: the genre grew by 149% in usage in 2013. [4.] “Distraction” derives from the Latin for pulling asunder; in potentially infinite hyperlinked space, it becomes a pulling under.

These tools represent coping mechanisms in the face of information overload, and are testament to the long-held view that self-discipline is key to efficient creative production. The Hemingway app neatly bridges these early 20th and early 21st worlds: inspired by the writer’s famously economical style, it analyses text and promises to make your writing ‘bold and clear.’ The app picks up on adverbs, the passive voice and other complicated words, suggesting their removal with all the brusqueness of the man himself. Such tools, performing isolations in order to foster creativity, teach us something about today’s widespread desire for old-fashioned creative environments.

But what about the coping mechanisms of the individual who has had isolations performed on him or her? Studies of solo explorers and prisoners of war have each linked a lack of stimulation with imaginative thought, but with very different results. For those voluntarily deprived of human stimulation, the landscape serves as an effective substitute, drawing them out of themselves and into the beauty of their surroundings – an equally Thoreauvian incline for the mountaineer as for the landscape painter. For those involuntarily subjected to solitary confinement, however, the brain’s power to imagine becomes a threat.

In the 1950s, a series of government-funded experiments at McGill University still offer the clearest and most unsettling proof of the darker side of isolating the mind. Donald Hebb’s sensory deprivation experiments, intended to study the effects that solitary confinement would have on the brain, placed paid volunteers in soundproof cubicles without human contact. [5. The paper was published in Scientific American under the title ‘The Pathology of Boredom”, but I received most of this information from an informative BBC Futures article] Touch, smell, sight and sound were kept to a minimum. The results were alarming: acute restlessness, anxiety and, most disturbing of all, lifelike hallucinations. The brain, initially content with lines and dots, eventually evolved bizarre, multi-sensory scenes such as a procession of eyeglasses and an army of sack-carrying squirrels. True isolation, then, triggers particular cognitive effects that are representative of invention in the extreme. Our brains, used to dealing with large quantities of environmental information, will react to a dearth of such cues by constructing its own reality. What it builds, in the end, is a fantasy world that shakes our sense of ‘realness’ to its core.

So out of extreme isolation comes creativity at the edge: the warped mind is a powerful creator. As with most things (cf. boozing, snoozing) isolation in moderation can be considered beneficial in the same way it always has been. Really, it all boils down to self-discipline, in which the self is key: personal quarantines are key to the elusive “creative process”, not those dictated by others and their machines. But to put aside pre-app Hemingway for a second, writers working today often fully engage with/in the hyper-stimulative and hyper-simulative realm of the digital. Take Tao Lin, he of the wry web presence, crude hamster drawings and semi-autobiographical literature. In 2013’s Taipei, his character-couples are constantly “working on things”, separately but together: on the brink of something, on the brink of bed sheets. Protagonist Paul, about to embark on a book tour for his second novel, describes an “interim period”, thus:

“Until then he would calmly focus on being productive in a low-level manner, finding to-do lists and unfinished projects in his Gmail account and further organizing, working on, or deleting them, for example.”

Aside from doomed relationships, drug use and “America now”, Taipei is surely an ode to being busy doing nothing much. Lin has commented that the novel could be called ‘Macbook Pro’, and the ebbs and flows of opened MacBooks and aborted emails he describes are all too familiar. And it does flow. The computer activity depicted in Taipei is a far cry from “hyper stimulation” in its sleepy patterns – just as the prescription drug use, depicting neither pleasure nor self-transformation, enact a convoluted logic that is far from “creative” in the traditional sense.

The question, still, is how we filter our cumulative “working on things” to “working on thing.” Paul manages it in Taipei – he has written two novels! – as does his creator, Lin. I suspect that the answer doesn’t lie in isolation from the web altogether. In the unfamiliar, Walden pond-lite world I have found myself in this week, I have felt disconnected from my online environment, but also with my immediate environment. The water is wide and still, low-settling fog condensates my morning views, and mountain peaks provide their peninsular frame. It’s nice. However, these are not the creative stimuli for me. Apart from anything else, I feel quite lonely.

But the budding writer must – always, necessarily – be alone, right? Working IN themselves, FOR themselves. And yet I pine not only for the omniscience of an internet connection, but for its felt patterns of use also: its with as well as its in. To create online and within its regions is to feel a connect with other creators. The psychological mechanisms behind our urge to click, hit refresh, or scroll endlessly demonstrate the all-too human desire for intermittent reinforcement. This is the self-deprecating tweet that gets a couple of ‘favourites’, or the blog post linked to by a person you have never met. As in the real world, the web is still a world in which we only sometimes get what we want – but it is the nature of that reward rate, intermittent and intangible, that spurs us further to action. [6. Intermittent reinforcement, a behavioural trait first noticed in pigeons, has been used to explain everything from gambling addiction to multiple abusive relationships.]

Online, there is creation, but also recreation – patterns of “via”, “retweeting”, “sharing” and “liking”, a chaotic collage of connection. For the budding writer, conditioned to these patterns, they become essential, and encouraging. If isolation produces loneliness, then I miss the companionship of other creators.

At its basis, our brains need stimulation. But my brain needs a certain kind of stimulation that isn’t all info-matic. There exists a collage of connection out there, and it might well prove just as essential to personal creation as the singular focus of old. Such connections are, as in Robert Frost’s poem, the only way we can feel certain that the earth returns our love. There’s action in distraction.

So don’t disconnect. Get interrupt–

[I was alone when I saw the deer; a single Snapchat isolates the moment. Or it will, as soon as I pick up Wi-Fi again.]