It is becoming harder to be alone. The beauty of the countryside has historically been defined by remoteness and dislocation, but the roll-out of roads, airports and communications infrastructure now means that others are never far away, neither physically nor metaphorically. In the city, being alone is harder still. It’s not just that our populations are swelling, causing us to live at closer quarters and work in ever tighter spaces. We are also swept up in a culture that fetishises connection: our employers, our colleagues and our friends all expect us to be available all the time and in many ways.
We have to be radically present by comparison to just a decade ago when there were fewer smartphones. It’s easy to forget just how quickly the idea that we should be reachable has become the default social and professional position. Even in the air, when we are in neither countryside nor city, technology now connects us with those on the ground; the era when the plane was the only thing on the radar is long gone.
Connection is widely and blindly viewed as a cause for celebration. At time of writing, there are now over 2.5 billion smartphones on our planet and nearly 7.5 billion people. Factor in how many of those people are too young to even use a smartphone and you realise just how connected we are. It is anticipated that at peak population of 8.7 billion in 2055 there will be 5 billion smartphones. No wonder almost every telecommunications advertisement is so stylistically triumphant. Connection has been glorified and turned into an unequivocal good in almost every aspect of culture, from advertising to urban design and social media.
“Even if the city is against them, individuals within it can still, with a little effort, carve out some solitude.”
The opposite of being connected is being alone – a state that has great intrinsic value and the power to affect how we feel, think and see ourselves in the world. Most simply, just by getting away from the stimulus of other people we are likely to feel calmer, and from a more settled position we are then capable of seeing and understanding things differently. In some sense, being alone has similar properties to mindfulness: the ability to focus and a sense of autonomy in the middle of a life where we feel pulled in many different directions.
The history of human endeavour points out that we’re capable of great things as individuals, and we have every reason to believe that being alone is just as important as being together. With the clarity we can muster while alone, learning and creativity can occur with a real potency and a very different dynamic to group settings where facts and ideas are constantly discussed and negotiated to become a kind of group idea.
When alone with our thoughts, it is much easier to form our own opinions and help address one of the greatest dangers in the connected world: the lack of unique thinking and ownership of ideas. We can step outside of the ‘majority rules’ approach to create our own beliefs which define our place as an individual in a social world.
For a long time, the fear of being alone was a dominant psychological theme for humans. Being alone meant being vulnerable and at risk. The paradigm has now inverted and we live in an era where being connected now represents a greater kind of danger in which being alone no longer happens naturally – we need to consciously make it happen.
Modern cultures do not make being alone any easier. In Western city-building today, there is an obsession with activation: the idea that all our public places should be constantly busy because they have been designed to create ‘vibrancy’ and programmed with ‘activators’ such as retail, public art and performance.
This is an unhealthy obsession and an approach to placemaking that doesn’t allow people to just be. Instead, we burden them with distraction in every square metre of public space and, through the commerce that is layered all around, we imply that to really enjoy a place you need to spend money.
Even if the city is against them, individuals within it can still, with a little effort, carve out some solitude. The stuff of everyday life will tend to conspire against them, and they might realise that to be alone is a modern luxury, afforded to those with the energy to wake up before everyone else, those with the financial freedom to take a break, those with the support around them to absorb the mundane and leave time for the cerebral, while everyone else is getting mindlessly connected.
Barrie Barton is co-founder of Right Angle Studio. Since 2005 he has overseen the company’s strategy and insights, establishing it as as one of the most influential agents of urban change in Australia and increasingly across the world, with Right Angle now also working in London and Johannesburg. Qualified as a lawyer but motivated by creating cities that improve the lives of their inhabitants, Barrie brings an humanistic understanding and casual style to property development. ‘Alone’ is an excerpt from his forthcoming book.