On Solitary Confinement and Social Media or, Making Solipsism Possible

by Charlie Huenemann


(image from lthscomputerart.weebly.com)

Last month (April 19, 2014), 3QD's Robin Varghese linked to an article by philosopher Lisa Guenther on the effects of solitary confinement on the mind. (The original article was published in the online magazine Aeon.) Guenther's essay is fascinating, as it provides a vivid account of how our perception of the world depends heavily on the social relations we build everyday with other people. When those social relations are stripped from us, our experience of the world goes wonky. For this reason, Guenther's article is also disturbing, since it reveals the widespread practice of solitary confinement to be nothing less than mental torture.

Normally as we go about our business, we negotiate our way through a world of shared objects that become common pleasures, obstacles, or topics of conversation. And how we share those common objects, or compete for them, is what makes those objects real for us. As Guenther writes,

When I sit across a table from you, for example, I implicitly perceive you as both ‘there’ in relation to my ‘here’ and as another ‘here’, with your own unsharable perspective on the world, in relation to which I too am ‘there’ for you. The other people with whom I share space both give me an objective location in the world – they anchor me somewhere, and they also hold open the virtual dimensions of my own experience by reminding me that, no matter how hard I try, I can never directly experience another person’s stream-of-consciousness. The other confirms, contests, enriches, and challenges my own experience and interpretation of things.

Lest anyone think of this merely as frilly sentimentalism, read what happens to people when they are forced into prolonged and lonely encounters with very spare environments:

After only a short time in solitary, I felt all of my senses begin to diminish. There was nothing to see but grey walls. In New York’s so-called special housing units, or SHUs, most cells have solid steel doors, and many do not have windows. You cannot even tape up pictures or photographs; they must be kept in an envelope. To fight the blankness, I counted bricks and measured the walls. I stared obsessively at the bolts on the door to my cell.

There was nothing to hear except empty, echoing voices from other parts of the prison. I was so lonely that I hallucinated words coming out of the wind. They sounded like whispers. Sometimes, I smelled the paint on the wall, but more often, I just smelled myself, revolted by my own scent.

So the world, absent other people, starts to resemble a Dali painting. Another prisoner recounted in Guenther's article refers to his experience in solitary as an abyss, which Guenther describes as “a chasm without edges…. an emptiness that has become palpable and insistent, like a black hole that sucks everything into itself”. Without a changing world, and without other people serving as fellow travelers in that world, we become unhinged from any firm reality. Some prisoners end up striking at walls and fences until their hands are bloodied – not in any attempt to escape, of course, but to make vivid contact with an irrefutable world outside themselves. They are desperate to find an Other. True solipsism, it seems, is impossible for humans. Without other people, our experience of the world dwindles into whispers, specters, and madness.


Guenther's article has caused me to discover a new significance in an extra-credit assignment one my colleagues offers to his freshman students. No, he does not lock them up in solitary. But in their minds what he offers is perhaps just as bad: he challenges them to go for two weeks without glowing screens. They cannot surf the web or text or check email, Twitter, or Facebook. They cannot watch movies or television. They cannot use their phones except as phones, and even then the phones must remain plugged into an outlet in their homes (as in the 20th century). After two weeks they are to write up their reflections and turn them in for extra credit.

Not everyone can last the two weeks. Many freak out and rush back to their social networks. Those who succeed in lasting the two weeks report a strange shift in their reality. They notice how reliant everyone else is upon screens, and the phenomenon now seems very alien to them. They notice sounds they hadn't heard before, as well as buildings and fixtures. They find themselves with seemingly enormous blocks of empty time on their hands, time which otherwise would have been devoted to this or that stimulation. They are forced to find things to do, and these things often include reading, exercising, going to museums, or convincing their friends to play a board game. Sometimes they just walk and think.

Some students report very favorably on the two-week deprivation. They feel more in touch with the world and themselves, and they say they plan to regularly “detox” themselves in the future. (But they do rush back to their connections as soon as the assignment ends.) Others, though, find the experience very troubling. They write that they had never before felt so alone and disconnected with the world. Their return to the glowing screens – social media in particular – was like being released from confinement back into the real world. They intend never to go through the experience again.

My colleague and I were not surprised that students found the experiment challenging, but we were surprised at how dramatic the results were. And, now, having read Guenther's article on solitary confinement, I am beginning to suspect that the two phenomena are related. There is no law saying that the others with whom we construct our world have to be in the same room with us. They may be virtually present on little glowing screens. We might in equal measure count on them to “confirm, contest, enrich, and challenge our own experiences” (as Guenther says) so that we become anchored to our world. Of course, right now the technology is new enough that people vary greatly in their dependence on it. But as the technology becomes evermore pervasive – today Googleglass, tomorrow biological implants – we will find it harder to experience reality without it. The unconnected life, for many or all of us, will be disconnected experience, as unreal and unhinged as anything now encountered in solitary. And demanding that someone go without their tech someday may be the equivalent of the mental torture that is solitary confinement.

This will strike many of us as a bad turn of events, even we who are now reading these words on glowing screens. We will see this as a diminution of our humanity, a “technologization” of what it is to be human. Or – is it that big of a deal? Is it the sort of concern that always attends advances in technology? Anyone who now complains about the ways in which telephones and air travel have diminished our humanity is likely to be treated as a quaint luddite railing against features of the modern world that are, like them or not, now fixed. (I speak from experience.) So is this new fashion of fashioning our realities anything to worry about? If it is possible to halt the advance, is there any good reason for doing so? What exactly do we think we are we about to lose, and what, if anything, makes it so valuable?

There also is no law saying that the other “people” with whom we build our digitally-enhanced lives must be real people. They only have to function in a role of “Other” for us. When we start friending automated entities that play roles that are indistinguishable from those who have “real”, subjective, inner dimensions – well, then we will have made true solipsism genuinely possible for human beings. Hooray for us?

The naturalists among us might argue that we really haven't evolved for such a cybernetic world. We're just not ready for it. We still carry around with us bodies and minds that evolved in tightly-knit clans roaming the savannahs, and there may be some long-fixed human features, shaped by our long history, that require genuine interaction with others. There's no changing Mother Nature. But wait; of course there is. Granting, for the sake of argument, that we do have some deep biological need for what cyberpunks call “meatspace”, one day we surely will be able to find ways to get around this lagging biological limitation. We don't have to wait for evolution's slow pace. We will be able to engineer people to engage happily in whatever form of lifestyle we deem productive, useful, or attractive. And then just plug them in.

Is it just me, or is that small gray cell is starting to sound attractive?