Our always-on society is, in fact, becoming a Golden Age for introverts, in which it has become easier to carve out time for oneself
If my research -- conducted primarily via Netflix -- is correct, America used to be a paradise for introverts. If you weren't a lone cowboy riding the range in a driving snow, you lived on a farm miles from town, opening your front door onto a field of seven-foot-tall corn stalks. Social interactions were planned weeks in advance. (Elections are held on Tuesdays, after all, because that was the soonest people could get to the county seat.) In a time when towns tried to encourage interaction by scheduling seasonal barn dances, the pressure to attend a friend's cocktail party was obviously far lower. Introverts had weeks to come up with good excuses -- and all sorts of ailments (whooping cough, scarlet fever) to blame.
What some describe as an always-on society is, in fact, becoming a Golden Age for introverts.
Then the industrial revolution ruined it. Encouraging people to move to cities, the new world forced interactions from the moment you left your house. Telegraphs made it simple for people to send you messages and telephones then removed even the need to answer your door. Cars were invented, meaning you had no excuse for not traveling across town. Then planes removed any excuse to not travel across the country. The darkest hours for introverts were at hand.
But technology, long the domain of the geeky introvert, stepped up to the challenge. A brilliant first volley was the answering machine: ostensibly a device meant to ensure that a call wasn't missed, it quickly became a tool to ensure that you could miss any call you wanted.
Technology has steadily gained ground. What some describe as an always-on society is, in fact, becoming a Golden Age for introverts, in which it has become easier than ever to carve out time for oneself while meeting the needs of our extroverted friends. That's a key distinction: we live in a time in which introverts can regularly mask their introversion if they so desire.
It's worth considering, of course, what introverts actually find challenging about social interactions. For a thorough, thoughtful answer to that question, see this 2003 piece from The Atlantic. For a cursory and superficial one, read on.
For introverts like myself, it takes energy to engage with other people. Doing so requires thoughtfulness. It's tiring. Expending energy, for us, isn't energizing. Please note: we're not talking about shyness, some character flaw. The problem isn't with the introvert -- it's with the demands you make on the introvert. An introvert can't force an extrovert to sit quietly in a room and read a book, but extroverts (and the stigmas they've inadvertently created) can impose social demands with ease.
So how are we helped by the technology our nerdy allies have built?
The illusion of busyness. You know what I did over the weekend? Took a road trip to Baltimore, attended two work-related parties, and spent most of Sunday offline, hiking in the woods.
Yeah, no I didn't. But with a few simple posts on Facebook, changing my status on GChat, it's simple to pretend that I did. I could spend all weekend at home -- which I did (it was hot out) -- and no one would be the wiser. I can make it appear that I've met society's request that I "live life to the full," while living my life to the full in my own way.
Serial communication at work. In the Mad Men days, everyone worked together in one location, walking to each others' desks or offices, or exchanging occasional memos. Now? We're in offices all over the place, using email. We sit quietly hunched over laptops, transitioning even our water cooler conversations to our keyboards.
Email is often fingered as a key factor in the lamentable perpetual accessibility characterizing modern American communication. But it isn't. It allows you to respond when you're ready to do so. In fact, sometimes not responding to email in a timely fashion can give the impression that you're already busy doing other things. Which helps create the space that introverts need.
Serial communication everywhere else. This is maybe the most remarkable achievement. Interacting with people primarily online or serially is now the norm. It's easier to send a message to a friend on Facebook than to call; even for extraverts, it ensures that the outreach isn't a waste of time.
The reduction of communication to information-sharing. Moreover, people expect streamlined transfers of information. A text message, a Facebook message, a tweet -- each is a discrete, articulated piece of information being shared. Rather than riding the texture of a live conversation to figure out how to give and receive information, people are now used to simply pushing their thoughts out into the world, to be responded to at some undetermined future point. Even voicemail messages are now more often the point of a phone call than an actual conversation.
A quick interlude to talk about the psychology of introversion. Feel free to skip the next paragraph if you're not interested, though introverts will definitely find it engaging.
First popularized by Carl Jung, the word introversion describes exactly what you'd assume: a tendency be focused inwards (intro-) as opposed to the external focus of extraverts. As Wikipedia states, introversion is "the state of okay I think that's enough pretending." I have a secret to share with you. If you haven't heard of Slydial, delay not one second further. It is a tool that allows you to connect directly to someone else's voicemail without giving them time to answer the phone. Brilliant, right? But obviously, we can't let everyone know about it, or everyone will catch on to the fact that you're intentionally avoiding them. (For the record, friends and family, I've never used this tool at all.) What follows is the link to the site, masked to deter the casual observer. You are hereby sworn to secrecy. The Stockholm trials were a success, as you can see from the partial data set from the 2004 study in .CSV format. So, in other words, Jung was right.
I speak of the struggle between introverts and extroverts in antagonistic terms. But it shouldn't be considered that way. Extroverts, we love you. We just don't want to talk to you all the time. Happily, we live in a time when the expectation that we do so is much lower. We've reached an elegant balance between the two factions, one that doesn't require that we all become rugged cowboys, singing "Home on the Range," as we push our herd on to Topeka.
Even though that's what I said I'm doing right now on Facebook.
Image: Nicholas Jackson/Alexis Madrigal.