XVII.6 November + December 2010
Page: 6
Digital Citation

Designing for solitude

Ben Fullerton

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Our lives demand more and more of our attention. In a relatively tiny span of time, our culture has begun to value states of connectedness, sharing, and constant availability, in a way that even our parents' generation could not have foreseen. And we seem to have become comfortable with designing to support this constant connectivity, continually finding ways of adding the network to the interactions we craft.

As dictated by the regularly rapid pace of technology, this profound shift in our behavior has happened remarkably quickly. Prior to 2006—just four years ago—only a small minority were publishing their photos, relationship statuses, microthoughts, or current locations for the world around them to see. The effects of this sudden change on our outward interactions with each other are much debated. But less discussed are the effects on our internal worlds of trying to keep up with and consume all of this new information. If we encourage or privilege this connectedness, are we detracting from the ability to enter a mental space where we are more contemplative?

It's this idea of a solitude we find in moments of disconnection and looking away. We might be in danger of losing the important role it plays in our well-being, and that might in turn have implications for our ability to focus and the way in which we engage with the world around us.

back to top  Being Alone, Then

When thinking about why switching off is so important, we can always look at ancient tales of spiritual renewal found in our shared cultural traditions: Christ's 40 days in the wilderness, the Buddha's meditations underneath the Bodhi tree, or Mohammed's regular journeys to the cave on Jabal Nur—all of which the protagonists undertook alone. But there is a story from a little further forward in history in the secular world that is even more thought-provoking and helpful in describing an idea of solitude that is not merely "quiet time."

In 16th-century France, Michel de Montaigne, a wellknown French Renaissance writer whose work is still influential today, formed an incredibly close friendship with humanist poet and judge (and, to some, the father of civil disobedience) Étienne de La Boétie, as a result of their serving in the parlement together. The two would regularly correspond, sharing their thoughts and observations on the world around them. Unfortunately, in 1563, de La Boétie passed away.

With de La Boétie's death, de Montaigne was deprived of his strongest connection to the outside world, the person to whom he broadcasted—in the manner of his time—everything. He was stricken, grieving, and very alone. What's interesting is how he chose to deal with his newfound solitary state. Deprived of his friend, he began to write even more. Perhaps in an attempt to deal with his loss, he wrote about the world around him, about the human condition, in a very personal way. As the scholar Donald Frame puts it in his collection of de Montaigne's writings, the reader replaces de La Boétie in de Montaigne's life, fulfilling his "imperious need to communicate" [1].

But de Montaigne went even further. He retired to his library in the tower of his chateau, surrounded by 1,500 works of literature. His public announcement was done with a rather lovely flourish:

"In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of thirty-eight, on the last day of February, his birthday, Michel de Montaigne, long weary of the servitude of the court and of public employments, while still entire, retired to the bosom of the learned virgins, where in calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life, now more than half run out. If the fates permit, he will complete this abode, this sweet ancestral retreat; and he has consecrated it to his freedom, tranquility, and leisure" [2].

It's this idea of a solitude we find in moments of disconnection and looking away. We might be in danger of losing the important role it plays in our well-being, and that might in turn have implications for our ability to focus and the way in which we engage with the world around us.

And this is pretty much exactly what he did. He shut himself off from the world around him for nearly 10 years. But during this time he found tremendous creative energy, enough to emerge with the work that defined his influence over subsequent writers and philosophers: his Essais. De Montaigne took advantage of his disconnection and the mental space he found within to invent short-form writing or essays (and make the lives of students miserable for the next few hundred years, but that's another story).

The reason that de Montaigne's story is interesting is that it tells of the creative energy we can access when we have the mental space afforded to us by detaching from the distractions of the world around us. And we can find more stories just like de Montaigne's: Jack Kerouac's six months on a California fire platform, Georgia O'Keefe's ranch in the New Mexico desert, or the reclusiveness of many authors such as Thomas Pynchon or the late J.D. Salinger. The ability to access creativity has perhaps been disrupted by the ever increasing connectedness of our world.

back to top  Being Alone, Now

It was Salinger himself who once said in an interview with the New York Times, "There is a marvelous peace in not publishing" [3].

But, as touched upon earlier, we now seem to be publishing like never before. And as a consequence, we feel an intense pressure to consume. Charlie Brooker, a columnist writing for The Guardian, sums this up in a hilarious article in which he claims we now live in a "stuff-a-lanche" [4]. Even essayist Alain de Botton—who surely embodies de Montaigne's legacy—is feeling the pressures of consuming all of this extra 'stuff," as he describes with this statement: "We have become such experts at being always in touch, informed, connected. Now must relearn how to be silent, disconnected, alone" [5].

(As the slightly awkward syntax might give away, this was published on Twitter, which supplies an irony that I'm certain didn't escape him.)

Sarah Pennington, as part of research conducted for the multiyear Equator Project (a UK-wide interdisciplinary project examining the intersection of physical and digital interactions [6]) kept a log of every interaction she had with communications and media technology over the course of a week. In that week, she found that a little more than a day was spent interacting with technology—25.47 hours, to be precise. If that number isn't enough of a cause for concern, then perhaps the date that she kept this diary might be: 2002. Before the adoption of Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, or any other of the multiple channels and modes of publishing that are available to us now.

And then there is the everincreasing ubiquity of the networks that allow us to publish and consume all of this stuff. AT&T's coverage map for the U.S. (while admittedly a matter of debate) shows a vast swath of the country covered by a mobile data network. And for those of us who travel, where we might have previously had enforced periods of disconnection, the availability of in-flight Wi-Fi networks and expanded mobile data coverage brings the network to us even at 33,000 feet in the air or deep underneath the streets of our cities. A friend tells me an anecdote of traveling with her husband, who in the past would have little choice but to sleep and recharge on flights, but who is now able to maintain a connection to the outside world... and arrive tired.

As the amount of published stuff increases exponentially and the network spreads, the opportunities for us to look away, disconnect, and find Salinger's peace or de Montaigne's creative energy become fewer.

back to top  Designing for Solitude

If we accept that the ability to look away, to disconnect, and to find solitude is as important for us as engaging in all of the new forms of publishing and consumption, how might we make that happen—how can we recreate de Montaigne's library for the people we design for?

In the realm of technology, we have become very used to multimodal devices, which allow us to perform more than one task at a time but divide our attention between them. While writing this article, I'm switching between email and a Web browser, and I'm sure this is having an adverse affect on the speed with which I can finish everything.

Single-modal devices, or devices that perform one thing at a time (such as a typewriter), might seem like a throwback to us, but by allowing us to focus they can also promote unexpectedly meaningful interactions.

A good example is the Serenata, a phone released a few years ago in a collaboration between Samsung and Bang & Olufsen. The music-playing functions of the phone are deliberately brought forward by the product language (which, with its thumbwheel, strongly echoes the iPod), but a feature on the phone referred to as "Pure Music" further reinforces this feature. Sliding up the built-in speaker activates the player and essentially turns the Serenata into a single-modal device: Any incoming communication is suppressed; the person listening to music isn't disturbed. Instead, when they exit "Pure Music" mode, they receive a log of any phone-related activity they have missed. It's an interesting idea—asking the user to explicitly choose whether they wish to connect or disconnect.

Software also exists to turn that most complex of devices, the computer, into a device that supports disconnection and focus. OmmWriter ( and Freedom ( both force attention into a space where there are fewer distractions, with the hope that this leads to increased productivity. (It's worth noting that these are both sold as productivity tools.)

Perhaps more interesting, however, is to look outside of the digital world and consider examples that highlight how important it is to build some sort of rules into our communities that allow us to step away from time to time and create spaces that suggest and support solitude.

A useful parallel is the quiet car on public transportation, like Amtrak: A clearly delineated space allows people to disconnect—or at least to prevent their connectedness from disturbing fellow passengers—and by doing so helps to reestablish boundaries that technology might have begun to erode.

Back in our digital communities, it's this creation of a space and a respect for the need to disconnect that is the most important consideration when we think about designing for solitude— how might we allow people to signal a wish to switch off, and make sure that their community respects this wish?

Although he was an extreme example, Salinger managed to make his desire to disconnect so well respected in the town of Cornish, New Hampshire, that his community even actively participated in his efforts to evade the attention of an adoring public—the extent of the diversion depending on "how arrogant" the visitors were [7].

While we might not go quite that far in our own communities, perhaps we could think of ways in which we might signal our desire to be away for a while, opt out of the stuff-a-lanche, and remain supported by our communities, both digital and physical. What happens when we switch off is just as important as considering what happens when we switch on.

back to top  References

1. Frame, D. The Complete Essays of Montaigne. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958.

2. Hollier, D. (ed.) A New History of French Literature. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

3. Ackroyd, P. "J. D. Salinger: A Life Raised High by Kenneth Slawenski," The Times (London), 20 March 2010;

4. Brooker, C. "There's Too Much Stuff. We Live in a Stuff-a-lanche. It's Time for a Cultural Diet." The Guardian (London) 5 October 2009;

5. de Botton, A. Twitter. 2 February 2010;

6. Equator;

7. Zezima, K. "J. D. Salinger a Recluse? Well, Not to His Neighbors." New York Times. 31 January 2010;

back to top  Author

Ben Fullerton is a designer with a background in interaction and service design. He currently works at Adaptive Path in San Francisco, having previously spent time at IDEO, Twitter, Samsung's London-based design studio, pioneering service design and innovation consultancy live|work, and digital full-service agency Oyster Partners (now LBi.) He has designed products and services for clients including Orange, the BBC, Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Vodafone, Samsung, T-Mobile, Victoria & Albert Museum, Qwest, BAA, the U.S. government, and Macmillan Cancer Research. Fullerton has written for Core77, has taught at the UC Berkeley iSchool, NYU's ITP, and the School of Visual Arts, and has spoken at Design Engaged, the IxDA's Interaction conference, South By Southwest, and UX Week. His work has been nominated for a BAFTA and won a Spark Award.

back to top  Footnotes

This article is based on a talk I gave at the Interaction Design Association's Interaction '10 conference in Savannah, Georgia. It was followed by a lively discussion, which further expanded upon some of the themes of my talk. I'm therefore thankful to the people who attended and contributed.


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