Solitude and Presence: Photo Reflections on Natural and Digital Ecologies

My academic work, which touches on media, religion, and digital culture, is all the richer for having spent countless hours walking, sitting, and reflecting in the small oasis that we’ve come to call home.



When exploring new terrain, a mindful hiker intuitively senses moments in the landscape either when senses are balanced – not too elevated, not too crowded in – or when senses peak in a meaningful way – a spectacular vista, an especially calming micro-climate. These are centers – spaces from which the four directions seem to originate. Such centers become focal points for restful focus on one’s next walk.

I’ve found several of these in our woods. One of these sits slightly higher in elevation than the surrounding paths, overlooking an oft-dry streambed and a pallet bridge that suggests movement and passage. In the warmer months, sunlight floods the ground and sparkles from the tree leaves. Such spaces call us to pause, and when we do, they aid in the process of reflection.

In The Sacred and the Profane, Mircea Eliade argues that human beings seek to reenact the cosmogony – the creation itself – in our personal and communal spaces. “It seems an inescapable conclusion,” he writes, “that the religious man sought to live as near as possible to the Center of the World.” ((Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1987), 43. Originally published 1957.)) Echoing Jung’s argument that authentic practice places us in contact with the unconscious self, Eliade argues that the most sacred spaces are those in which earth, heaven, and the underworld are connected. When the daily process of world-building – relationships, communities, careers – becomes a burden, natural environments invigorate us by offering newly found centers that, through their stillness, invite and inspire us to build again, from the center.

If it is true, as Eliade suggests, that “every construction or fabrication has the cosmogony as paradigmatic model,” what shall we make of our attempts to create spaces, selves, and centers in cyberspace? ((Ibid., 45.)) In No Sense of Place, Joshua Meyrowitz describes how electronic media disrupts established boundaries between ages, genders, and races, causing shifts in our cultural landscape with far-reaching consequences. ((Joshua Meyrowitz, No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).)) Some of these are positive: the blurring of subcultural borders can erode social pretensions of authority and difference and have an equalizing effect. As the sociologist Carl Couch notes, however, while electronic media may be “moving us toward a global village,” villagers “have never been particularly harmonious.” ((Carl Couch, Information Technologies and Social Orders (New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1996), 249–250.)) Boundaries are blurred but re-drawn, often in imperceptible ways that re-entrench established power. In digital spaces, analog-era gatekeepers like newspaper editors are nudged aside by software engineers whose code regulates the structure of our online experiences and personas.

Digital spaces are alternately too structured and too unpredictable. Algorithms that aim to “personalize” our online experience may ensconce us in “filter bubbles” of familiar taste and unexamined prejudice. ((Eli Pariser, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You (New York: Penguin Press, 2011).)) In cyberspace, where “code is law,” even the option of civil disobedience may vanish, as in the case of Second Life’s hard-wired restrictions against trespass. On the other hand, the ubiquity of code, and its ever-present malleability, create spaces that are as unstable as the shifting staircases that Harry Potter encounters at Hogwarts. Code is like sand shifting under our virtual feet. When Facebook decided to publicize users’ retail purchases, and later re-structured its default privacy settings to nudge users toward more public sharing, users understandably revolted. A class action suit shut down the former program. As Eliade notes, disruptions in the built structures of our lives cause a dreaded sense of return to primordial chaos. ((Eliade, 48.))

This lingering sense of unreality and instability in the digital realm may explain the rising interest in hobbies and practices that return us to our immediate physical space. Reflecting on recent trends toward do-it-yourself food-making like canning and butter-churning, food writer Bee Wilson suggests such trends may be “a response to the computer age.” “We’re just spending so much of our lives living in a sort-of virtual capacity, staring at things, that’s it very therapeutic to do things again,” Wilson told NPR recently. Journalist William Powers likewise argues that the desire to refocus offline may explain the widespread interest in yoga and meditation. ((William Powers, Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age (New York: Harper, 2011), 63.))

Of course, such practices may treat the symptoms of virtual malaise without impacting the underlying disease. The social and economic necessity of our engagement with digital media underscores the importance of restructuring digital ecologies so they might serve users rather than treating them as mere means to an end. What may bring stability to such spaces is not the transparency of our personal lives to marketers, but the transparency of software code and data collection policies to citizens. This, in turn, requires cultural norms and political policies that understand journalism as a public good, and that see privacy not in terms of utilitarian cost/benefit analyses but as a basic right that underpins the authentic pursuit of human dignity. ((Robert Bodle, “Privacy and Participation in the Cloud: Ethical Implications of Google’s Privacy Practices and Public Communications,” in The Ethics of Emerging Media: Information, Social Norms, and New Media Technology, ed. Bruce E. Drushel and Kathleen German (New York: Continuum, 2011), 155-174.))

Such stability as a long-term goal may necessitate disruptions in the short term, such as those caused by Edward Snowden’s release of NSA surveillance documents. Indeed, in their letter nominating him for a Nobel Peace Prize, Norwegian politicians Baard Vegar Solhjell and Snorre Valen argue that Snowden’s disclosures may ultimately have “contributed to a more stable and peaceful world order.”

Reflecting on the photo of that spot in our woods by the dried streambed, I recall the times that I stood in that space, quietly staring at the barely-visible but well-trod pallet bridge in the distance. While restful in appearance, a bridge nevertheless symbolizes the inevitability of passage and movement from one world to another. As exemplified by the images from the 1965 civil rights march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama, in moments of civic action a space of passage can – paradoxically – become center in itself, as resistance to political power becomes an act of recreating the social world. These images suggest a lesson for practitioners of contemplative practices: namely, that to practice with integrity leads not to disengagement or detachment, but renewed engagement with greater wisdom. At some point, the moment of stillness we achieve will evaporate, as we are jarred back into motion by some obligation or another. This is as it should be: ultimately, a center is not a place where you remain, but a capacity you carry with you as you move through a world that surely will, and must, change.

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