The privilege of modern life


I wrote an essay several years ago about the loss of solitude in the digital age. Social media, I felt and still feel, along with the general frenetic busyness that technology culture inculcates, are eliminating our ability to be alone with our thoughts and feelings, and with it, the dense, complex private inwardness of the modern self. One comment on the essay went like this: privacy and solitude are privileges, rare both historically and globally. To complain about their loss is just to show how much of an entitled little Westerner you are. Most people in the world are too poor to even have the space to be alone. “Welcome to the human race!” my invisible friend concluded.

It wasn’t news to me that privacy and solitude, at least as widespread phenomena, are products of the modern West. You can read Witold Rybczynski’s Home: A Short History of An Idea, among other books, to learn that the members of the medieval household occupied a single room, conducting their business (all their business) in one another’s presence—that separate bedrooms, with everything they enable, are a relatively recent development in domestic architecture.

In literature, the parallel emergence was the novel, the story of the growth of consciousness through time. In its early, 18th-century days, its characteristic form was epistolary: a collection of letters, an exchange of intimacies. Add to the novel Romantic poetry, the depth psychology of Freud and others, a new subjectivity in music and visual art, and much else, and you have the makings of the richly articulated self that we are indeed so privileged to have available to us today.

“Welcome to the human race”: the comment is also characteristic of a certain kind of PC self-hating self-righteousness—privileged Westerners attacking other privileged Westerners for being privileged and Western. Exchange lack of privacy and solitude for living on a subsistence diet—welcome to the human race!—and we’ll see how eager people are to sign up. Having enough to eat is also a privilege, but it is still one that I’d like to hold on to, even while it is extended (along with solitude and privacy, I hope) to everybody else.

In any case, solitude and privacy are not just privileges. They are also compensations. People didn’t have modern selves in traditional society, but they didn’t need them, because they had family and community: extended families, face-to-face communities. They had an intricate structure of relationships, traditions, roles, and expectations to give content to their lives and direction to their efforts, to orient themselves in space and time. They didn’t need to go it alone or make up the world for themselves, so they didn’t need the equipment that enables modern individuals (if they’re lucky) to do so.

Now all we have is ourselves. The modern self is a consolation prize; it’s what we have to cling to—that and friendship, modernity’s central relationship. Intimacy is also a modern phenomenon, because it rests on privacy. When E. M. Forster said “Only connect,” he didn’t mean that’s all we need to do; he meant that’s all we could do: forge our horizontal bonds, because the roots are gone.

Now friendship, too, I think, is under threat. We lost the old things, and now we’re giving up the things we got instead. Welcome to the human race.

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William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.


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