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.
Paging Front Porch Republicans! — those grumpy guys who, despite their occasional idolatry of place (as I would call it), are commendable in their refusal to accept that “the roots are gone.” And even if your roots have been dug up by thoughtless predecessors, that just means that your obligation is to dig in again. Deresiewicz takes the “modern self” as a given because he takes all the choices that led to its creation as inevitable and irreversible. He took a similar approach when he decried the loss of genuine friendship in social networking.
His critiques are often trenchant, but he tends to take one common form of contemporary selfhood as though it is the only one; and he seems unable or unwilling to imagine alternatives. But alternatives are out there — wise people practice them — and those of us who are pained by at least some aspects of technological modernity shouldn’t shun the hard work of swimming against the currents, nor the need to remember that there are many places in the world where the current runs another way.