Today’s digital social network is a trap. Today’s cult of the social, peddled by an unholy alliance of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and communitarian idealists, is rooted in a misunderstanding of the human condition. The truth is that we aren’t naturally social beings. Instead, as Vermeer reminds us in The Woman in Blue, human happiness is really about being left alone. On Liberty, the 1859 essay by Bentham’s godson and former acolyte, John Stuart Mill, remains a classic defence of individual rights in the age of the industrial network and its tyranny of the majority. Today, as we struggle to make sense of the impact of the internet revolution, we need an equivalent On Digital Liberty to protect the right to privacy in the social-media age. Tapscott and Williams believe that the age of networked intelligence will be equal to the Renaissance in its significance. But what if they are wrong? What if the digital revolution, because of its disregard for the right of individual privacy, becomes a new dark ages? And what if all that is left of individual privacy by the end of the 21st century exists in museums alongside Vermeer’s Woman in Blue? Then what?
But this is just replacing one untenable generalization with another. As everyone knows, surely, we want and need to be alone sometimes and to be with others sometimes. Mental and spiritual health is found in the proper balance of the two, which must be different for different people. Every the most solitary crave connection sometimes; even the most social need time alone to re-charge. It would be hard to deny that the internet has been a profoundly rich and healing place for many lonely people. The questions are, or should be: What is the right balance for me? and, Have I achieved that balance?As I commented in a post some months ago, advocates of the Big Social like Steven Johnson think we have been too solitary and too disconnected and need — as a society anyway — to move towards more connection, because connection generates ideas. My response to that was that (a) the generation of ideas is not the only social good, and (b) it’s hard to look at the proliferation of social media that I and my friends are occupied with and think that we don’t have enough connections. My suspicion is that we need fewer connections, but (as I suggested in my previous post) more multi-dimensional ones. Keen overstates the value of privacy and under-rates the value of social connection, but he’s surely write to think that solitude is right now the endangered condition.