The internet and social media have greatly extended the range of choices available in modern life. This is usually taken to be a good thing — or at least to be harmless. We can now more easily transcend limitations of physical location and spatial distance, not only to access goods and services, but also to make connections and form relationships with a variety of people of our own choosing. Such an increase in choices is not entirely new. In important respects the rise of internet communities has merely intensified a process that urbanization began long ago. Cities not only brought a variety of goods and services to their inhabitants, but they also brought together people of diverse religions, classes and ethnicities, and allowed a greater variety of possible associations and self-selected relationships.
In the Discourse on Method, Descartes describes moving to Amsterdam in the seventeenth century, “where in the midst of a great crowd actively engaged in business, and more careful of their own affairs than curious about those of others, I have been enabled to live without being deprived of any of the conveniences to be had in the most populous cities, and yet as solitary and as retired as in the midst of the most remote deserts.” What is remarkable and revealing about the account Descartes offers is the ironic way that the increase in choices is directly linked to a detached aloofness, a disengaged anonymity. Being submersed in social possibilities coincides with an asocial isolation and solitude. But Descartes is not disturbed, or even concerned, by this result. In fact, Descartes describes such asocial detachment as an ideal opportunity for objective reflection: “where, as I found no society to interest me, and was besides fortunately undisturbed by any cares or passions, I remained the whole day in seclusion, with full opportunity to occupy my attention with my own thoughts.” The absence of family and friends, of meaningful employment, and of emotional ties, seems to open up possibilities, allowing the individual greater freedom of thought, and ultimately, of association and action. This is a deep and seductive idea in modern western societies, going all the way back to the Hebrew prophets, who literally fled to the desert to escape the constraints of family and community and to redefine their personal identity and sense of purpose. Amsterdam allowed Descartes to achieve this result without having to give up the conveniences of civilization.