Illustration by Walter Green
Illustration by Walter Green

When I was 18, I did what many middle-class American college students have done ever since air travel became broadly accessible: I backpacked through Europe on a rail pass. Much cheap wine was consumed. Many beautiful European women were chased (unsuccessfully). Many hard-earned savings were spent at discotheques.

My buddies and I spent most of the time together, but on occasion we split up to travel through different cities with plans to rendezvous at an American Express office in northern Italy.

During my time alone, I slept on a beach in Spain, in a public park in Genoa and on the marble floor of the fascist-built Milan train station. I read Dostoevsky. Most of the time that I was on my own, I was miserable. I hurried through meals self-consciously. I sat in public parks and wrote in my journal. And I only occasionally made new acquaintances at the hostels.

Meanwhile, I spoke to my parents perhaps once a week from a public phone bank. I hurriedly told them I was alive and made sure everyone back home was, too. The conversation would take less than five minutes, and that was pretty much it when it came to communication. After all, there were better things to spend my money on.

The day I arrived, in Paris, I stood in a patisserie, my stomach grumbling, as customer after customer ordered their baked goods, and I mentally practiced my request: “Je voudrais un baguette s’il vous plait... Je voudrais un baguette s’il vous plait…” Over and over until, finally, I swallowed and spoke the words aloud -- but not loudly enough, evidently, since I was ignored in favor of other patrons. It took twice as long for me to try again -- and twice the courage to speak up even louder. Again I was ignored. I slunk out of the shop. To my back, I heard the baker shout, “Je voudrais UNE baguette! UNE! C’est feminine, la baguette!”

French Bread Lesson

It was the most powerful French lesson I would ever endure -- complete with the Pavlovian reward of the still-warm loaf of bread. How was I to know the sex of a baguette? I had no iPhone translation app to tell me it is feminine. I couldn’t Google. And I was alone.

I followed pretty much the same routine during a stint in the Middle East, Latin America and various other far-flung places during the summers of my young adulthood. It gradually became easier to be alone, to meet new people and to order bread.

My story is by no means unique. It has long been a rite of passage in our culture of rugged individualism to spend a summer in Europe, or to hike the Appalachian Trail, or to bike down the West Coast. It doesn’t matter how far you go, just as long as you disconnect, cut the umbilical cord, get lost and end up with stories to tell your kids someday (edited for public consumption, and perhaps a tad exaggerated). Time away from our social networks as young adults helps us figure out who we are, and become fully individual.

As of late, however, our time in the social wilderness has been eroded by omnipresent connectivity -- that is, the mobile telecommunications device. And I’m afraid that with no solitude, we will become less, not more, connected to our friends and families. Without loneliness, our society will innovate less. The great American tradition of “finding ourselves” by leaving the social network extends further back even than Henry David Thoreau and his time on Walden Pond. The romanticization of the lone shepherd extends to Virgil. But as an uncolonized continent, America after the arrival of Europeans played a special role in developing the story line. It was a new Garden of Eden where the fruits of the Earth abounded and life was idyllic. At the same time, though, as Leo Marx argues in his 1964 classic “The Machine in the Garden,” it was also a forbidding jungle, inhabited by “savages” and lacking the comforts of civilization. Thomas Jefferson’s entire vision of a functioning democracy came to rest on the notion of the (white, male) farmer tending his garden alone, coming to the public square only occasionally (and reluctantly) to do the nation’s business. The first major intruder on Americans’ solitude, Marx says, was the locomotive. First used in the U.S. in 1829, the railroad brought the machine into the garden. By 1844, Nathaniel Hawthorne found his solitude in Sleepy Hollow rudely disrupted by a train whistle.

But whereas the railroad merely reminded Hawthorne of “that other place” teeming with people, the telegraph and telephone connected the garden and the city in real time. By liberating us even from the physical wires used by the telegraph and first telephones, mobile-phone and Wi-Fi technology has collapsed space.

When I called my grandparents from California, on a scratchy transcontinental line, location still mattered since it cost more to call farther and the reception was worse. Now distance is no longer of much importance, except in how far the parties are from their respective cell-phone towers. Today, we carry our phones with us almost all the time -- so we can’t truly be alone.

A Private Space

Yet we all need solitude. It is necessary not only for individualism but also for developing self-awareness and intimacy. Let me explain.

Time spent alone allows us to see ourselves as others see us. It’s important to have a backstage -- a safe, private space where we don’t have to worry about folks watching us, where we can let our hair down, practice our social routines and strike back against the indignations of life in the public square. The backstage is where our “true” self resides, as distinct from the front-stage self we present at the office or on the street.

The mobile phone in the garden erodes that private space. And, in turn, it precludes intimacy: Until we have (and can protect) that private self, we can’t be intimate with another. Intimacy, to extend the theatrical metaphor, is like giving backstage passes to a select few. It rests on the private self remaining distinct from the public self, so that you have something to offer chosen friends and family members.

Recently I found on my Facebook feed an announcement from a colleague I had never met in person: He was getting divorced. It was all going to be fine, he told me and 368 other “friends,” because he and his soon-to-be ex had reached a shared-custody arrangement and were going to have an amicable relationship. I felt squeamish for having read this painful, personal information that I really shouldn’t know. But more and more private interactions now take place in broadcast mode -- front stage.

Imagine always being in that French patisserie where you are being watched and judged for your grammar. And never having a hostel to retreat to for some hard-won, still-warm bread. I just hope that when my own kids go backpacking they forget their cell phones and remember their gendered articles.

(Dalton Conley, dean of social sciences at New York University, is the author of “Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got From the Company Man, Family Dinners and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms and Economic Anxiety.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Dalton Conley at conley@nyu.edu

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net