Satish Kumar Subramani / Reuters

Has the internet afforded humans more freedom, or less?

That’s a question I’m pondering anew thanks to the University of Michigan philosophy professor Elizabeth Anderson, who provoked the thought while being interviewed by Nathan Heller for a recent profile in The New Yorker.

After Europe’s religious wars, Anderson mused, as centuries of conflicts between Catholics and Protestants gave way to a liberal, live-and-let-live order that tolerated freedom of religion, something remarkable happened:

People now have the freedom to have crosscutting identities in different domains. At church, I’m one thing. At work, I’m something else. I’m something else at home or with my friends. The ability not to have an identity that one carries from sphere to sphere but, rather, to be able to slip in and adopt whatever values and norms are appropriate while retaining one’s identities in other domains? That is what it is to be free.

That’s a bold claim! Yet one needn’t accept Anderson’s definition of freedom to appreciate her insight. Here’s a more modest version: The ability to slip into a domain and adopt whatever values and norms are appropriate while retaining identities in other domains is something most Americans value, both to live in peace amid difference and for personal reasons.

A 28-year-old woman might attend a march of radical feminists on Saturday, be a deferential caregiver to her ailing conservative grandfather on Sunday, teach high-school sophomores virtue ethics on Monday, perform open-mic comedy that no 15-year-old should hear on Tuesday, indulge a guilty pleasure for Disney musical numbers in the privacy of her car on the way to work on Wednesday morning, and meet up on Thursday night with the pierced, tattooed punk rocker she is dating. And if she interviews on Friday for a new job in a typical field of employment? Most of that will be none of the interviewer’s business.

If humans lost something when most of us ceased to live our whole lives in small tribes, if American life is no longer organized around small towns with all that they offer their residents, at the very least we made these countervailing gains. And this freedom to be different things in different spaces was enhanced by the early internet. Every subculture had its chat rooms. Far-flung people with niche interests could find one another. And no one knew if you were a dog.

Today’s internet is different. One powerful illustration of the phenomenon is Facebook’s People You May Know feature, plumbed most thoughtfully by Kashmir Hill.

In reporting on it for Gizmodo, she found:

  • A man who years ago donated sperm to a couple, secretly, so they could have a child—only to have Facebook recommend the child as a person he should know. He still knows the couple but is not friends with them on Facebook.
  • A social worker whose client called her by her nickname on their second visit, because she’d shown up in his People You May Know, despite their not having exchanged contact information.
  • A woman whose father left her family when she was six years old—and saw his then-mistress suggested to her as a Facebook friend 40 years later.
  • An attorney who wrote: “I deleted Facebook after it recommended as PYMK a man who was defense counsel on one of my cases. We had only communicated through my work email, which is not connected to my Facebook, which convinced me Facebook was scanning my work email.”

For most Americans, no matter if they were raised online or have never used a computer, I could conjure a scenario where they would feel a loss from worlds colliding in a particular way they didn’t want. And at some point, technology started making that harder to avoid.

In fact, I wonder whether ongoing debates about matters as varied as Facebook user-data practices, “the right to be forgotten,” National Security Agency data collection, and any number of public-shaming controversies are usefully considered under the umbrella framework of How is new technology affecting our ability to keep our various worlds from colliding when we don’t want them to, and what, if anything, should we do about that?

In edge cases, almost all Americans will see the implications for freedom, as with China’s push toward an Orwellian society of surveillance cameras, facial-recognition technology, machine learning, and a state-assigned score for every citizen to rate their merits.

Thornier cases will implicate norms and manners that evolve as a society adapts to relatively new modes of nonstate, noncoercive interaction.

For example: I’m sitting in a coffee shop as I write this. Imagine that a man sitting at a nearby table spilled his coffee, got a phone call just afterward, and simply left, so that staff had to clean up his mess, a scene that culminated in a haggard-looking barista drooping her shoulders in frustration. Was the call a true emergency? We don’t know. But if not, almost everyone would agree that the man behaved badly.

Yet almost all of you would react with discomfort or opprobrium if I followed the man back to his office, learned his name, spent half an hour waiting to see his boss, adopted an outraged tone, explained his transgression, felt righteous, then commenced a week-long mission to alert his extended network of friends, family, and professional contacts to his behavior, all the while telling masses of strangers about it, too.

On the other hand, if that man spilled his coffee, leaving that same haggard barista to clean it up, and if I captured the whole thing on my phone camera and posted it to Twitter with a snarky comment about the need to better respect service workers, some nontrivial percentage of the public would help make the clip go viral, join in the shaming, and expend effort to “snitch-tag” various people in the man’s personal life. Some would quietly raise an eyebrow at my role in that public shaming, but I mostly wouldn’t be treated as a transgressor.

One cannot help but wonder whether there are better norms. The internet isn’t restoring what was lost when we left the village, but today’s version is eroding the compensating benefit of getting to live fluidly across domains, in part because digital norms seem uninterested in protecting it.

So a thought experiment: What would the implications be of adopting the norm that it is often wrong, or only rarely appropriate, to rob an individual of the ability to slip into a given domain and adopt whatever values and norms are appropriate while retaining their identities in other domains?

What would be the worst consequences? How might we shift the cultural equilibrium to value domain-slipping more highly while recognizing its practical and moral limits? What tradeoffs are involved? Any thoughts on this subject are appreciated––write conor@theatlantic.com, especially if you have an example of why you personally value the ability to maintain different identities in different domains.

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