06/24/2013 04:00 pm ET Updated Aug 24, 2013

Captive to Modernity

What is freedom? That's a fairly intense question for someone to ask a nineteen-year-old. What do I know about freedom? I live in Los Angeles, California. Luckily enough for me, I think about my own freedom probably as much as I think about shoveling the snow out of my driveway. So, last week, when my cousin asked me what I think freedom is, I really had no answer. And believe me, I usually have an answer. So instead, I asked him to answer his own question. But, unlike me, he had an answer.

My cousin looks like a modern version of the stereotypical philosopher. He's bald, wears square glasses in front of very large blue eyes, has a little bit of gray scruff, and is always smiling. As we sat outside under a roof made of palm tree leaves, he told me his definition of freedom: A free man never feels the need to defend his actions. My cousin admitted that this explanation was a little abstract, so he provided me with an example:

Imagine that Person One backs up his car and accidentally hits Person Two's car behind him. The typical ensuing conversation between two "un-free people" sounds something like this:

Person Two: You hit my car.
Person One: Well you parked too close. Look at the line. You didn't park correctly.
Person Two: Well the other car didn't park correctly, so I had to park this way.

According to my cousin's definition, neither Person One nor Person Two is free. If they were free, they would not care about the other person's accusation. If Person One were free, when Person Two accused him of hitting his car, Person One would simply say, "Give me a hug." In this scenario, Person One does not ask someone to excuse his actions. He knows he hit Person Two's car and lives with the consequences.

Under this paradigm, few people are free. Few people simply admit they were wrong. If someone makes a mistake, he or she will likely provide an excuse. Maybe there was traffic; maybe the rearview mirrors weren't adjusted correctly; maybe the instructions were not provided. My cousin said that most people are not free because society imposes these standards, and people feel the need to defend their honor. Believe me, I've read enough Greek and Roman texts to know about "honor." So maybe we aren't that different from Achilles and Aeneas. They lived with the constant need for society to approve and glorify their actions.

Thousands of years later, instead of requiring others to pass down our achievements via epic poems, we simply ask people for their approval online. We update our statuses on Facebook, post pictures on Instagram, and check in on Foursquare. But we don't just post these things for our own enjoyment; we post them so that others can approve of our activities. A rare person would post a picture of himself or herself walking into a bathroom, unless of course the bathroom served as a status symbol. For example, the bathroom at Beauty and Essex, an upscale restaurant in Manhattan, has waitresses serving people champagne while they "freshen up." That would be Instagram-appropriate. Similarly, almost nobody posts pictures of his or her bedroom, and if someone does, it's not to tell others that he or she arrived safely; it's merely an excuse to show the world how nice his or her room looks. I'm not saying I don't want to know about a cool bathroom or that my friends' have nice bedrooms. I'm just commenting on a social trend.

Most people don't post on these social networks just to share something about their lives. They post about their activities to get validation. It's not about the picture; it's about the likes and comments that a picture gets. If a profile picture on Facebook doesn't get "likes" or comments, many would take it down. On Instagram, if a picture doesn't get at least 10 "likes," and list the number of likes instead of the names of the people who liked it, many consider it a failed upload and might even delete it. I've thought about the optimal time to Instagram something. (Not too early for my friends on the West Coast and not too late for my friends on the East Coast.) Some might call me crazy, but trust me, I'm not alone.

As sad as it is, each upload is a little gamble. People put their self-esteem in jeopardy every time they post something on a social network. I don't care if you're a fifty-year-old mom who has an account just to keep track of her kids' online lives or a preteen social network queen who gets at least 100 likes on each photo, each of you gets at least a little excited when someone "likes" your post.

As we share more and more about our lives on these social networks and require others to approve of every trip, meal, and feeling, by my cousin's definition of freedom, it seems like we are becoming less and less free. Ironically, even though we live in a modern society and have the ability to eat and go (for the most part) wherever we please, maybe we are not as free as we think we are. Of course we aren't enslaved to anyone in particular, but it seems that instead of being captivated by modernity, we are captive to it. And maybe, however adverse it seems, society functions best when people care about preserving their honor.