"Soon enough, nobody will remember life before the Internet. What does this unavoidable fact mean?" from chapter 1 This Kills That
I read the majority of Michael Harris' The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We've Lost in a World of Constant Connection prior to trip with nearly twenty young adults and teenagers to a youth convention of nearly five thousand of them and finished it prior to an eight day vacation which I promised my wife I would refrain from getting on the computer, and thus the Internet, during both events.
I failed as I:
tweeted about the event during the event (and was encouraged to tweet)
dialogued with some people via my cell phone (a non-smart one, by the way) via Facebook private messaging,
and exchanged texts with a colleague about what faced me after my 12 day "absence."
And Harris' words about the lack of absence, -a state in which free time is becoming less and less experienced, were a constant reminder about his fear that the "digital natives" of this age will never experience such absence but instead be consumed by the constant demands of a smart-phone world, - served as a reminder to me of a constant battle that I, as part of what Harris calls the Before generation, the generation who remembers what life was like before the Internet, now fight.
Some might read The End of Absence and consider it a rant by someone who is too introverted or sensitive to handle the new reality of on-line life. Others might read it and think that it is a call to a new kind of digital monasticism. I don't think so either way. Rather I think that Harris argues that intentional absences must become a part of our lives so that absence keeps us in touch with our humanity.
Divided into nine chapters, Harris uses a combination of history as he recounts the changes resulting from the Gutenberg press; current scientific research related to brain waves and malleability of the human brain to adopt to the changes current technology is causing; human resource management as he speaks with motivational speakers about how to keep technology within limits so that personal and corporate productivity is enhanced; literary criticism with the stories of how the democratization of book reviews and other once "elitist" activities are changing how people read and buy books; and the personal stories of how the digital world we now inhabit causes people such Amanda Todd to take her own life while seeking meaningful connection from this same digital world that so abused her. As such, End of Absence is a fast-paced book that weaves throughout these fields while Harris weaves in his own wrestling and journey to unplug from the digital world for one month.
I found the following chapters to challenge my thinking regarding the value and need for absence in order to think, remember, even believe in a larger context than what appears on my phone and computer screens.
Chapter 3 - Confession was thought provoking one as it addreses the issues of acceptance and how our on-line confessions are taking us away from working through "the mysteries of our own existence without reference to the demands of an often ruthless public."
Chapter 5 - Authenticity serves as a reminder that the importance of personal experience is slowly being replaced by a digital life in which "we can maintain confident-if technically less authentic-versions of ourselves."
Chapter 7 - Memory (The Good Error) took me back to Malcolm Gladwell's thoughts on memory in his book Outliers as Harris suggests that "human memory" (compared to digital memory) "was never meant to call up things, after all, but rather explore the richness of exclusion, of absence."
Harris' book serves as a reminder to me and, he hopes (so do I), to others that the need for absence is a critical one in order for us to live a life untethered to our technology. Or, as Harris says,
"Give yourself permission to go without one weekend - without any screens you look at when you are bored... Ask yourself what might come from all those silences you've been filling up."
I think Henry David Thoreau would be pleased.
on July 7, 2014
I sympathize with the author's frustration with the wi-fi/internet/smart phone overlord running our lives, but I think he could have done a better job in looking at the issue.
I'm being a bit harsh with my three-star rating, but in truth, this book does not offer anything more than what anyone with common sense would deduce about the 'internet generation,' say people born after 1985. That we are now more distracted, more attention-divided, more sound/image/thought-bite oriented in direct correlation to one's year of birth seems pretty obvious if you walk down any city street (or suburban street for that matter). What the author does is add to this commonly observed phenomenon by introducing some sociological analyses, neurological and brain research to provide empirical data for these changes, and cite oft-mentioned references from Plato to Sherry Turkle to Elizabeth Eisenstein that have been used time and again in 'media effects' books. Now if you haven't read much about media effects, technological determinism, or diminishing attention spans or internet culture and their effects, this book is a good introduction, but I've been to this party already and I want to leave -- Hopefully I can -- unlike the guests in the movie The Exterminating Angel.
The title refers to the idea that we just can't "be" anymore; we have to be doing. It used to be boom boxes and television and comic books that had this effect, but with the constantly connected, we've reached total saturation. But do we have a choice? A confounding variable in the divisions proffered in this book (pre-internet generation, intermediate internet generation, internet generation) is that the people numb to their mediated lives and whose identities are at least partially formed by the internet/smart phone obsession are younger than the pre-internet bunch. So is it the era one is born in or is it one's age that encourages us to be constantly connected? I think that self-awareness and choice comes with experience, so to my mind, it's too early to tell what the outcome will be.
Finally, what's left out is the P.T. Barnum factor. With more sophisticated ways of attracting more suckers, the economic engine that benefits from a society latched onto the wireless world like people with chronic kidney diseases hooked up to dialysis machines.
Where are the books that echo the "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore" for the constant connection generation? Maybe they're irrelevant. Most would not read them, and those that would wouldn't need to.
After author Michael Harris took an editing job at Vancouver magazine in 2008, he became aware that he was spending more time "managing content instead of creating it". In an Internet connected world, monitoring Twitter and Facebook feed became vital activities. Harris found himself in a state of "continuous partial attention", reading emails or answering texts or mobile phone calls but unable to keep up with the deluge of information that required a response. .
Eventually, the pace - and insanity - got to him and he quit his job. He wanted relief from the pressure and demands of constant digital communication. He craved the chance to experience true "absence" from all the devices that filled in the blank spaces and sucked up his time.
And what IS there when one steps away from all the digital world, from mobile phones to Internet to cable television..and more? What actually happens when there is time to take a breath and resist the urge to check emails several times a day ( even on vacation)?
Harris makes a strong case for the importance of questioning the world of "constant communication" afforded by today's digital lifestyle. But I don't want to give the impression that this is a book focused on attacking technology and the Internet. Harris fully acknowledgment the Internet's gifts. But there are also cautions. There are reminders of the risks of digital life: online bullying, texting instead of talking, substituting role-playing games for personal interaction.
The part of the book I found most compelling was when Harris took a month long "sabbatical" from online life. No Internet. No mobile phone. No Twitter, Facebook, text messages, Google searches. He tells his editors, friends, and family that they'll have to leave messages on his phone... but he won't be checking those messages.
I don't want to give away too much so I'll let those who buy this book discover what happens by the end of the month but it isn't surprising that things don't go smoothly at the beginning of that month.. Harris has frequent withdrawal pangs. He has to fight the urge to check email (he even dreams of receiving emails). A sense of isolation sets in, especially since he works from home rather than in an office where he can chat with co-workers.
Reading his daily journal inspired me to think deeply about my own online life. I've made some changes. And ultimately, as Harris describes so well throughout this book, we "decide how we want to interact with the various technologies and the benefits - and risks - that arise. " Being mindful of both the negatives and positives is vital for making choices that lead to a more balanced life - both on and off the Internet.
As a first-wave Gen X er (I'm 45), I'm not really a digital native, but I'm comfortable with most technologies. I still refuse to stay plugged in 24/7. Most of the time, I use my cellphone to screen my calls. I never text anyone, and I get annoyed from receiving texts. I find Facebook mildly useful for keeping up with friends and family, but beyond that it is a never-ending scrolling marquee of annoying. I love the premise of this book - that future generations won't know what the loss of lack will mean. With every kind of information and connection available to you at your fingertips, it's hard to feel the absence of anyone or anything. In a way, it creates a loss of the kind of enveloping comfort I felt, as a child in the 70s, of really being very shielded from the rest of the world. It was less so in the suburbs, but visiting my grandparents' farm on summer vacations, and spending long lazy days just reading books on the porch and petting my dog, with zero contacts from home or office, is something Millennials will find hard to understand and appreciate.
While there have been several excellent books about the effects of the digital age on human concentration & depth of thought -- Nicholas Carr's "The Shallows" remains the benchmark, I think -- this particular book by a writer on the cusp of this immense change in human experience speaks quite effectively about one major aspect: the loss of empty time & space, the absence where contemplation & reflection take place, where experience is slowly transmuted into richer Being.
Author Michael Harris certainly is no stranger to the delights of digital distraction -- in speaking of his month away from connection, the necessity of wearing a watch is hopelessly old-fashioned to him -- but he's just old enough to remember life before the digital age, when there was plenty of open, free, undistracted time, without incessant interruptions & updates. More importantly, there was no need for them, no addictive craving for what constitutes the water in which we all swim now.
Certainly this transformation hasn't been all bad, as evidenced by the ability to share our thoughts on this book right here, for instance. But looking back on previous information upgrades, we can see that the same promises were made about them as well. Edward R. Murrow first saw television as "a university of the airwaves" -- and now we've got "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" & "Real Housewives" & "Duck Dynasty" providing very different life lessons to the masses. Cable TV was going to provide a niche for everything, as was satellite TV, and then streaming -- but we've got 1000+ channels showing the same 40 or 50 popular movies, bad sitcom reruns, and (un)reality shows galore; the brief flowering of arts channels is long gone, and even PBS is horribly dumbed down. And what are digital devices used for most? Porn, self-promotion, and brain-dead trivia.
More than that, though -- Harris points out that as we outsource our skills to devices, we lose those skills ourselves. A common phrase these days: "Why do I have to know that? I can just Google it." And of course we can. Yet knowing how to find a fact is not the same as knowing it, both for itself & for its place in a larger context. What we have in fact is "knowledge" that covers the globe but is thinner than tissue paper -- and is just as easily torn.
So why 4 & 1/2 stars instead of 5? Because of a personal caveat. Harris repeatedly states that technology is neither good or bad in itself. I disagree -- as Jerry Mander pointed out nearly 40 years ago, all technology embodies its own agenda from the start. For example, the internal combustion engine not only means swifter travel, but also means the importance of oil, the rise of corporate monopolies, the national policies based on maintain those monopolies. Whatever the best intentions of some, anything that changes the world & generates both profits & power has an ethical, moral component. A technology can't just be considered as neutral, not in a specific culture & worldview. In this, I feel Harris is short-sighted.
Still, that's just a caveat. The book is a fine introduction to the issues at hand, and should send the reader to further books on the subject. My final thought: the glittering digital future is predicated on power & infrastructure remaining whole & functioning. But as the world runs out of renewable resources, and the population continues to grow, what happens when the machine stops (to reference E. M. Forster's prescient novella of 100 years ago)? If & when that happens, those who've hung onto supposedly obsolete skills will be in a far better position than those who've surrendered their souls to their devices.
Highly recommended to the thoughtful reader!
on October 2, 2014
Harris' book is a collection of thoughts about his childhood and online life, but it rambles aimlessly from time to time and never clearly defines what it is we've "lost," or how to go about improving our lives in the digital Hades in which we all live. Harris seems more interested in impressing his audience with his clever vocabulary than he does in weaving together the stories from his personal life with a common thread. We learn about his partner Kenny, the unpleasant experience of reading War and Peace, and other stories that don't relate to one another (or the title of the book) very well. The book is full of annoying vapidities like "the end of lack" or "the lack of absence." These would be less annoying if Harris spent more time coherently analyzing what it was about pre-internet life that made that time something to grab onto today.
There are sections of this book that are almost offensive to readers with a scholarly bent. Much of Harris' "research" involves interviews with other writers or tech gurus whose comments are limited in scope, at best. His interaction with an old computer program designed to lull its user into basic conversation is funny, but readers are left wondering what was the point of the story. Harris seems to fashion himself an expert on multiple subjects and even laughably refers to the "jazz" elements of post-1800 Beethoven. Also disconcerting, the early part of the book contains ideas and personalities taken straight from Neil Postman's ground-breaking work "Technopoly," though Harris does finally credit Postman later in his writing.
In summary, Harris' book is overly sentimental and difficult to finish. His topic would have been better served as a short story. In the end, I suggest that readers take his advice and sit and contemplate nothing rather than wade through the meandering series personal anecdotes that make up this book.
Author Michael Harris is not a Luddite (although he offers an interesting clarification of those oft-misrepresented English industrial workers and what they actually stood for and against). Harris doesn't advocate leaving the grid en masse for some quixotic quest to recapture a romanticized past, when our lives were slower-paced and richer in genuine experience.
`The End of Absence' is ambitious in scope and I was impressed by the vast sweep of cultural history, philosophy, cognitive science, tech-driven commerce, not to mention the simple flotsam and common banality of day-to-day existence Harris explores here.
One moment he's contemplating the impact of Gutenberg on memorization and access to formerly exclusive knowledge, or meditating upon Thoreau's not-quite-full-withdrawal from society and the Harvard-educated cabin-dweller's ambivalence towards the then-modern steam engine. A paragraph later, Harris observes two boys on a bus, seated side-by-side yet communicating happily via text, or he's interviewing the CEO of a dating site/app designed to surreptitiously identify a subset of potential `hook-ups' among patrons of a crowded restaurant.
And all through `The End of Absence' runs the common thread of Harris' personal struggle as a freelance writer to keep his head above water in amidst a raging river of non-stop distraction.
Even my fellow reviewers and I take it on the chin as Harris, a former theater critic, considers whether a little elitism isn't such a bad thing and whether `too many opinions' of the uninformed, trivializing kind actually lead to a less informed public. I'm not completely sold on his argument for `curated by experts information', such as the suggested listening lists provided by the music site Songerz, but I found Harris' arguments sincere and well-intentioned.
I enjoyed how the book's nine succinctly-titled chapters focus on specific motivations and activities our `constantly connected' culture has impacted and shaped, including: Attention, Confession, Authenticity, Memory, `Hooking Up'. It's an effective skeleton on which to hang the varied references and multi-layered discussions.
`The End of Absence' isn't the first book to argue that multitasking is a myth and there's a real and pernicious cost to constant distraction. But it's the first I've read to point out how the inherent over-stimulation of an always-connected world actually plays off of, and arguably perverts, our brains' evolutionary capacity to identify and respond to sudden events as a self-defense mechanism.
Think about that the next time your friend messages `Hey, you there?' and you feel your chest tighten.
This is in large part why, Harris argues, so many of us find online life irresistibly addictive - the constant `noise' of bells and whistles, continuous interactivity, and easy, passive receptivity tap into and feed very real, very primal urges and desires.
The book reaffirms much of my own skepticism of the confessionary/narcissistic online culture we're immersed in and raises fundamental questions regarding what it means to learn, to be educated, to function in such a society.
Fortunately, it's not all high-minded theorizing and philosophy. While `The End of Absence' is well-researched and intelligently written, it's also quite funny at times as Harris embarks on personal adventures to read `War and Peace' in two weeks with no distractions, and later takes an `Analog August' sabbatical from technology. His attempt to capture a forgotten childlike sense of freedom and endless possibility by lying on the ground of a childhood haunt and gazing at the sky was something I and I'm sure most readers could take to heart.
Yet one problem I had with the book is Harris' tone can at time be borderline shrill and exasperated - almost despondent. He seems to be struggling greatly with his own relationship to constant connectedness. His occasional lapses into sarcasm and irony were often difficult to parse; more than once I found myself confused over his apparent agreement with a contradictory idea, only to conclude later he meant it ironically. There's also some gratuitous vulgarity I found completely avoidable and unnecessary.
While it's easy to empathize with his compulsive inbox checking, I found myself growing impatient in the middle chapters and starting to doubt whether Harris, born in 1970, is in fact the best messenger for his message - claiming to represent a generation who lived both before and after the internet became all-pervasive. As someone a decade or so older he often appeared to me as someone too `caught up in it' for his own good - but perhaps that's just normal age-bias on my part.
Harris leaves his somewhat over-caffeinated everyday life and returns to Thoreau and a philosophical tone for the final chapters where he effectively, even poetically, closes his case. Thoreau was no absolutist in his rejection of society - nor where the Luddites. They both argued for balanced integration with the technological changes impacting their respective worlds: whether fair wages to live a dignified life amidst growing industrialization or acknowledging that human beings need both social interaction and moments of solitude and reflection to achieve true happiness and explore their potential.
The `Absence' Harris speaks of are those very moments of solitude, the ability to commune with our thoughts, to reflect, to daydream, learn and explore our lives in an unstructured, unmonitored, unevaluated way that for too many people seems increasingly beyond reach in our frenetically-paced and continually bombarded existence.
`The End of Absence' is not a self-help guide in the narrow sense of a step-by-step program to detox from our non-stop technological lost weekend. It's a book meant to raise serious, even disturbing questions about our relationship to the technological world we inhabit.
But it ultimately does so in a positive way, by appealing to those uniquely human qualities that generations throughout history have called upon to cope with similarly vast changes in their worlds.
This book comes across at first as someone taking a debate position crossed with a bit of memoir, but as the book goes on it keeps up the personal info but became, for me, something very relatable. There is one portion that talks about how hard it was for the author to put aside all distractions, texting, googling, checking email and even rearranging furniture or dusting in order to read War and Peace in a two week period. It was humorous and insightful to read so much about the struggle to read while I, myself, was struggling to read THIS book, not because it isn't engaging (it is) but because there are SOOO many distractions. This was preceded by some info about how the printing press changed the world and how some felt this would be the downfall of society, so here the author is not condemning all our 21st century distractions, he is more just making a record of it and pointing out at the same time how sitting down and reading a book is hardly a natural thing for human beings/for our brains to do, any more than storing all of our knowledge in google/wikipedia.
This is certainly not the first book to talk about this point in time, on the cusp between two eras, but I think it's worthwhile because the author has a unique perspective. He lives in Canada, and he is gay. Normally I wouldn't bother to mention that second fact, but in this case it is relevant because it ties into his own unique experiences using the Internet and cell phones and he spends some time talking about the websites and apps (mostly apps) that have been somewhat pioneering in connecting people, and that have been designed with gay men in mind or successful because of gay men. He then goes on to make the point that these apps might possibly be successful with straight men as well, if only women were interested in them (they are very good for helping facilitate hook-ups and anonymous sexual encounters). He also makes some interesting points such as Wikipedia is 90% written by men (after talking about how Wikipedia is not always 100% factual.) That whole bit could probably be an entirely different book.
If the subject of how technology insinuates itself into our every waking moment is of interest to you, then I really recommend this book. I think the author has a fresh perspective even when talking about some of the same studies that get covered over and over again. Also, don't miss the glossary, it contains a bunch of terms that are interesting/hilarious and not mentioned anywhere else in the book.
It was these lines in the book's description that caught my attention: "But those of us who have lived both with and without the crowded connectivity of online life have a rare opportunity. We can still recognize the difference between Before and After."
Yes — we're the bridge generation, I thought. We grew up with rotary phones and manual typewriters and now have smartphones that do the job of both and more besides. It struck me that Harris is actually younger than I am (I was born in 1975; I deduced from his passage about remembering being nine and Tim Berners-Lee beginning work on what would become the World Wide Web that he was born around 1980) — and that he extended the period during which you could have been born and still experienced this as a transition all the way to 1985. (This makes me feel older than I really am! I suppose the difference is the that the younger folks would say "pushbutton phones" or "cordless phones" rather than rotary, and "electric typewriters" or, more likely, something like "IBM PCs" or "Apple IIs," for manual typewriters.)
Later in the book he relates how Roger Ebert found it increasingly difficult as he got older to read the Victorian novels he used to enjoy when he was younger, and how he himself was struggling to make it through War and Peace. (I still haven't gotten through the copy of Bleak House I bought many years ago.) Ironically, I was myself having trouble being captivated by this book. It's not bad, by any means — Harris is a good writers, has some good insights, and interviews some interesting people. But I think it's too general for my tastes. A lot of what he says has been said before. And, contrary to the title, there is no prescription for the loss of absence. No real one, anyway. It's more a slightly hopeful lament.
I wanted to note a few things in particular. When it comes to the democratization of opinion, he quotes form In Defence of Elitism, On Bullshit, and The Cult of the Amateur. Of course he doesn't believe that no one who doesn't have an institutional imprimatur has a valid opinion — he himself admits that he had no credentials when he began writing cultural reviews for a national Canadian newspaper... but he does note that those who did use to make up part of the elite feel particularly threatened... when it's their own field. (Otherwise, they're more than happy to see the others be democratized.) But honestly: yes, some cultural critics of the past, and others whose opinions we read, deserved their positions. Others simply had them. Perhaps the fact that The New York Times thinks you're worthy to write for them does mean your opinion is more worth listening to than if you're simply Joe Q. Public. Perhaps not, though, and as you go down the chain, getting closer and closer to community institutions, you find yourself wondering if it means anything at all or if it's simply a means of perpetuating the establishment.
I myself had no credentials to be writing book or music reviews when I was hired by Amazon.com a decade ago. The fact that I worked for Amazon made it possible for me to have my short reviews read by thousands of people (whether or not those people liked my reviews or if they influenced them in any way is another question) — but it didn't change who I was; I was originally hired for my copyediting ability, anyway, not my music criticism; and as a music editor I was able to have at least one very good friend of mine write some reviews for us — he had no credentials, either, but he knew his music and was an excellent writer. It was mere chance that he or I had the opportunity to write.
Anyway, Harris does get to the point which I always try to make when people decry the democratization of culture and the opening of access to publishing to the masses: "There has aways been an abundance of BS. But never before have so many been implicated in the BS rigmarole that is public conversation." Exactly. Whenever I hear people saying that the English language is degenerating, I point out that people have never written at a uniform literary standard. People are as good or as bad as they ever were — the difference is that now it's a lot easier to find unedited prose, and it's a lot easier for your unedited prose to find wide distribution. So, what do we want to do — impose censorship? Those who used to read The New York Times and the London Review of Books and the like will still do so. Those who didn't still won't.
He also notes, in the chapter on memory, that we've been using memory aids for thousands of years. We may think we're losing something fundamental by relying on the Internet to tell us certain things, but they said the same thing when writing overtook speech, or printing overtook manuscripts. "The Internet is only one example of our dog-eared recall system."
"I'd like to know for myself when La Bohème was composed and what Jung actually said about dreams and where exactly Uzbekistan might be," he writes. Well, if you're really interested in those subjects, you will know. I don't know the first two, but isn't it great I can get a rudimentary idea without having to leave my chair? As for Uzbekistan, I am interested in political geography, so I do know where it's located. If I really need to get specific, though, I'll need a map — whether or not it's hand-drawn, printed, a globe, or online, it's still a memory aid — and you can do so many things with online cartography it isn't even funny. (I'm still a physical maps aficionado, though… I think in this, as in most things, there's room for both.) I know things about the fields I'm interested in, and the Internet makes it possible for me to learn about things I might want to know a little about but which aren't a passion. I don't think it has to be knowing a lot about a little or a little about a lot; I think you can still do both. (You can certainly know little about little; knowing a lot about a lot is not something that most people can achieve, with or without technology.)
Technology is about explicitness, he quotes Lyman Bryson as saying in a subsequent chapter on Internet dating — "they focus our attention on one cramped view of things," especially if they're online. I think they can do that, but they don't necessarily have to. Technology makes it easier for us to be lazy, but it doesn't force us to be.
Elsewhere, and here is where I wish I had the ability to do a full-text search of this physical book, he mentions the fact that (and I can't remember if this was his idea or someone else's) the real transition to the future might actually have taken place in the mid 1800s, not in the last decade or so. This is worth thinking about. Each generation — unless it's a particularly boring 20 years, and I can't think of one of those — must think the changes it's seen have been the most fundamental ones yet. Each generation is probably wrong. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose — toward the end of the book he notes that "the steam-powered locomotive (which arrived at the front end of the 19th century) may have been a sign of that dangerous fate ["the fate that never turns aside"] for Thoreau, but only a few generations later, train travel had already become a symbol of an idyllic, slower past."
Ultimately, I agree with Harris — we don't want to go backwards technologically, but to take advantage of the good things it brings us and give ourselves a break once in a while so we can remember we really are still creatures of flesh and blood and not of silicon and plastic. He seems more pessimistic about the future effects of technology than I do, which I again find interesting, since he's younger than me, but I honestly think that what technology is doing is revealing our true natures to ourselves at least as much as it's changing us. That BS has always been there — it's just far, far easier, to find.
In a book titled, The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, journalist Michael Harris reflects on his own experience of how his life has changed both while he was digitally connected and then unplugged. He peppers the text with tidbits of what others have to say about technological change, attention, and a spate of other topics. Other than the loss of solitude that we can experience while constantly connected, I’m not sure I gleaned much from Harris’ reflections. It hasn’t been very long since the Internet and our smart devices gave us the capability to become constantly connected. It will take some more time to understand all the consequences of this development. Harris opens a conversation with readers on this subject through these reflections. One’s own experiences may be different. This might be an interesting book to discuss among book club members.
Rating: Three-star (It’s ok)