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The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We've Lost in a World of Constant Connection by [Michael Harris]

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Editorial Reviews


"The End of Absence is a genial and philosophical tour through one man’s anxieties surrounding digital life.”
The New York Times

"Harris has caught, with brilliant fidelity and incisiveness, a hinge-point in modern history: Before and After the Digital Rapture. The End of Absence deserves a place alongside Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death and Sherry Turkle’s Life on the Screen. A great, important (and fun) read. I couldn’t in good conscience lend out my copy: every other page is dog-eared."
Bruce Grierson, author of What Makes Olga Run?

“This is a lovely, direct, and beautifully written book that will make you feel good about living in the times we do. Michael Harris is honest in a way I find increasingly rare: clear, truthful, and free of vexation. A true must-read.”
Douglas Coupland, author of Worst. Person. Ever. and Generation X

The End of Absence is a beautifully written and surprisingly rousing book. Michael Harris scans the flotsam of our everyday, tech-addled lives and pulls it all together to create a convincing new way to talk about our relationship with the Internet. He has taken the vague technological anxiety we all live with and shaped it into a bold call for action.”
Steven Galloway, author of The Confabulist and The Cellist of Sarajevo

“Everybody over sixty should read this book. The rest of the population will need no urging, unless they are too far gone to read anything longer than a blurb. The first part reads like a horror story, a shocking mind-thriller. In the second half the author, despite real foreboding, demonstrates in his own person that all is far from lost. Relief, after much learning.”
Margaret Visser, author of Much Depends on Dinner

“In this thoughtful, well-written book, Michael Harris combines personal narrative with the views of experts to show us that the digital revolution that envelops us contains traps that can lead us to understand less even as we seem to know more.”
Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice and Practical Wisdom --This text refers to the paperback edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


This Can Show You Everything


THE settlement called Batu Lima sat deep in the tropical forests of eastern Malaysia, about three miles from the closest real village. Its one-room houses, largely abandoned or dismantled by the time our story begins, stood on stilts, with floors of bamboo. One family was left—made up of Siandim Gunda, Jimi Sinting, and their twelve children. One daughter, Linda Jimi, was fourteen years old and ready to leave.

There was a box with four little legs in their house, and in the box was a black-and-white television. There was no electricity (Linda was tasked with gathering firewood for the kitchen stove each day), but on special occasions, Linda’s father would take the car battery that powered the TV into the village and have it charged. Then Linda could watch Sesame Street, which was senseless but wonderful, with its American children and Muppets prattling in confounding English, playing out their deeply foreign antics.

Big Bird was yellow, Linda learned. The village children had electricity and color televisions; they would brag about their colors. Linda said, “I know,” and told the other children that her family had colors, too.

Sesame Street was baffling, but Linda’s family believed intrinsically in spirits and ghosts, so the apparitions that flashed on the television screen could be folded into a larger trust in magic, in brushes with the unknowable.

Besides, more magical by far was the komburongoh that Linda’s grandmother Sukat wielded. Linda never touched the sacred object herself, for fear of angering the spirits and growing sick—but she could look across the hut at the thing in her grandmother’s hands, a tight bundle of teeth taken from several animals, knotted together with a collection of small bones. Sukat, who could handle the komburongoh with impunity, had access to the spirit of an ancestor, and she could call upon the spirit for help when attempting to heal members of the Dusun tribe.

Once, before the village was abandoned, Linda watched her grandmother work her magic over a child who’d been stricken with fever. This was only a small ritual, so Sukat hadn’t bothered to dress in the full garb of a bobolian (high priestess)—she’d worn an ordinary sarong and a long-sleeved blouse. Sukat had moved her komburongoh over the sickly child’s head, shaking her bundle of teeth for five full minutes while the infant sweated beneath. Sukat had told the spirit to undo this child’s illness, and the spirit had asked for a sacrifice—a chicken or a few cups of rice.

Sukat’s healing powers were meant to be passed on to her daughter—Linda’s mother—but Sukat died too early, and then, like many Malaysians, Linda’s mother converted to Catholicism. When the family finally left Batu Lima and moved to town, Linda’s mother left behind Sukat’s mystical equipment.

Linda, too, was taking steps away from that miniature settlement, away from the mythical past of Malaysia. She wanted something more, though she couldn’t say what “more” might look like. At eighteen, she ran away from home and moved to the city of Sabah (a relative metropolis with its two thousand people). There she worked at a KFC restaurant (much the same setup as the American version, though minus the American pay). She saved her meager wages for months before purchasing a mobile phone, which became precious to her. She wanted badly to enter the modern world, to live, at last, in the full glow of the world’s future. Eventually, Linda worked her way up to the far “classier” Little Italy restaurant in Kota Kinabalu. The pay was the same, but at least tourists dined there, which meant Linda could practice her English.

Tourists like Nate, a Canadian who’d just graduated from college and was backpacking around the region. “Come hang out in Singapore with me,” he offered.

“Sure,” said Linda, and she went a little farther afield. The couple had their affair and Nate left for home, promising to return in the fall. Linda hoped, rather than believed, that the promise would be fulfilled. And when Nate did return, eventually inviting Linda to come live on the other side of the world, in Vancouver, she might well have undergone severe culture shock. The Canadian city was almost a letdown, though, since Linda had assumed that every city in North America looked like the city she’d seen, in black and white, on Sesame Street.

• • • • •

A few years and many miles later, Linda returned to Malaysia. Now she was a soon-to-be Canadian, lugging a laptop to her mother’s home. She patched into the Internet through a shaky dial-up connection and managed to introduce her mother to the wonder that is Google.

“This can show you everything,” she told her mother. Videos of celebrities flashed across the laptop’s screen. “Here, I’ll show you where I live in Canada.” A few taps later, the laptop’s screen was displaying a map of the world and Linda proceeded to zoom into Canada, into British Columbia, into Vancouver, into the city’s east side, and finally into the block where she lived with Nate. “There,” she said to her mother, pointing. “That’s where I live. That’s my home.” Her mother didn’t understand at first, and Linda continued to wave at the screen. “This can show you everything.”

“It can show me everything?” her mother asked, now leaning in, full of wonder.

“Everything. What do you want to see?”

The answer came through tears: “Show me my mother in the afterlife.”




We think we have discovered a grotto that is stored with bewildering treasure; we come back to the light of day, and the gems we have brought are false—mere pieces of glass—and yet does the treasure shine on, unceasingly, in the darkness.

—Maurice Maeterlinck


This Kills That

Technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral.

—Melvin Kranzberg

SOON enough, nobody will remember life before the Internet. What does this unavoidable fact mean?

For those billions who come next, of course, it won’t mean anything very obvious. Our online technologies, taken as a whole, will have become a kind of foundational myth—a story people are barely conscious of, something natural and, therefore, unnoticed. Just as previous generations were charmed by televisions until their sets were left always on, murmuring as consolingly as the radios before them, future generations will be so immersed in the Internet that questions about its basic purpose or meaning will have faded from notice. Something tremendous will be missing from their lives—a mind-set that their ancestors took entirely for granted—but they will hardly be able to notice its disappearance. Nor can we blame them.

However, we have in this brief historical moment, this moment in between two modes of being, a very rare opportunity. For those of us who have lived both with and without the vast, crowded connectivity the Internet provides, these are the few days when we can still notice the difference between Before and After.

This is the moment. Our awareness of this singular position pops up every now and again. We catch ourselves idly reaching for our phones at the bus stop. Or we notice how, midconversation, a fumbling friend dives into the perfect recall of Google. We can still catch ourselves. We say, Wait. . . .

I think that within the mess of changes we’re experiencing, there’s a single difference that we feel most keenly; and it’s also the difference that future generations will find hardest to grasp. That is the end of absence—the loss of lack. The daydreaming silences in our lives are filled; the burning solitudes are extinguished.

Before all memory of those absences is shuttered, though, there is this brief time when we might record what came before. We might do something with those small, barely noticeable instances when we’re reminded of our love for absence. They flash at us amid the rush of our experience and seem to signal: Wait, wasn’t there something . . . ?

I was shaken by one of these moments, one not-so-special day, at the offices of Vancouver magazine. I was employed there for years as an editor and staff writer. I was, to use the stultifying phrase we were offered, a “content creator.”

• • • • •

I presume I’m late for work as I trundle over the Granville Street Bridge on the #10 bus toward the magazine offices. Out the window, I can monitor the gunmetal sky while licking at my knuckles where Starbucks dribbles down my hand. I wonder whether I’m (a) ten minutes late, which is acceptable, even advised; or (b) twenty minutes late, at which point one invites passive-aggressive comments.

Alas. It is (b). A jockish intern smiles—“So, you decided to join us”—as I move by his gray cubicle toward my own. I give a quick laugh to avoid seeming rude, but I don’t slow my pace. Stopping leaves one open to requests for “coffee,” which means career advice. These talks only depress me, since the interns tote such fierce and poorly researched ambitions. They stream from journalism schools, expecting internships to lead to jobs at magazines and newspapers, never quite believing the truth of our haggard faces.

Our business is ailing. Each magazine, like a freighter, groans in its effort to turn, to adapt to online life—but too slow, too slow. Some publications shutter; others collapse their international bureaus; all grow anorexic; sales departments, empowered by the desperation of publishers, are able to blur the lines between advertisements and editorial further and further. (When I brought up the old concept of church and state with a senior sales associate at one magazine, she chirped, “Oh, we are church and state. But, you know, ish.”)

We aren’t quite willing to see the writing on the wall. I took an editing job at Vancouver magazine in 2008, immediately before the global recession added dynamite to our industry’s collapse. Corporate overlords in Montreal slashed a third of the jobs in the office. Meanwhile, the advent of digital technologies brought new responsibilities that we remaining few grudgingly took on each year. Ten years ago, no magazine editor imagined spending half the day maintaining Twitter feeds or refereeing comment trails on Facebook. But there we were, managing content instead of creating it. We spent most of our lives pushing electronic nothings around while staring at a glowing rectangle.

After an editorial meeting (where we’re informed that our Twitter avatar lacks “punch”), I retreat to my cubicle and begin opening windows within windows on the two monitors that are always lit atop my desk. I begin to work on a small item about the Cirque du Soleil but am derailed seventy-five words in by a video of Anderson Cooper coming out of the closet that the art director has sent me via iChat. Another iChat window opens while I’m watching the video, this time a question from the editor in chief, which requires that I open my in-box to dig up an old e-mail. My mother, meanwhile, has e-mailed me on a separate account, asking me to bring that salad she likes to dinner tomorrow night. And so on. Within ten minutes I am partway through a dozen digital interactions, but none are complete. The jockish intern drifts by with a question of his own and I give him a clipped response, because at that moment he’s just another window that I want to shut. Back in 1998, the writer Linda Stone coined the phrase that describes the state I’m in: “continuous partial attention.” It’s an impoverished state, but one I seem to welcome into my life every day.

Most of us at the magazine would actually become distraught if forced to complete a task before a new one was presented. I never ignore my computer’s alerts; every ping from my phone is seen to. Dr. Gary Small, a researcher at UCLA, writes that “once people get used to this state, they tend to thrive on the perpetual connectivity. It feeds their egos and sense of self-worth, and it becomes irresistible.” And I do, I suppose, feel a certain importance with all these pings, all these requests for connection hailing down on me. I must be very, very important. I must be needed, necessary, crucial. But something has changed since my initial few years at the magazine, something in my attitude toward the pings. What has changed?

Dr. Small points out that this atmosphere of manic disruption makes my adrenal gland pump up production of cortisol and adrenaline.

In the short run, these stress hormones boost energy levels and augment memory, but over time they actually impair cognition, lead to depression, and alter the neural circuitry in the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex—the brain regions that control mood and thought. Chronic and prolonged techno-brain burnout can even reshape the underlying brain structure.

Techno-brain burnout. That sounds about it. At one point that harried afternoon, I stop and count the number of windows open on my two monitors. Fourteen. As I count them up, my phone pings again and I look down at the text message glowing there:

Dude, are you alive or what?

The text is just a flick from an impatient friend, but in my distracted state I read it as a sincere question. Are you alive or what?

And that was the moment. I picked up the phone and, ignoring the message, switched on its camera function. I photographed my monitors, plastered over with e-mails and instant messages and Word files and .pdfs. Never forget that you don’t want this, I thought. Never forget that you live in an ecosystem designed to disrupt you and it will take you for a ride if you let it.

Just before the magazine forfeited half its office space—a bid to consolidate ranks and bring in some money by subletting—I quit my job.

This left me with a distressing amount of free time—time I filled, initially, by reading about a moment weirdly similar to our own: the year 1450, when a German patrician called Johannes Gutenberg, after decades of tinkering and some very sketchy loans, managed to invent a printing press with movable type.

Like the Internet, Gutenberg’s machine made certain jobs either ridiculous or redundant (so long, scriptoria). But much more was dismantled by Gutenberg’s invention than the employment of a few recalcitrant scribes. As the fidelity and speed of copying was ratcheted way up, there was a boom in what we’d now call data transfer: A great sermon delivered in Paris might be perfectly replicated in Lyon. (Branding improved, too: for the first time subjects knew what their king looked like.) Such uniformity laid the groundwork for massive leaps in knowledge and scientific understanding as a scholastic world that was initially scattered began to cohere into a consistent international conversation, one where academics and authorities could build on one another’s work rather than repeat it.1 As its influence unfurled across Europe, the press would flatten entire monopolies of knowledge, even enabling Martin Luther to shake the foundations of the Catholic Church; next it jump-started the Enlightenment. And the printing press had its victims; its cheap and plentiful product undid whole swaths of life, from the recitation of epic poetry2 to the authority of those few who could afford handmade manuscripts. In Blake Morrison’s novel The Justification of Johann Gutenberg, he has the inventor arguing with an abbot not about the content his printing press creates, but about the way text can now be read. The abbot exclaims: “The word of God needs to be interpreted by priests, not spread about like dung.”3 The very fecundity of the press, its ability to free up content and make it cheaply available to the masses, made it a danger to the established powerhouse of the Catholic Church and a serious destabilizer of culture at large. Yet for decades after its invention in 1450, the press produced only a quantitative change (more books); limited marketplaces, limited travel, and limited literacy all conspired to thwart the invention’s true potential. By contrast, we are immediately experiencing a qualitative difference in our lives. Our fate is instantly and comprehensively reimagined by online technology.

For any single human to live through such a change is extraordinary. After all, the original Gutenberg shift in 1450 was not a moment that one person could have witnessed, but a slow-blooming era that took centuries before it was fully unpacked. Literacy in England was not common until the nineteenth century, so most folk until then had little direct contact with the printed book. And the printing machine itself was not fundamentally improved upon for the first 350 years of its existence.

But today: How quickly, how irrevocably, this kills that. Since ours is truly a single moment and not an era, scholars who specialize in fifteenth-century history may be able to make only partial comparisons with the landscape we’re trekking through. While writing this book, I found it necessary to consult also with neuroscientists, psychiatrists, psychologists, technology gurus, literature professors, librarians, computer scientists, and more than a few random acquaintances who were willing to share their war stories. And all these folk, moving down their various roads, at last crossed paths—in that place called Absence. It was an idea of absence that seemed to come up time and again. Every expert, every scientist, and every friend I spoke with had a device in his or her pocket that could funnel a planet’s worth of unabridged, incomprehensible clamor. Yet it was absence that unified the elegies I heard.

• • • • •

We may never comprehend just what was subsumed beneath the influence of Gutenberg’s machine because the change was so total that it even became the screen through which we view the world. The gains the press yielded are mammoth and essential to our lives. But we forget: Every revolution in communication technology—from papyrus to the printing press to Twitter—is as much an opportunity to be drawn away from something as it is to be drawn toward something.

Marshall McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media that “a new medium is never an addition to an old one, nor does it leave the old one in peace.” The successful new medium actively subjugates the older ones. It “never ceases to oppress the older media until it finds new shapes and positions for them.” So the dismantling of magazine and newspaper offices, the vast fields of lost writers and editors now blogging and bitching from cafés around the world, are not just employment casualties; they’re a symptom of a more profound wreckage.

As we embrace a technology’s gifts, we usually fail to consider what they ask from us in return—the subtle, hardly noticeable payments we make in exchange for their marvelous service. We don’t notice, for example, that the gaps in our schedules have disappeared because we’re too busy delighting in the amusements that fill them. We forget the games that childhood boredom forged because boredom itself has been outlawed. Why would we bother to register the end of solitude, of ignorance, of lack? Why would we care that an absence has disappeared?

The more I thought about this seismic shift in our lives—our rapid movement toward online experience and away from rarer, concrete things—the more I wanted to understand the nature of the experience itself. How does it feel to live through our own Gutenberg moment? How does it feel to be the only people in history to know life with and without the Internet?

And if we work hard enough to understand this massive game changer, and then name the parts of the new game we want to go along with and the parts we don’t, can we then pack along some critical aspect of our earlier lives that those technologies would otherwise strip from us? Or will we forget forever the value of that lack and instead see only a collection of gains? It’s hard to remember what we loved about absence; we never ask for our deprivation back.

To understand our unique predicament, and understand how to win ourselves those best possible lives, we need to root out answers in every corner of our experience. But the questions we need to ask at each juncture remain as simple as they are urgent:

What will we carry forward?

And what worthy things might we thoughtlessly leave behind?

The answer to that second question was painfully clear as I sat at my little beige desk in the offices of Vancouver magazine. What I’d left behind was absence. As a storm of digital dispatches hammered at the wall of my computer screen, I found myself desperate for sanctuary. There was a revulsion against these patterns imposed on me. I wanted a long and empty wooden desk where I could get some real work done. I wanted a walk in the woods with nobody to meet. I wanted release from the migraine-scale pressure of constant communication, the ping-ping-ping of perma-messaging, the dominance of communication over experience.

Somehow I’d left behind my old quiet life. And now I wanted it back.

• • • • •

If you were born before 1985, then you know what life is like both with the Internet and without. You are making the pilgrimage from Before to After. (Any younger and you haven’t lived as an adult in a pre-Internet landscape.) Those of us in this straddle generation, with one foot in the digital pond and the other on the shore, are experiencing a strange suffering as we acclimatize. We are the digital immigrants, and like all immigrants, we don’t always find the new world welcoming. The term itself—“digital immigrant”—isn’t a perfect one: It’s often assumed that the immigrant is somehow upgrading his or her citizenship or fleeing persecution. As for me and my peers, we may prefer to keep a pied-à-terre in the homeland of our youth.

Seen in a prudential light, our circumstances are also a tremendous gift. If we’re the last people in history to know life before the Internet, we are also the only ones who will ever speak, as it were, both languages. We are the only fluent translators of Before and After. Our children will no more be able to see online life for what it is than we can comprehend the changes wrought by Gutenberg’s printing press in the fifteenth century (or, for that matter, the changes our ancestors experienced when transitioning from an oral to a written culture). Some inventions are more than discreet gadgets; they dissolve into the very atmosphere of our lives. And who can notice the air?

• • • • •

Early on in my research for this book, I spoke with the celebrated cultural historian Alberto Manguel, who at the age of sixty-five largely eschews the bother of digital immigration. I wanted to hear in particular how this man, who wrote A History of Reading, felt about the movement toward digital text. “I can only describe it personally,” he told me:

For me the experience is one that is above all superficial. That is, the digital text has no physical reality for me. And it seems to require a certain urgency and speed, which is not what I look for when I’m reading.

Manguel encounters similar problems when writing with a digital device. On his computer, he feels constantly “conscious of the instrument I’m using. It always wants to be updated or somehow managed,” while a pen is a comparatively neutral extension of his own body and mind. What’s more, text on a computer always presents itself as though it were a finished work—the editing is invisible. “You don’t see the history of the text,” said Manguel. “This has a tragic side in that the texts written today appear to exist only in the presence of the reader, they have no past. We have eliminated the possibility of our books having biographies.” But, like many in his age bracket, Manguel was quick to allow that such reservations are largely nostalgic, that qualms like his will not be felt by the next generation.

The end of such qualms, though, does not signify the loss of their value. Plenty of smart people have shuddered at new magnifiers of communication in ways that future generations would find quaint. Jean Cocteau thought the radio was a “faucet of foolishness” that was going to wreck people’s minds. He wrote in his 1951 diary: “One wonders how a nation’s intelligence resists the radio. Moreover it does not resist.” Groucho Marx said he found television educational only because “every time someone switches it on, I go into the other room and read a book.” And to Picasso, computers were useless since “they can only give you answers.” While these complaints are outmoded and even naïve-looking today, I wouldn’t call them invalid. For those of us who are buffeted by digital life, the antique tone of our discomfort is itself evidence that we’re aware of the difference in a way that future generations won’t be.

• • • • •

If we maintain that cognizance of the difference between online life and offline life, we can choose to enjoy both worlds and move between them when we wish. This is no Sisyphean effort, either. Even as I began my research, there were intimations of change. Once an e-mail addict, I fled to my in-box less and less—finally settling on a maximum of three checks a day. I started leaving the house without thinking to grab the phone. And as I spoke about this book with friends, others spontaneously took up the challenge themselves.

Well, some did. Some, in fact, were offended by the pretense of my opting out. And that’s fine. Not everyone feels there’s a problem that needs correcting, after all. Not everyone feels this static. But for those who do feel it, there’s a needful reaction that wells up. Perhaps, I thought, armed with the input of global experts and a little resolve, we can safeguard a vulnerable portion of our psyche.

That said, this book is not a wholesale critique of technology. Our technologies produce wonderful abbreviations, quickenings in our lives—and have done since our earliest ancestors looked down at their naked bodies and thought, Surely we can do better than this. Whether a wheel, or a condom, or a $150 billion International Space Station, our tools are brilliant extensions of human will; they shorten the distance between problem (that animal refuses to be eaten) and solution (smack him with my club). Our impulse to take up tools is a good one and—to use a deeply suspect term—it’s a natural one. It’s such a natural impulse, in fact, that those who question whether all technological developments will lead to brighter, happier futures are dismissed as Luddites. Interrogate the dominance of a mounting technopoly with anything more aggressive than cocktail conversation and you will swiftly be accused of “moral panic”—which is one of those tidy terms that carries around its own moral imperative. One must not panic.

Technologies themselves, though, are amoral. They aren’t good or evil, only dangerous and beloved. They are a danger we’ve been in love with for millennia, and rarely do we remember that, for example, the goal of human relations may extend beyond efficient transmissions. (If we annihilate ourselves in the coming years, it will not be for lack of communication technology, though it may be for lack of some finer advancement.) Yet our devotion to tech-bolstered communication—to making common and shared as much of our lives as possible—often overwhelms us.

Consider the rapaciousness of our online activity. By 2012, we were asking Google to help us find things more than a trillion times each year (in a remarkable 146 languages). We were also sending one another 144 billion e-mails—every day. In 2013, we “liked” 4.5 billion items on Facebook every day, too (though boosterish Facebook still won’t allow its users to dislike anything). That year, we uploaded one hundred hours of video to YouTube for every minute of real time. Every second, we uploaded 637 photos to Instagram. The content of our digital lives, in other words, has piled up into such significant forms that it can no longer be passed off as some appendage or decoration.

The breathtaking speed with which digital technologies draw close the world is reason enough to raise your eyebrows: In the past decade, Internet usage expanded 566 percent. Best estimates are that 40 percent of all people on the planet are now online. Social media trains our behavior en masse—half of Internet users connect with friends and family on Facebook, as do 59 percent of online Americans (and 93 percent of college students). I do not, and I am consequently left in the dark about things as essential as weddings, moves, births, and deaths. In Malaysia, where Linda from our prologue hails from, Facebook has now achieved a penetration rate of more than 70 percent among Internet users (apparently because the app allows for cheaper messaging).

The sheer volume of time we devote to our devices means we each are carving “expendable” hours away from other parts of our lives. We rationalize the interruptions that our phones and tablets demand—each checking of e-mail or scanning of YouTube is, after all, just a momentary concession. But in each month of 2012, Americans spent 520 billion of those simple minutes connecting to the Internet on their devices. That’s nearly 100 billion more minutes every month than the previous year.

Nor is this change a mere ballooning of what came before. Like writing, clocks, and the printing press, the Internet and its cronies are indiscriminate game changers. They don’t just enrich our experiences; they become our experiences. This is something Susan Greenfield, a professor of synaptic pharmacology at Oxford University, spoke about recently when being interviewed by The New York Times:

A car or a plane enabled you to travel farther and faster. What concerns me is that the current technologies have been converted from being means to being ends. [The Internet] seems to have become an end in and of itself.

And how might we describe that end? So much of our inventiveness, it turns out, wells up from, and then perpetuates, a deep desire to gather the world into our arms. The harnessing of magnetism leads to the compass, making expansive seafaring possible. James Watt’s invention of the modern steam engine in 1765 obliterates distance. The telegraph, the transatlantic cable, and the telephone cast larger and larger lassos to draw home the voices of faraway lovers, peers, and purveyors of news. Motion pictures, at the end of the nineteenth century, reap a world’s worth of glittering images and deliver them to enthralled viewers in the dark.

We crowded the world into our small lives. And the crowding claimed its victims.

• • • • •

In Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (which is set in 1482, when printing presses were just getting established in Louis XI’s France), Archdeacon Claude Frollo sees his first printed book and marvels/glowers at its production quality. He stands near Notre-Dame and, looking up at the cathedral, says, “Ceci tuera cela” (“This will kill that”). How does a book kill a cathedral? We’re speaking in synecdoche here: The printing press (engine of democracy, aid to Martin Luther) will kill the Catholic Church. Also, more literally, the printed book became a nimbler conveyer of meaning than grand architectural gestures (like Notre-Dame), which had stood for millennia as “the great handwriting of the human race.” The printed word disrupts not just the standard hierarchy of information transmission, but a way of knowing that’s sacred and beyond the handlings of everyday folk. Of course, from Hugo’s vantage point—his novel was published in 1831—he could give Frollo a degree of foresight that would have been lacking in an honest citizen of fifteenth-century Paris.

Living in the real maelstrom of change, however, means blindness. And so the details of our own Gutenberg moment remain partly obscure. But this much we know: Just as every technology is an invitation to enhance some part of our lives, it’s also, necessarily, an invitation to be drawn away from something else. The things we’re glad to be drawn away from (dying of exposure, Black Death) are easier to remember than the things we might have wanted to hold on to (rural life, restful mornings). The more I thought about our Gutenberg moment, the more I wondered: Drawn away from what? What is this feeling of mysterious loss that hits us each step down that path? I kept coming back to the loss of lack, the end of absence.

Just two decades beyond the Internet’s popularization, we’ve no hope of seeing our lives as clearly as Victor Hugo saw Frollo’s. For an author writing in 2350, the defining features of our time will be evident (or boiled down, anyway, by the reductive powers of historians), and the consequences of online migration will undoubtedly include by-products we cannot now predict. Certainly we—floating among the flotsam of our own exploded reality—cannot yet list everything the Internet has tampered with. But stand in Times Square sometime and look up from a glowing iPad at the New York Times building (where hundreds of positions have been cut in recent years). We can already say, “Ceci tuera cela.” And although confident future historians may deliver a clear picture of this revolution we’re living through, those of us alive today—we in the straddle generation—have a secret bit of understanding they can never have: We know what it felt like Before.

• • • • •

We carry around in our heads the final version of certain stories. Like this one:

I remember that final blithe summer of 1999 when I—like so many others—embarked on the last trip I’d ever take without a cell phone. Hiking for months through England’s Lake District and island hopping across the Scottish Hebrides, I was oblivious to the fact that I would never experience such splendid isolation again. Never again would I be so completely cut off from work, from family, from friends. And yet, nineteen years old and living happily off apples and beer, I didn’t think it was the end of anything. So, I told myself, this is my life at last, the beginning of my real life.

I was in league, in my little way, with Henry David Thoreau:

Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.

Like Thoreau, and like any number of young people who then would trek out after high school with no guide but the Lonely Planet in their pack, I wanted to get lost. I was in search of absence. I felt that it wasn’t networking I needed, but a connection to some deep source that I could not describe for myself yet intuitively felt was there beyond the busy prescriptions of school. My days were largely filled with walks down silent paths and across wild fields I never knew the names for. In the evenings, I would discuss movies and politics with strangers at some village pub, then happily tramp across a darkening sea of heather.

That heather—the hills and hills of its rustling color. One night, a man with a craggy face invited me to stay on and learn to make thatched roofs from the stuff, be his apprentice, spend my life picking heather in the morning and weaving it into watertight mats in the afternoon. At two in the morning I told him I would; but by dawn my saner self took over, and I left for Heathrow and home.

--This text refers to the paperback edition.

Product details

  • Publisher : Current (August 7, 2014)
  • Publication date : August 7, 2014
  • Language : English
  • File size : 1041 KB
  • Text-to-Speech : Enabled
  • Screen Reader : Supported
  • Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
  • X-Ray : Not Enabled
  • Word Wise : Enabled
  • Print length : 259 pages
  • Lending : Not Enabled
  • Customer Reviews:
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3.0 out of 5 stars Shallow, meandering
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