"The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We've Lost in a World of Constant Connection" (book review)

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We love the Internet, and yet it has taken away as much as it's given us. Author Michael Harris argues for why we still need absence in our lives.

If you were born prior to 1985, then you belong to a unique generation of people that knows what life is like both with the Internet and without. You are a “digital immigrant,” since you have adapted to this new way of life with a memory of the past, as opposed to all the “digital natives” who come after you and cannot remember a world without the Internet.

While there are some aspects of being a digital immigrant that make it hard (i.e. some older folks find it hard to become comfortable with the technologies that young people seem to intuit so easily these days), author Michael Harris would argue that you are in fact fortunate because you can remember what it’s like to have absence in your life.

The world “absence” in this context refers to those peaceful moments of quiet and solitude, back when we knew how to be alone with just ourselves, without constantly checking a cellphone for updates; when we allowed thoughts to make their way through our minds; when we daydreamed, wondered about questions whose answers we might never know, and even felt bored.

In his fascinating new book called “The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection” (HarperCollins, 2014), Harris shows how the Internet has created a seismic change in the way we live. It offers countless advantages and has become an essential part of everything we do, but it has also invaded every aspect of our lives.

While writing the book, Harris spoke with neuroscientists, cultural historians, authors, computer scientists, a Wikipedia editor, university professors, an organizational guru, and the CEOs of online dating sites, among many others. In each of his well-researched chapters, Harris addresses the way in which the Internet has done the following things: taken on the role of confessor at the cost of traditional avenues for getting help; destroyed professional careers by creating platforms for everyone under the sun; negatively impacted our attention spans; outsourced our personal memory banks; taken the guessing game out of our love lives; and raised countless questions of what’s authentic and what’s not.

The scary fact is that we humans find it almost impossible to resist that kind of power and knowledge because we are hardwired to want constant stimulation and instant gratification.

By blinding embracing Internet technology, however, we lose much in the process. Harris reminds us that “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.” Technology in itself is neither good nor evil, but there’s no arguing with the fact that it has come.

“Casting judgments on the technologies themselves is like casting judgment on a bowl of tapioca pudding. We can only judge, only really profit from judging, the decisions we each make in our interactions with those technologies. How shall we live now? How will you? … 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?”

Harris’ book was both pleasant and torturous to read. His research was so in-depth and his arguments so convincing that I felt terribly alarmed and depressed at the state of our societal technology addiction and the unquestioning ease with which we’ve handed over so much our personal lives to “The Machine.” As soon as I finished reading, however, I was motivated immediately to turn off my phone, restrict my email inbox and Facebook checks to three times a day, and have face-to-face conversations with people instead of texting.

This book is a powerful reminder of the historical moment we inhabit right now, straddling the two worlds of Before and After. It is a necessary read for all Internet users, especially those digital natives who have so much to lose without even knowing it.

Buy "The End of Absence" here.

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