Consider this: if you were born in the 1980s, you’re part of the last generation of human history to experience what life was like before the Internet. Michael Harris wrote this book to explore what that means. In his words, we need to consider:
What will we carry forward? And what worthy things might we thoughtlessly leave behind? (15)
In the first half of the book Harris makes a compelling case for how drastically our always-on and always-connected culture is affecting us. This transformation has arrived so insidiously, we haven’t recognized it.
Think of that moment when the fridge shuts off, causing you to realize—in the silence that ensues—that you’d been hearing its persistent hum before. You thought you knew silence, but you were really surrounded by the machine’s steady buzz. Now multiply that sensation by the world. (109)
Anyone who has tried to turn of their technology for any length of time knows this feeling. This silence is a consequence of every major canoe trip I take—and something I have grown to cherish!
In the second half of the book, Harris explores how to respond to these changes. This is where Harris and I part ways. Instead of suggesting and exploring real ways to remain grounded and (at least at times) unconnected, he assumes the inevitability of the change and makes peace with it. After all, how could we possibly hook up without Internet dating sites?
The conclusion that gives him a sense of peace is unsatisfying for me:
Every technology will alienate you from some part of your life. That is its job. Your job is to notice. First notice the difference. And then, every time, choose. (206)
Immediately my mind went to Ellul in considering the effect this alienation has on those who resist—either by choice or by demographic. Nothing alienates our elderly like a world of constant connection.
The End of Absence is an insightful book that belongs on the shelf beside Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. Read it and either mourn for what we’ve lost or consider how to forge a way ahead.
—Michael Harris, The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2014).