Review - The End of Absence
Exploring What's Lost in a Connected World
Brandon Sun, October 19, 2015 - David McConkey
Serendipity led me to The
End of Absence at the Brandon Public Library. And a good
thing, too. This enjoyable and thoughtful new book is a useful
antidote to the influence of the Internet and mobile devices. The
subtitle is Reclaiming
What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection. And that
message may be just what we need as we increasingly find ourselves
diving into full phone burrow.
Author Michael Harris is a Vancouver writer and editor. Born in 1980, he is keenly aware of being a member of the straddle generation, the last to remember life without the Internet. Today’s young are so wholly caught in the web, they don’t notice – like fish being unaware of water.
Harris builds on earlier critiques of the digital age and of media in general. Especially noted are two Canadians: “medium is the message” man Marshall McLuhan and novelist and artist Douglas Coupland. (Harris also refers to a book that I reviewed here a few years ago: Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.)
Harris expands our understanding of the media landscape. He identifies a powerful new phenomenon combining the Internet and mobile devices. This convergence is like a new medium itself, creating “a world of constant connection.” (A helpful glossary contains some newfangled terms like “straddle generation” and “phone burrow.”)
The author points out that we are being seduced on a deep level. We have evolved to be drawn to motion and distraction, just as we have evolved to crave salt, sugar and fat. So we are as hardwired to be entranced by the Internet and smart phone as we are to reach for junk food.
One interesting example explored by the author is about how romantic relationships are sparked. Before the Internet, less than 1% began through classified ads in the newspaper. Today, more than 20% of relationships begin online.
And the pace is accelerating. Like much of the Internet, Plenty of Fish – the world’s largest dating site – is moving from desktop to mobile. Now, 80% of visits to that website are from cell phones. And as people go mobile, they visit the website three or four times more often than they did from their desktops. A mobile user checks out Plenty of Fish 10 times a day.
The pace is quickening not only technologically, but also generationally. Every month, the average adult sends and receives text messages by the hundreds. For teenagers? It is by the thousands.
Increasingly, we live digitally. The Internet becomes the “real world.” But we miss something: chances – often random – for silence, for reflection, for aloneness. And we miss something else as well. Harris quotes Henry David Thoreau: “Not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves.”
“I fear we are the last of the daydreamers,” Harris laments. “I fear our children will lose lack, lose absence, and never comprehend its quiet, immeasurable value.”
Harris breaks the spell of constant connection in his own life. He tackles War and Peace, a book that in five previous attempts he never got past the first few pages. He also embarks on a bold experiment: one whole month with no Internet, no e-mail, no text messages, no mobile phone.
“Feels like I just stepped off an incredibly fast ride and the sheer s-l-o-w-n-e-s-s of everything is freaking me out,” the author writes on the experiment’s first day. “Hello, 1987.”
But as the month proceeds, Harris reports a change. “At first there was this bewildering, wind-swept void where my online world had been. Now, haltingly, I place other things in that void. A book. A walk . . .”
The author is wistful as he contemplates “absence,” which is – of course – not there. And which is not of obvious benefit. In the end, Harris discovers “no totalizing theory, no maxim.” There are not even “10 easy steps to living a healthy digital life.” Instead, he offers his book to readers as “a meditation more than a prescription.”
“I can make my little changes now. I turn off the phone, I ignore the e-mail; I do seek out solitude,” he concludes. “Those, and this larger one: the fact that I feel AWAKE to the end of absence, now. It hurts a little more to be without it.”
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