When something is gained something is lost. We sacrifice accuracy for speed, strength for mobility, food for a smaller waist. But what was lost when we gained access to the information super highway? The Internet has just about permeated every aspect of our lives, and its slow, yet sudden adoption leaves many wondering if there are negative aspects of such connectivity—there are, but that’s not the point.
The availability of the Internet and how easy it is to get connected has made absence all but extinct. Instead of sitting and thinking, or talking to a stranger in the spare moments you catch every few hours, we swallow that time up and use it as an opportunity to like, share, or message.
Michael Harris’ new book 'The End of Absence' focuses on what was lost with the rise of the information age, an excerpt from the last chapter is below. And if you’re like me you probably didn’t even realize momentary oneness had escaped, and been replaced with social networks, iMessage pings, and work emails. | Daniel Hills
Down the road was that green hill of mine. I still had some shaky memory of feeling at peace there in a way I’d never been since. And so, the next day, I walked the trail alone and took myself partway up the grassy rise. I patted my pockets, thinking I should turn off my phone, until I remembered that I hadn’t brought it with me. I lay down with an old-man groan and looked up at the blue above me, tried to imagine billions of phone calls and Web searches flying across the air, leaving colored jet streams, until everything above was a weave of tight connections.
I thought of Kenny, who would be wondering about lunch; and my parents, to whom I should send a “Happy Anniversary” text; editors in Toronto and New York who wanted their up- dates; and all the messages I needed to send or receive in order to get what I wanted, in order to make sure . . . .
I wanted badly, then, to have some revelation—even kept blinking at the sky, to reboot it. I thought it was time for my revelation, that I deserved by now some newfound silence or solitude that would close this book on a happy, even inspirational, lob. I was ready for my personal transformation.
But let me tell you the truth, instead.
If you look closely at the loss of lack, the end of absence—if you do some work to look past the fantastic gains of speed and manic social grooming—you’ll catch only glimpses of that earlier mentality. Lost absence flits from your gaze like the floaters on the eye’s lens, which we sometimes apprehend but can never focus on. To sense the end of absence is to intuit only.
I can make my little changes now. I turn off the phone, I ignore the e-mail; I do seek out solitude. Not pathologically, but enough. It was just small changes, really. 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.
So I take these small steps up the trail, I come back to the green hill. That’s the job I’m giving myself. Come back to the green hill, look around, look just here and just with my eyes, look alone. It’s as though absence were a supernatural jewel that I dropped somewhere in the grass. It’s that hidden—and that priceless.
Joseph Weizenbaum, the man who invented ELIZA, predicted in his 1976 book, Computer Power and Human Reason, that the computer would now “intrude itself into the very stuff out of which man builds his world.” He believed that our computers were integral parts of our perception and being—that we truly are cyborgs. He foretold that ripping the computer tool from us would be as damaging to society as ripping out a lung from a body. But that can’t be the whole story.
Each technology is born of a particular global context, rife with specific economic, political, and even doctrinal expectations. We need, as Neil Postman suggests, a “psychic distance from any technology” so that it always appears strange to us, “never inevitable, never natural.”
Homeward bound. Here I stand on the bus, its progress shaking me a little in my place as I hang one-armed from the strap. And all around me, the young and not so young are banishing their boredom by pouring their attention into games like Angry Birds and Jewel Quest on their phones. The bus rattles around a corner and we all sway in unison, we bump into one another, but nobody looks up. An elderly woman, with perfect white hair, turns to look out the window and appears to disappear.
Jaron Lanier wrote that “one good test of whether an economy is humanistic or not is the plausibility of earning the ability to drop out of it for a while without incident or insult.” This seems a good gauge to me. And I know that dropping out of our current information economy would indeed damage my livelihood, put me at odds with the “ordinary” lives of my peers. It’s this fact of the hassle—the incorrectness of dropping off the grid—that solidifies my ambition to do it.
I decide that I will take that sabbatical from the future. For thirty days, I will return to something akin to the technological circumstances of my childhood. No Internet. No mobile phone. No Twitter or Facebook or text messages; no self-diagnosis of pneumonia on Mayoclinic.org. I alert all my editors, family members, and closest friends that they can phone me if they want to, but if I’m away from home, they’ll have to leave a message because my phone is now duct-taped to a phone cord I found at Future Shop and that cord is, itself, duct-taped to the kitchen counter. And then I walk away.
After this Harris goes on a 30-day digital detox, and keeps a daily journal. We highly recommend checking out that part of the book too.
The End of Absence is available from HarperCollins in Canada and from Current (Penguin Random House) in the United States.
Find out more on www.endofabsence.com
Excerpted from The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost In a World of Constant Connection by Michael Harris, in agreement with Current, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Copyright (c) Michael Harris, 2014.