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'The End of Absence' Is an Argument to Turn Off and Tune In

These days there's so much technodread floating around that you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a thinkpiece about how smartphones are ruining our minds.

The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We've Lost in a World of Constant Connection

Publisher: Current
Length: 256 pages
Author: Michael Harris
Price: $26.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-08

Ever since there's been technology to complain about, some section of humanity has worried that new inventions are changing our way of life for worse. These days there's so much technodread floating around that you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a thinkpiece about how smartphones are ruining our minds. It's not hard to see why people worry about the effects of losing physical maps, print newspapers or any of thousand things that the internet seems to be shunting into irrelevance. These things have served us so well. How can we afford to live without them?

Canadian writer and journalist Michael Harris sympathizes with such fears while at the same time being aware of the naiveté about the nature of change such thoughts reveal. In his latest book, The End of Absence, he embarks on a critical examination of the effects of technology on modern life and attempts to figure out how to navigate this sea-change.

If there's one thing that Harris wants us to take from his book it's that we're currently straddling a massive fault line in human consciousness. For those born roughly after 1980, constant global connectedness and omnipresent electronic distraction will not seem revolutionary, but become an unexamined assumption. Children today have grown up learning how to navigate touchscreens and manipulate electronic data as part of their basic developmental framework. This leaves those of who grew up before the internet in a unique position. We're the last generation that will be able to see such technology as something new and alien rather than an assumed part of the scenery.

At its best The End of Absence helps the reader take a step back and put this monumental consciousness shift (and its attendant fears) into a larger historical context. Harris does an excellent job of helping the reader try and conceive how frightening it was to see skills such as memorizing and retelling epic poetry or the art of making gorgeous, hand-inscribed books move quickly from vital expressions of our humanity to old habits too outdated to be passed down.

For some, it's difficult to wrap our modern brains around such fundamentally alien ways of storing and transmitting knowledge. It's even harder to realize that once such assumptions about how we as people interact with how we obtained knowledge had changed, the old ways of thinking were swiftly (and almost completely) forgotten.

Harris makes no bones about just how reality-shaping the new world of total information can be as we rewire our brains for cyborg mode a little bit more every day. He notes that we're quickly moving from a world that rewarded knowledge, towards one that rewards the ability to access knowledge. Although it's a path humanity's been on ever since we started keeping the tale of Beowulf on our bookshelves rather than between our ears, the instantaneousness and directness of the internet makes this new shift even more dramatic.

Synthesis and analysis become rarer commodities in a world where constant entertainment keeps minds from wandering and total cloud backup means that there's easy access to a range of content for the mildly curious brain to sift through. Furthermore, truly unstructured contemplation is quickly lost, not because it lacks value, but because it can't compete with the tiny dopamine burst generated by the ping of an incoming email.

At one point Harris goes so far as to claim that the internet changes not only what we experience, but it becomes the experience itself. He's by no mean the first person to point out that, for example, journalism and criticism are almost entirely different concepts in a world where everyone is a potential "reporter" or "reviewer". The fact that everyone can now instantly broadcast their every experience goes hand-in-hand with the fact that silence and reflection are becoming increasingly rare.

The author is no pessimist, however, and makes a strong case for the value of considered, curated content. However, the fact that such qualifiers are necessary highlights just how far we've come. There's a lot to be said for the voice of the masses and the power of mass information that the internet has unleashed, but Harris does a good job of showing the double-edged nature of these blessings. He notes ruefully how quickly crowdsourced data and opinions can become our unthinking default way of gathering information at the expense of more detailed, considered and professionally-created information that requires both time and money to produce.

Harris does a good job in these early chapters of framing what social and cognitive science has told us about technology shifts and their potential effects, leaving the obvious question that the second part of the book must answer: So what?

In trying to answer that question, Harris walks a fine line between educated investigation and limited-use personal anecdote. Fortunately, he most often strikes the right tone, being open about the biases and preconceptions that he brings to the table in a way that reads as open-minded, transparent and humorously enlightening. As he becomes more aware of the effects his smartphone has had on his life overall, he tries various experiments to see how one can reclaim the periods of mental absence and reflection of pre-internet life, with mixed (but interesting) results.

His notes on forcing himself to get past his internet-induced ADD by reading War and Peace in book form are relatable and illuminating and do a good job illustrating how the benefits of old media forms can still be relatively accessible despite constant connection. On the other hand, his more drastic experiment of going a month without online activity of any kind proves to be not only unilluminating but, frankly, a little boring.

Whether you find The End of Absence ultimately enjoyable will depend on where you stand with the old saying that the truly wise seek questions rather than answers. Those looking for an one-sided screed about the evils of technology will also disappointed, as will those seeking a simple prescription for how to live like a noble savage in the brave new world of the cloud. But readers willing to examine their own preconceptions regarding the impact of technology (whatever they might be) and willing to be challenged about how they will engage with technology going forward will find more than enough to chew on.

The book's first chapter beings with a quote from Melvin Kranzberg that could easily serve as it's thesis: "Technology is neither good nor bad. Nor is it neutral." The End of Absence reminds us that railing against technology is as pointless as spitting into the wind. Our challenge, as we watch our world change, is to constantly balance the rewards and drawbacks of such changes and to live accordingly.


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