Journalist Michael Harris approaches the often-discussed topic of the internet’s impact on our lives from a very specific angle: people living now who were born prior to 1985, who will be the only people in world history to know what life was like both with and without the internet. As part of this generation of people, Harris sets out to discover what we need to do to reclaim what the internet stole from everyday living—absence.
I think that within the mess of changes we’re experiencing, there’s a single difference that we feel most keenly; and it’s also the difference that future generations will find hardest to grasp. This is the end of absence—the loss of lack. The daydreaming silences in our lives are filled; the burning solitudes are distinguished.
The End of Absence is not a treatise on how this newfangled internet is destroying our lives. In some ways, Harris offers solace by recalling other great shifts in information delivery and consumption, and the reactions to those great changes as they happened. When Gutenberg invented the printing press, naysayers foretold a future of unthinking, uncritical masses incapable of rational thought. Thinkers in the 15th century believed that books would force-feed us information instead of eliciting thoughtful discourse. Distilling current criticism of the internet ends in just about the same prognostications.
Despite that glimmer of hope that we’ll be just fine either way, thank you, The End of Absence is wrought with research-induced angst, written with impressive prose that will make anyone on this side of wanting the internet to “get off our lawn” cringe at how we are experiencing, or more precisely not experiencing, the world around us. Harris himself becomes a proxy for our collective over-connectivity, painfully aware of his inability to turn it off even while consciously attempting to disconnect.
To understand what the inability to disconnect is doing to us, Harris believes we need to answer two questions:
What will we carry forward?
And what worthy things might we thoughtlessly leave behind?
To find those answers, Harris interviewed neuroscientists (neural plasticity leads to technology actually changing our brains), psychologist (internet communication creates narcissistic, tech-reliant communication), historians (this is our Gutenberg moment), tech start-ups (tech can be useful in clearing brain space), and even one of his college professors (memorization provides tangible value). Harris follows his research with a month-long internet abstinence, the effects of which are mixed at best, unfulfilling at worst.
Harris set out to find a prescription for reclaiming something—or, rather, absence. But as the book winds down, it becomes evident that no roadmap to absence exists—a frustrating conclusion for both Harris and the reader. But this doesn’t mean that Harris failed. It means that finding absence just might require the kind of skill that absence itself strengthens, and that is a very basic requirement that we all take a little bit more care to make room for it.
We need to compel ourselves to drop the phone, walk away from Facebook, and stow the Google-powered technology in order to look up at the night sky, think or not think, daydream, embrace the gentle chill of a fall wind, and be at peace with the physical world. Because if we don’t live life with that care, we, for better or for worse, become both literal and figurative extensions of the algorithms that power Google, Facebook, and whatever comes next.
It may be a lost cause for future generations, but for Harris, for us, it’s important that we bridge one mode of existence to another, because as Harris so eloquently wrote:
Human memory was never meant to call up all things, after all, but rather explore the richness of exclusion, of absence. It creates a meaningful, contextualized, curated assemblage particular to the brain’s singular experience and habits. Valuable memories, like great music, are as much about the things that drop away—the rests—as they are about what stays and sounds.
I, for one, will try to be more present within those pauses, to ascertain the absence.
Ryan Schleicher is 800-CEO-READ’s Corporate Learning Accounts Manager and PR Director