Michael Harris’ epiphany came when, as a writer at Vancouver Magazine, he looked at his computer screen and saw 14 open windows while his smartphone was buzzing almost nonstop. What attention he had left was bouncing back and forth between the two.
In that moment, he says, he realized he was everywhere and nowhere at once.
For years, Harris had thought about what amounted to this moment, so he decided to quit his job and write “The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection” (Current), a recently released memoir in which he meditates without preaching on the “loss of lack” – or life before the Internet – and how we’re losing the natural gravitation toward silence and deep reflection in favor of instant gratification and “likes.”
The book, essentially, focuses on what Harris calls the “straddle generation,” that group of people who remember life before the Internet and are immersed in it now. They are the demographic that will most naturally understand the book’s subtle, even enigmatic premise more than any other: that there is a before and an after we can preserve to our benefit.
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“It is enigmatic,” Harris says of this loss he writes about. “But it’s also so big that it’s surprising we’ve ignored that part of things for so long. We’re so entranced by what online life gives to us that we’ve shied away from those intangible things that it has stripped from us over time.”
Harris writes in an elegant, accessible and often hilarious way as he deals with his own Internet demons, but he also backs up his premises with more than 200 references that include research studies, presentations and comments from a host of pundits from Mark Twain to Marshall McLuhan.
Many of the studies Harris cites point to the myriad ways we are being distracted – among them, a growing and disconcerting need for attention and fame. One of them is from Yalda T. Uhls, a researcher at UCLA’s Children’s Digital Media Center, who analyzed the most popular TV shows for tween audiences from 1967 to 2007. Harris writes that the “post-Internet TV content (typified by ‘Hannah Montana’ and ‘American Idol’) had swerved dramatically from family-oriented shows like ‘Happy Days’ in previous decades.”
“Community feeling had been a dominant theme in content from 1967 to 1997,” Harris continues. “Then, in the final decade leading up to 2007, fame became an overwhelming focus, (which) was one of the least important values in tween TV in earlier years.”
This explains to Harris why people don’t just unplug, as many pundits suggest they should. It isn’t that easy. The very nature of what many people crave from the Internet today keeps them on it constantly: attention, approval, fame, Facebook “likes,” 400,000 Twitter followers.
Harris’ solution is to “engineer a healthy media diet in the same the way we have to engineer a healthy (food) diet.” That involves making conscious choices.
“David Westerman, an assistant professor at North Dakota State University who researches how people use technology to communicate, agrees with Harris – up to a point. Disconnecting for periods of time is useful, but it’s easy to lose sight of the value of virtual connecting.
“People are social, which speaks to why technology use is so prevalent,” Westerman argues. “We crave connection with other people. And we can be connected through the use of technology.”
Westerman cites research on how technology impacts relationships and argues that the evidence “suggests it depends on how the tech is used.” He recommends the book “Networked: The New Social Operating System” (MIT Press) by Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman as a counterpoint to Harris’ book because the authors show how technology can be a “net gain” for relationships and lead to increased face-to-face interaction.
Constance Dunn, an extension communications instructor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, agrees with Harris’ premise.
The lack of silence and introspection can have “serious implications when it comes to the development (and display) of the self. Who are you? An amalgamation of experiences, and more importantly, ideas and behaviors that have developed as a result of those experiences.
“The optimum processing of our experiences comes from introspection, the ability to shut the hell up, truly, and think,” Dunn adds. “Being constantly connected means we are constantly interrupting this precious percolation process. The result? An increasingly unreflective society, with less art, individuality and innovation.”
Those born submerged in technology may not see the danger, but Harris wants to reach out to those of who remember that other era. “As we embrace technology’s gifts,” Harris writes, “we usually fail to consider what we’re giving up in the process.”
Time for yourself
From “The End of Absence,” here are Michael Harris’ suggestions on “how to absent oneself.”:
▪ Give yourself permission to go without (being online) some weekend. (Yes, you’ll feel anxious, at loose ends, but then what?)
▪ Ask yourself what might come from all those silences you’ve been filling up.
▪ What if you told your 5-year-old the Internet was closed for Christmas? What if you told yourself that?
▪ Experiment. Live a little. And remember that fear of absence is the surest sign that absence is direly needed.
▪ Read books, magazines, actual newspapers. After a while, Harris says, you’ll get excited over pamphlets and credit card offers.
▪ Daydream. Make things up. Travel in your mind. Take walks. Meditate.
▪ Don’t expect an epiphany. Everyone does. Instead, realize that the break itself is the thing. It’s the break - that is, the questioning – that snaps us out of the spell, that can convince us it was a spell in the first place.