Last month I practically ordered you to read Michael Harris’ book, Solitude. (Click here for the post.) No! I am not checking up on your progress…but I don’t mind if this is a gentle reminder.
This month I will try to persuade you to read his first published book The End of Absence.
Or, perhaps, I’ll let the author convince you. Here are a few of his observations that, I think, make The End of Absence essential reading:
If you were born before 1985, then you know what life is like both with the Internet and without. You are making the pilgrimage from Before to After.
Seen in a prudential light, our circumstances are also a tremendous gift. If we’re the last people in history to know life before the Internet, we are also the only ones who will ever speak, as it were, both languages. We are the only fluent translators of Before and After. (p. 15-16)
The strength of the book comes from his balanced, honest approach.
Technologies themselves, though, are amoral. They aren’t good and evil, only dangerous and beloved. They’ve been a danger we’ve been in love with for millennia, and rarely do we remember that, for example, the goal of human relations my extend beyond efficient transmissions.
Harris recounts the story of meeting his long-term partner on PlentyofFish. It was more than a little unsettling to see that such a calculated and crowdsourced system had brought us together in the first place. (p. 183)
The ideas in the book are based on thoughtful synthesis and research. Harris doesn’t spare us from acknowledging the negative influence of the Internet. Citing research from UCLA’s Digital Media Centre regarding TV shows for tween audiences, he writes how fame has become an overwhelming focus:
If a good life today, is a recorded life, then a great life is a famous one.
The post-Internet television content (typified by American Idol and Hannah Montanna) has swerved dramatically from family-oriented shows like Happy Days in previous decades.
One recent survey of three thousand British parents confirmed this position when it found that the top three job aspirations of children today are sportsman, pop star and actor. Twenty-five years ago, the top three aspirations were teacher, banker, and doctor. (p. 69)
I like how he extends my thinking about the possible long (and short) term effects of some Internet usage:
….Since 2009, Google has been anticipating the search results that you’d personally find most interesting and has been promoting those results each time you search, exposing you to a narrower and narrower vision of the universe. In 2013, Google announced that Google Maps would do the same, making it easier to find things Google thinks you’d like and harder to find things you haven’t encountered before. Facebook follows suit, presenting a curated view of your “friends'” activities in your feed. Eventually, the information you’re dealing with absolutely feels more personalized; it confirms your beliefs, your biases, your experiences. And it does this to the detriment of your personal evolution. Personalization–the glorification of your own taste, your own opinion–can be deadly to real learning. (p. 91)
He makes a strong case for the importance of absence in our lives, lives now increasingly connected to others, thanks to technology. …real thinking requires retreat. True contemplation is always a two-part act: We go out into the world for time, see what they’ve got, and then we find some isolated chamber where all that experience can be digested. You can never think about the crowd from its centre. You have to judge it from a place of absence. (p. 133)
The book is not all doom and gloom. It is a measured response to the reality of our present (and ever-changing) world, and the impact of technology.
We must remain critical of technological progress as we are desirous of it. And we must make these decisions not because we disike the things we could connect to, but precisely because they’re so crucial to our survival.
Every technology will alienate you from some part of your life. That is its job. Your job is to notice. First, notice the difference. And then, every time, choose.
I’m not the only person who liked this book. It won a (Canadian) Governor General’s Literary Award in 2014. Coincidentally, Michael Harris discusses the Governor General’s Award experience in an opinion piece published today in the Globe and Mail. Click here to read the article for a sampling of Michael Harris.