The End of Absence
Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection
By Michael Harris
HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., 2014
The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Communication (winner of the 2014 Governor General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction) explores how the digital revolution now dictating so much of our day-to-day activity unfolded, what it entails for our personal and professional lives-and why we should at least try to resist the temptations constantly on offer from the blinking screens in our homes, offices and in our own pockets.
It’s an ambitious book, and the author, Michael Harris, a journalist from Vancouver, has done his homework. His account is packed with personal anecdotes, interviews with neuroscientists, psychiatrists, business gurus and fellow journalists, and includes a wide range of excerpts from historical and literary sources.
Harris puts the digital revolution squarely within the larger history of other technological advances that have shaken established social orders to their core, most notably by comparing the emergence of the Internet to the appearance of Gutenberg’s printing press in the 15th century.
There is an element of zero-sum thinking in Harris’s analysis, where the benefits of technology come with inevitable costs to patterns of life previously taken for granted.
“The gains the press yielded are mammoth and essential to our lives,” Harris writes, who explains the “Gutenberg shift” as a change “so total that it even became the screen through which we view the world.
“But we forget: Every revolution in communication technology-from papyrus to the printing press to Twitter-is as much an opportunity to be drawn away from something as it is to be drawn toward something.”
One of the most interesting chapters appears early, and explores the effects of the digital shift on those who have no memory of life prior to cell phones and social media. Harris bemoans the effects of constant multitasking and how smartphones “banish the wide-open possibilities of boredom” for huge swathes of society that may have never experienced the benefits of an unencumbered, wandering mind.
The author puts himself squarely within the critique, using many examples of how the Internet has encroached upon his own personal and social habits, including how difficult it has become for him to simply sit down and enjoy a good book without the distraction of checking his inbox.
However, there are parts within the author’s analysis that fall a bit too closely into elitism. In his chapter on public opinion, Harris points out how the Internet has diluted the influence of “expert” opinion, and that previous generations “never dealt with such a glut of information or such a horde of folk eager to misrepresent it.”
But his argument that “commensurate with the devaluing of expert opinion is the hyper-valuing of amateur, public opinion” may exaggerate just how “bad” things have actually become. The shift toward the democratization of information may well be worth the costs facing professional critics, who are forced to increasingly compete against “amateurism” for the attention of the masses.
For the most part, however, Harris’s analysis calls attention to what many of us already know: the digital revolution has arrived, it is here to stay and it will continue to shape our lives in unimaginable ways.
Ultimately, The End of Absence proposes that removing ourselves from the grid, even temporarily, can actually help us regain what makes us fundamentally human-despite how increasingly difficult disconnecting may actually be.