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. In that moment, he said, he realized that he was everywhere and nowhere at once.
Harris quit his job and wrote “The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection” (Current), a recently released memoir in which he meditates 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 focuses on what Harris calls the “straddle generation,” those people who remember life before the Internet and are immersed in it now. They are the demographic that probably will best understand the book’s premise: that there is a before and an after we can preserve to our benefit.
“It is enigmatic,” Harris said of the loss he writes about. “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.”
He deals with his own Internet demons, but he backs up his premises with studies, presentations and comments from a host of pundits from Mark Twain to Marshall McLuhan.
Many of the studies he cites point to the myriad ways we are being distracted, among them, a growing and disconcerting need for attention and fame.
He refers to an analysis of TV shows that aired from 1967 to 2007 that was done by Yalda Uhls, a researcher at UCLA’s Children’s Digital Media Center.
“Post-Internet TV content (typified by ‘Hannah Montana’ and ‘American Idol’) had swerved dramatically from family-oriented shows like ‘Happy Days’ in previous decades,” Harris writes. “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.”
He said that this explains 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 keeps them on it constantly: attention, approval, fame, Facebook “likes,” 400,000 Twitter followers.
“This is part of a long historical progression,” he said. “Everything from the printing press to the telegraph are all fantastic gains that humanity has managed to procure for itself. But in every step of the road, technology is removing us from some part of a previous life.
“That doesn’t mean we need to go backward. I don’t think any sensible person is arguing that. It’s just that we have a fantastic opportunity to have one foot in the before and one foot in the after. Because change never happened this quickly, we’ve never had the opportunity to live in both moments, as it were.”
Harris’ solution is to “engineer a healthy media diet in the same the way we have to engineer a healthy [food] diet.”
Tech can help, too
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.
“People are social, which speaks to why technology use is so prevalent,” Westerman said. “We crave connection with other people. And we can be connected through the use of technology.”
He added, “We are not always truly connected when interacting face-to-face, either.”
“No doubt, Thoreau would not have been a fan of constant connection,” quipped Jaq Andrews, a marketing and technology specialist for New Hampshire-based Zco Corp. and someone who thinks the tech naysayers worry too much. “I think it’s just an adjustment in culture that will take some time to work itself out. Some people will be more comfortable extending their experiences online at all times, while others will prefer being in the moment at the physical place they are.”
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,” he writes, “we usually fail to consider what we’re giving up in the process.”
• 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.
• Read books, magazines and newspapers. After a while, Harris says, you’ll be reading everything, including cereal boxes.
• Daydream. Make things up. Travel in your mind. Take walks. Meditate.
• Don’t expect an epiphany. Instead, realize that the break itself is the thing.