In The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, Michael Harris calls those of us born before 1985 the “last of the daydreamers,” the only generation to know life before the Internet, and it is these “digital immigrants” (15) who are uniquely positioned to assess its impact on daily life. What are the terms of the deal we’ve made for access to its gifts? Has it in fact delivered on apparent promises to cure boredom, loneliness and ignorance? It is time to update Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to include wifi, or might it be wise to withhold judgment a little longer?
Drawing from the fields of literature, philosophy, psychology and neuroscience, Harris addresses these and other questions in a series of essays organized into two parts. The first half of the book is a reckoning of those experiences and ideas that have been altered or displaced by life online; the second is an exploration of why we might choose to reclaim them, and how we might go about it.
The book muses rather than argues, and for the most part avoids the pitfalls of an old-timey lament for the analog pleasures of the author’s youth. Reading it often feels like spending time with a sophisticated and articulate friend. I enjoyed Harris’s ability to draw connections between seemingly disparate topics: the tragic suicide of Amanda Todd flows easily into Alan Turing’s belief in the inevitability of empathetic computers. Occasionally, though, discussions bog down in rhetoric. For example, in the chapter on authenticity, I’d have appreciated some effort toward the establishment of a working definition of the term that would illuminate rather than obscure discussions about, say, the difference between a love letter and a text. Instead, what’s at issue is assumed, as when Harris claims that “a child’s cell phone trains her to think of text messaging as soulful communication.”
The Internet’s ability to fracture focus and cognition is a sustained theme. Joyce Carol Oates recently tweeted that she’d seen “the best minds of her generation destroyed by kitten videos,” a sentiment with which Harris would likely agree, and in an effort to rehabilitate his attention span, he sets himself a long-standing challenge: to read beyond page 50 of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. He suffers the predictable derision of a friend who finds “this whole better-than-the-Internet thing…seriously tired” (129), but he persists, and follows this achievement with an even more drastic (and familiar) pledge: duct taping his cell phone to the kitchen counter. Harris goes full analog, abstaining from all Internet and texting activities, for an entire month.
In the face of continuous novelty, the choice to withdraw is suspect. Indeed, Douglas Coupland grumbles that Harris’s ambitions to absent himself are tantamount to “taking a sabbatical from shoes” (186). And in one sense, Harris’s Internet cleanse fails. He’s been unsuccessful, he admits, at “fast[ing] away the distracted parts of [his] brain” (197). But it is this very failure that delivers the epiphany: we cannot expect to eradicate the desire for that which we are hard-wired to seek. It’s survival: Information and connection are to our minds what fat and sugar are to our bodies. Instead, he offers, it’s up to us to choose which connections matter in a given moment, a conclusion that smacks depressingly of an ad for Weight Watchers, but is no less credible for it.
Structurally, the book is well-designed for the attention-deprived audience it assumes. The essays are anecdote-rich, stand-alone think pieces ideal for a few minutes away from a screen. The only off note rings at the end, when Harris proposes a glossary of new words he says are needed in order to talk about the end of absence. Oddly, none is employed in the preceding discussions, giving the final section a tacked-on feel.
Effervescent, erudite, and humane, The End of Absence is no Seven Habits of Highly Effective Luddites. In place of prescription, you’ll find empathy, candour, and the encouragement to identify and nurture the connections that sustain you, digital and otherwise.
Laura Nicol’s essays have appeared several times in The Globe and Mail. She won first prize in The Malahat Review’s UVic 50th Anniversary Fiction Competition and was a finalist for the Writers’ Union of Canada Short Prose Competition in 2013. She lives in Calgary, Alberta, where she maintains a strict daydreaming regimen.