Michael Harris’ ‘The End of Absence’: Why Books on Living With the Internet So Often Disappoint

It feels like there’s a new book every month coming out to tell us that the Internet era is our Industrial Revolution — it’s changing everything! — and enumerating the many ways in which our jobs, our social lives, and the way that we interact with the world on a day-to-day basis are different — or “disrupted” — when we can carry in our pocket a device that connects us to the world.

With this revolution, there’s been a slew of books trying to parse the meaning and consequences, an endless list that includes such heavyweights and endless explainer-y subtitles such as Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, and Jason Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. Then there are the quieter books, looking at how technology has infiltrated our lives and searching for a way to live with it without sacrificing an authentic life, like William Powers’ Hamlet’s Blackberry, or Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work.

absenceThe End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, by Canadian journalist Michael Harris, falls into the latter category; it’s one of the quieter and more philosophical works examining our current lives with technology, and the gap between the time before and after the Internet. What’s in that gap, Harris argues, is absence: the quality of daydreams, the ability to be bored, the importance of discovery. What has replaced that gap: going to a restaurant, coffee shop, subway station, where literally every person is a zombie with a smartphone or a laptop, unaware of the world around them, clipped into the matrix. Every one of these people — and seriously, spend a weekend in Brooklyn without a smartphone at your side, and watch as everyone else communes with machines — could stand to read Harris’ work.

Funny enough, it’s a book that’s aimed, in its way, at a very specific cohort — the just-cresting 30-somethings who remember a time before the Internet and hyper-connectivity, a generation who got their first emails on AOL when they were in high school, who had the chance to play outside without everything modulated by screens. People who think that texting is kind of a weird form of communication. People who may, sometimes, have Luddite tendencies, and can make a good argument for why “watching” a Neutral Milk Hotel concert through your iPhone is fairly detrimental to what could be (and often is) a magical experience.

Harris is a smooth writer and a smart critic about what we’ve lost in today’s technology. He is at his best in a chapter called “Confession,” he neatly illustrates the rise of bullying and suicides through the Internet, looking at the case of Canadian teenager Amanda Todd, showing how our human trust in the machine, in robots like the 1960s M.I.T. experiment ELIZA as well as fictional examples like Frankenstein’s monster, leads to people broadcasting the minutia of their lives online. When we record ourselves this way, we open ourselves up to other people’s opinions, in order to give ourselves the possibility of living famous lives. Harris interviews Todd’s grieving mother, and learns about her experience with cyberbullying, concluding, “we each forget, every day, how much care we need to take when using our seemingly benign tools; they are so useful and so sharp.”

Harris is much stronger when he’s writing about our lack of absence, our complete slip down into embracing the ease of technology without realizing the consequences. After he shows us the brave new world we’re living in, he ventures into the realm of stunt journalism in order to illustrate our problems. He gives up the Internet/online access for a month, and his diary of the days shows an addict’s withdrawal, unable to pay attention and function. It is mostly a crank’s reportage, and not particularly enlightening about how to live holistically with the Internet. The book is more interested in philosophy and provocative observations, but it makes no prescriptions for how to live now, which feels like a missed opportunity. Harris admits as much, that he’s just here to question the orthodoxy of letting the Internet into our lives, but it leaves the reader saying, “Yes, correct, and now what?”

Most of these “the Internet is here: this is what it’s doing, and how do we deal with it” books have started to blend together in my mind. There’s a lot of truth in them — the authors are effective at showing how the Internet changes us, warning us like Cassandras — but the net effect can be exhausting, as I’m not sure whether these books are pushing change, creating difference, or just serving as part of somebody’s platform for a TED Talk. Harris’ book is better than most — and, again, it should be passed out in Brooklyn, seriously — but it still leaves me with something like absence, as a reader. I want to know how to live in this world as a person reckoning with the Internet, and so far, most of what I’ve received are warnings.