When it comes to information and connection, we rarely want for anything these days. And that’s a problem, argues journalist Michael Harris in his new book The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection (Current, August 2014). Harris suggests that modern technology, especially the smartphone, has taken certain kinds of absence from our lives—it has eliminated our time for solitude and daydreaming, and filled even short moments of quiet with interruptions and distractions. Harris worries that these “absences” have fundamental value in human lives, and maintains that we ought to try to hold on to them.
Certain generations alive today will be the last to remember what life was like before the Internet. It is these generations who are uniquely able to consider what we’ve lost, even as we have gained the vast resources and instant connectivity of the Web and mobile communications. Now would be a good time for society to stop and think about protecting some aspects of our pre-Internet lives, and move toward a balanced future that embraces technology while holding on to absence.
Scientific American spoke to Harris about why we should reclaim stillness and resist the lure of endless Beyoncé videos.
[An edited transcript of the conversation follows.]
In your title, “The End of Absence,” what do you mean by absence?
The title is a bit of a double negative, so it’s confusing. In the end I kind of liked that confusion. It points out that we are losing something that’s not obvious. That thing is absence itself. Absence includes solitude, daydreaming, reverie, these things that are very hard to quantify.
Can you give an example?
Imagine if you go to Paris for a month and your girlfriend or boyfriend is demanding constant text messages to keep in touch. We don’t experience the absence of our loved ones the same way we used to. In that example we can see there actually is value to missing someone.
And when we’re on vacation, technology also makes it harder to avoid interruptions and distractions, right?
I remember when I was in Paris for the first time. I went to the top of the Eifel Tower. My first instinct was to text my boyfriend because I had to share it with him. What are we giving up every time we turn to the phones?
We have this devotion to the life-logging process. Who hasn’t seen that thing where there’s a crowd of people in front of the Mona Lisa and they’re all looking at it through their phones, as though they can’t see digital pictures of it whenever they want. They have this one opportunity to look at the actual painting, and they’re squandering it.
Why should we worry that we’re losing that absence?
I’m so cognizant of sounding like a crank saying, “kids these days….” But I do think we have this rare moment in time. The difference between before and after [the Internet and mobile technology] is going to disappear, historically speaking, in a flash. We owe it, I think, to future generations to think about this.
I don’t know anybody that would argue that the Internet has improved their attention span. It’s not so much the content that bothers me. It’s the fact that our brains are plastic and we’re training them to skim, not really to pay attention. Not to be too extremist about it, but it makes us very vulnerable if we aren’t actually able to pay attention. We’re not a very worthwhile citizenry if we can’t read a 300-word-long article without losing focus.
In the book you talk about your own struggle to resist the siren call of digital disruptions, like the morning you got lost watching Beyoncé videos. What strategies did you find that work for trying to hold on to absence?
One strategy would be arming yourself with knowledge. If you do a little bit of reading, you’ll convince yourself the brain is plastic and that if you feed it nothing but Beyoncé videos, then you are actually going to train your brain to respond to nothing but Beyoncé videos. And then be honest with yourself about, is that really what I want?
We have to engineer absence and be proactive. It’s not going to come back on its own. The bias in our society is moving toward more content, shallower thinking. You have to actually do semiradical things like taking a month off the Internet to remind yourself what reverie or daydreaming looks like; what does it feel like to walk through the park without a cell phone?
I am not trying to tell anyone how to live, but I am arguing that only knowing one way to live is an impoverished state. We should be able to choose between online life and offline life. If you can’t take a week off the Internet, I think that says something about your level of addiction.
Aside from taking time away from the Internet, how can we, and future generations, learn to be more aware of how it affects us?
The thing that came out of this research for me was this desire to promote media studies programs in schools. Our children don’t need any help using the Internet or social media, but what they do desperately need is our help in seeing themselves use it. All of the torturous stuff you hear about cyber bullying—I think that would be immeasurably helped by bringing critical media studies to schools. What we’re doing now is like letting kids sit in a candy shop and eat whatever they want. We don’t let them choose their own nutritional diet, so why do we let them chose their own media diet? I think it’s incumbent on parents to engineer absence for children and to teach them critical media studies.