The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection. By Michael Harris. Current; 256 pages.
“SOON enough, nobody will remember life before the internet. What does this unavoidable fact mean?” It is with this sobering question that Michael Harris, a Canadian journalist, begins his debut work, “The End of Absence”.
To arrive at an answer, Mr Harris combs through what remains of our pre-internet lives, separating the things we will carry forward into the connected world from the worthy things we may leave behind.
Our insatiable appetites — for information, stimulation, validation — will come with us. But when all those wants are met no sooner than they have been felt, the knowledge of what it is to be left unfulfilled may not.
Without such absences, Mr Harris argues, “we risk fooling ourselves into believing that things matter less.” He cites the example of De Beers, which “hoards its diamonds to invent a scarcity that equals preciousness.” A culture of abundance devalues consumption. It fosters a vague feeling of dissatisfaction.
Even the basic act of contemplation may suffer if idleness — when waiting for a bus, for example — is replaced with the easy entertainment offered by mobile phones. As with great music, silences are as much a part of the human experience as soaring crescendos. There is no inspiration without reflection.
Mr Harris is no absolutist or ageing Luddite. Instead he makes a more cautious argument, following in the footsteps of writers like Nicholas Carr, whose book “The Shallows” had a powerful impact on our understanding of the way the internet is rewiring brains. He speaks to internet millionaires, computer scientists, academics and virtual robots to understand his anxieties better. His conclusion is a measured one.
Quoting Seneca, Mr Harris stresses the need to combine solitude and the crowd, “and to have recourse to them alternately”. Just as humans are able to deny themselves an excess of the fats and sugars that their bodies are trained to crave, so too must they remain cautious about technology: “Every technology will alienate you from some part of your life. That is its job. Your job is to notice.” Only by doing this can the last generation to know a pre-internet world ensure that those who come after appreciate what has been lost.
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