I read The End of Absence with interest, because I am a member of what author Michael Harris calls the “Straddle Generation,” the generation born before 1985, the last one to remember adult life before the Internet. Harris compares this moment in history to the advent of the Gutenberg press in the 15th century, when the written word became universally available. “Young and old,” he writes, “we’re all straddling two realities to a certain degree. In our rush toward the promise of Google and Facebook—toward the promise of reduced ignorance and reduced loneliness—we feel certain we are rushing toward a better life. We forget the myriad accommodations we made along the way.” Through constant connectivity, he argues, we have lost our “daydreaming silences,” giving up times of solitude and wonder.
Harris’ book is a sometimes humorous, sometimes disturbing look at the relationships we have with the technology in our lives, as well as the human beings we know and love and increasingly view through the lens of our various technologies. As he points out, “When we don’t want to be alone and yet don’t want the hassle that fellow humans represent either, the digital filter is an ideal compromise.”
What’s more disturbing, Harris argues, is that we are allowing ourselves to be reshaped unconsciously, even biologically, sacrificing the ability to be completely absorbed by a story, keenly aware of life’s smallest details or attuned to silence.
On a hopeful note, Harris offers his own attempts to regain the gift of absence as a roadmap for those of us who want it back.