My Review of Michael Harris’ The End of Absence

“Soon enough, nobody will remember life before the Internet. What does this unavoidable fact mean?” from chapter 1 This Kills That

20821373I read the majority of Michael Harris’ The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection prior to trip with nearly twenty young adults and teenagers to a youth convention of nearly five thousand of them and finished it prior to an eight day vacation which I promised my wife I would refrain from getting on the computer, and thus the Internet, during both events.

I failed as I:

tweeted about the event during the event (and was encouraged to tweet)

dialogued with some people via my cell phone (a non-smart one, by the way) via Facebook private messaging,

and exchanged texts with a colleague about what faced me after my 12 day “absence.”

And Harris’ words about the lack of absence, -a state in which free time is becoming less and less experienced, were a constant reminder about his fear that the “digital natives” of this age will never experience such absence but instead be consumed by the constant demands of a smart-phone world, – served as a reminder to me of a constant battle that I, as part of what Harris calls the Before generation, the generation who remembers what life was like before the Internet, now fight.

Some might read The End of Absence and consider it a rant by someone who is too introverted or sensitive to handle the new reality of on-line life. Others might read it and think that it is a call to a new kind of digital monasticism. I don’t think so either way. Rather I think that Harris argues that intentional absences must become a part of our lives so that absence keeps us in touch with our humanity.

Divided into nine chapters, Harris uses a combination of history as he recounts the changes resulting from the Gutenberg press; current scientific research related to brain waves and malleability of the human brain to adopt to the changes current technology is causing; human resource management as he speaks with motivational speakers about how to keep technology within limits so that personal and corporate productivity is enhanced; literary criticism with the stories of how the democratization of book reviews and other once “elitist” activities are changing how people read and buy books; and the personal stories of how the digital world we now inhabit causes people such Amanda Todd to take her own life while seeking meaningful connection from this same digital world that so abused her. As such, End of Absence is a fast-paced book that weaves throughout these fields while Harris weaves in his own wrestling and journey to unplug from the digital world for one month.

I found the following chapters to challenge my thinking regarding the value and need for absence in order to think, remember, even believe in a larger context than what appears on my phone and computer screens.

Chapter 3 – Confession was thought provoking one as it addreses the issues of acceptance and how our on-line confessions are taking us away from working through “the mysteries of our own existence without reference to the demands of an often ruthless public.”

Chapter 5 – Authenticity serves as a reminder that the importance of  personal experience is slowly being replaced by a digital life in which “we can maintain confident-if technically less authentic-versions of ourselves.”

Chapter 7 – Memory (The Good Error) took me back to Malcolm Gladwell’s thoughts on memory in his book Outliers as Harris suggests that “human memory” (compared to digital memory) “was never meant to call up things, after all, but rather explore the richness of exclusion, of absence.”

Harris’ book serves as a reminder to me and, he hopes (so do I), to others that the need for absence is a critical one in order for us to live a life untethered to our technology. Or, as Harris says,

“Give yourself permission to go without one weekend – without any screens you look at when you are bored… Ask yourself what might come from all those silences you’ve been filling up.”

I think Henry David Thoreau would be pleased.

I rate this book an “outstanding” read.

Note: I received an uncorrected proof of this book via the Amazon Vine program in exchange for a review. I was not required to write a positive review.

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