When author Michael Harris was an editor, his mind was shooting around like a jumped-up pinball in a digital arcade game, going from one exaggerated crisis to another. In the middle of the swirling chaos, an unanswered text message led a friend to speculate that he must be dead. He felt like he might be. His life was missing something essential — flow, lack, absence. He quit his job. He also realized that he was one of a dying breed, a person immersed in digital technology who remembered a time before email and smartphones. He wrote a book to examine what we were losing.
In “The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection,” Harris considers what we’re giving up as we are perpetually buzzed by communication — namely: attention, personal memory, authenticity, genuine communication and time that’s truly free. In this philosophical journey, he contemplates what we might save before it’s too late.
Salon talked to him about after-hours email, the buzz of a retweet and the vision of Neil Postman.
You describe a personal revelation at the beginning of the book that inspired you to write this. Take us back to that moment you had and talk about why you thought this was important to write about.
Yeah, I was working as an editor at the city magazine [Vancouver magazine], and, like a lot of office workers, I was experiencing digital overload. So I had two monitors on my desk with dozens of windows open. I had my phone that was just constantly pinging at me. And I was living like this for years and had really lost any idea of, I guess, what the value of solitude or reverie really would be, except when you lose those things, you usually aren’t aware that you’ve lost them. I was manically in this state of digital distraction. And then I was having this sort of exhausted day once, and someone who had been trying to get to me through text message for about five minutes grew irate and sent me a text message saying, "Are you alive or what?" You meant it facetiously, but I actually read it literally in that moment, and I just sort of looked up and had this kind of, Oprah would call it an "aha! moment," and I realized actually this isn’t my life; this isn’t what I want to do. I don’t want to stare at glowing rectangles. I want to be able to commit myself at least occasionally to going deep into things. So I ended up quitting my job. I dove into this project, and that’s about 18 months of work that became the book, “The End of Absence.”
A lot of people — when they hear people talk about their fears about technology and where we’re headed and what it’s doing to our sociology and what it’s doing to our lives, some people will respond, "It’s just a tool. I don’t understand what’s the problem." That feeling that like, "We’re in control. The computer’s not in control, so why are you freaking out about this stuff?"
A couple of people while I was working on the book have called me a Luddite, but I think people who use that word "Luddite" actually don’t know what a Luddite is, because if you look at what the Luddites really were historically, they weren’t so much anti-technology as they were pro-human. They were actually fighting for workers’ rights at an age when mechanical tools were being used by a manufacturing elite to really trample human rights. So I feel like I am in the Luddite position in that truer sense, because it isn’t about technology good or technology bad, and I would never take that stance. It’s just technology is a dangerous, beautiful tool that we have; you’re right. And we need to become intelligent about the way that we use those tools. I think that we’ve gone through this very giddy ride of absorbing new communication technologies, and what we’re hitting now is a point where we have to start becoming intelligent about our media diets in the same way that we had to become intelligent about our food diets after we got a super abundance of sugar and fats at our disposal.
That sounds really helpful and hopeful. I mean, I think that a lot of people out there who would just say, "You know, it’s too late. We’re too far gone." I think that at the workplace, it’s just so expected that we’re going to be on all the time. How can we convince the supervisors of the people we work with that that’s not always the best thing?
Well, I mean I did write about that recently. You know, there was something that came out of France recently; maybe you read about it. There was this false news story that France was outlawing email after 6 p.m. It was completely false, but it became a sort of myth that was bouncing around the Internet. Oh, the lazy French are refusing to answer email after 6 p.m. from work. But I think like a lot of myths, that myth about the French told us something about ourselves.
And there was a Gallup poll released just a month or two ago showing that most American workers believe that answering emails after work is a positive thing. They actually like that, because they believe that they’re becoming free to work where and whenever they like. However, we have to ask, ultimately, are you actually getting more free time? And we don’t seem to be actually getting more free time. We seem to just have higher rates of insomnia and higher rates of screen time. I mean, the average amount of screen time right now for teenagers is six to eight hours a day. They’re basically online as much as they are offline. When you add the eight hours of sleep in there. So yes, we’ve arrived at a sort of, at a state of perma-readiness. And what that means is we’re constantly being ushered away from any moments of solitude or absence that we might have, and I think that’s very dangerous, because it’s those moments of solitude where we do our best thinking. So we might, I think we’re working very hard by responding to a thousand little emails every day, but our managers should really ask themselves whether that’s good work that’s being done or whether it’s just a lot of work that’s being done.
Good point. You talk a lot about this being our Gutenberg moment, and that we’ve had big, sweeping technological changes before when the printing press came in, and this is just one of them. And people say, "Don’t panic." This is just another transition period. But how is this rapid technological transformation different than others?
It’s different, because this is a moment and not a slowly booming era. In Gutenberg’s day, in 1450, the printing press comes out, but most people aren’t actually literate until the 19th century. So you actually have hundreds of years of slow change. It takes centuries before the printing press’s real power is unveiled. Whereas the amount of massive change happening today takes place in a single generation. So instead of a Gutenberg era or a Gutenberg shift, we have this Gutenberg moment, is what I called it in the book. And in a way, that’s frightening, but in another way, it’s actually hopeful, because it means you actually have people living on both sides of the moment at the same time. So I think anybody born before 1985 can remember being an adult in a pre-Internet world. So we have this great chance to actually talk with people who are younger about the world that was before. It doesn’t mean that that world was better than their world. In a lot of ways, digital natives may have an exciting, fantastic new experience that we can’t, that older people can’t comprehend. But the exciting thing for me is the fact that we could actually have a conversation between those two generations and that we had such massively different experiences.
One thing that I notice when I talk to other educators in general, teachers and other librarians, is the sense that when it comes to technology, the kids will lead us. There’s the sense that, "Well, they already know how to do this stuff, so they can teach us."
They don’t need any help using the Internet. I think they need help seeing themselves use the Internet, which is why I think we need media studies programs not just in a few universities but in high schools and elementary schools too. I think we’re totally failing right now, actually, at bringing critical studies in communication and technology into younger levels of education.
That’s a good point. What do you think we should be teaching them?
Teaching children? You know, I wouldn’t be prescriptive about it myself; I’m not smart enough for that. I would just say in the same way that we have a language arts program that media arts or media studies should be built into that language arts program, and we definitely need to help children see their technological use in a historical perspective, to see that this is not the only way that the world works and that there are other goggles, other technology goggles that you can put on in front of your eyes. It really ends up being about creating intelligent media use instead of saying, "This is bad" or "This is good."
And something that you talk about in the book, you have a section, you have a chapter on confession and go into a lot of detail about kind of horrific instances when children have gone online for some kind of [positive] validation, when they should know that that’s not going to happen [and what they get back is hostility]. Why do they seem so tech-literate but then also kind of naive, like they think they’re going to get something [good] back then they already know that people are mean out there.
It’s not only teenagers, of course, but teenagers do provide the biggest example, I guess. Everyone wants to be loved. Everyone wants to be approved. I mean, gosh, I went online and looked at my GoodReads rating this morning for the book. So we do have to be aware that these technologies create — or rather, they capitalize on our desire to be approved. We've created these giant approval matrixes, really. It's no wonder that Facebook only lets you like things. It won't let you dislike things. We love to judge each other by giving each other star ratings and thumbs ups or whatever. But we also, even more importantly, we're all sort of these nervous children hoping we'll become approved. Online technologies create a sort of algorithmic approval system and discourage us from creating an internal approval system and I think that's one of the most insidious things that it does. It discourages us from thinking about our lives and our work from a position of solitude. It becomes a very, I guess, stereotypically adolescent frame of mind where you're constantly hoping for the approval of others instead of finding it from your own heart or own sense of self.
Right. When you talk about the importance of being alone it sounds like one thing that we may lose is our ability to create our own moral compass to figure out what we think is valuable and right. We're just looking for what other people think is valuable all the time.
And we end up giving them what we think will create a positive response instead of giving them what we actually believe or what we actually think. It sort of makes politicians of all of us, in a way.
Right. That's so strange. I don't know if you've seen the Louis C.K. diatribe on YouTube about cellphones …
The chat about being afraid of being alone?
Yeah. I think Louis C.K. — it's funny I saw that and I was like, “Yes, exactly! That's what I'm writing about!” So yeah, I was very much in line with that monologue he gave.
One thing that he talks about is how technology allows us to avoid discomfort, which seems like it could be a good thing but what's the value of feeling the kind of sadness he's talking about?
That's one of the reasons I wrote the book. Absences — this thing that nobody knows how to deal with. We feel uncomfortable when we encounter those empty moments and we just dive for the phone. But that discomfort is actually a sign that we need more absence, not less of it. Like we were saying before, if we can break away from a world of retweets and Facebook likes, I think it allows us to create our own personal approval system. And also lets us develop a rich interior life.
I know that a lot of people my age look at kids and think, “They're so comfortable with this technology and they don't know what we sense is missing because we remember a time when we weren't always connected." But a lot of young people that I've talked to recently seem to know that there's something wrong, but they don't know how to get off the merry-go-round. They don't know how to stop it and they'd like to stop it.
One of the things my publisher, Penguin — or Current, which is an imprint of Penguin — did as we were coming toward a publication date was they created a website called Analog August. I don't know if you heard about this in the press material, but it was encouraging everyone to experiment with taking a couple days offline during August. It seemed like a great time for children, especially, because they have this break from school. Taking even just a weekend off during the month of August — a weekend off from the Internet and from a cellphone — it's shocking. And you go through withdrawal symptoms, actually. But it allows you through that digital detox to realize how desperately you were actually addicted in the first place. It doesn't cure you at all, but it wakes you up to the fact that there's something going on here. I think that's one thing young people can especially benefit from since they haven't had that experience of a pre-Internet brain.
You write a lot about this compulsion to check email and I have [that compulsion], too. And most of the stuff I get is either really boring or just another task to do. But you get the thrill when you get an email, like “I matter all of a sudden.” And I'm wondering, can you talk a little bit about what it is that drives that? It seems irrational because we know there's nothing that's going to change our lives on email. So why do we compulsively check it all the time like that?
I suppose everyone throughout history would have checked their email all the time if they could have. When the mailman used to come once a day, people would compulsively check the mailbox after they heard it bang down. Lots of people would run out the moment they knew the mailman had been there. So I don't think we're some sort of degenerate version of humans, I think we're just as needy for social contact as we ever have been. I suppose the answer goes back to our evolution, our deep desire for social grooming. Every text message, every like on Facebook and every email we receive is some force — even if it's a robotic force, something that's junk mail — it's some force telling us that we matter. And that delights us, right? And it even gives us little shots of happy hormones and I think it was Dana Boyd who talked about “email apnea,” where we actually hold our breath when we realize we have an email. It actually, on a physiological level, affects us. So I don't think we've changed. I think it's just that the technologies themselves have evolved to capitalize on those desires that were always there.
And you tie that in in the book with Darwin and evolution. Can you describe what technology has to do with evolution?
It's complicated and hard to talk about in three sentences. The basic idea is an extension of Richard Dawkins' concept of memes. Dawkins has this idea of memes being like cultural equivalents to our genes — that the kinds of cultural products that are easily replicated are obviously the more likely products to exist further down. So now the argument is we have something called temes, that's a technological meme, meaning that we humans are actually pushing an evolution of our technologies by using — every time we use our technologies, we're making choices that allow the technologies that are more memetically powerful to evolve further. So every generation we get more and more addictive technologies.
It's a little bit complicated but the idea is that we are actually driving our technologies toward becoming more and more compulsive and more and more likely to be addictive.
That's clear. You spend a lot of time in the book — one thing that I like in the book is that it wasn't just “Look at where we are. It's really scary. We're losing our memories. We're giving our memories away to technology. We're not even able to sit and think anymore; we can't even read a long book.” You spend a fair bit of the book talking about what we can do. And I'm wondering if there's any way you can sum up three things somebody could do today to kind of rein in their use of technology and get back to that place where we can think and be more ourselves.
You know how there is a diet book that comes out every month that promises to make you skinny in two weeks? I think you're going to see a lot of media diet books coming out that will promise to fix your brain in two weeks also. I think it's a complicated problem that requires a complicated answer. There are things that I can say but I don't think there's an easy solution. I don't think there's a “Do these three things and you'll be safe from the Internet.” But that said, I don't want to dismiss the question because it's a very important question: What can we practically do? One of the things I know we can do is we can batch-process our email. That means, if you're checking your email 90 times a day, you aren't actually going to become less productive if you check your email 10 times a day. We know, in fact, that you'll probably become more productive if you batch-process your email. The other thing that I would say people can do is they can read. Not just read but they can read about technology. There are so many fantastic books about the ways technology shapes our lives. And by informing yourself about that, it arms you to be able to deal with the world as it is. So [Marshall] McLuhan is an obvious one to read, but maybe more fun and more accessible than McLuhan is Neil Postman. Do you know his book “Amusing Ourselves to Death"?
He wrote it decades before the Internet existed but he looked at our media diets and he looked at television and radio in such an insightful way that I still think that book is one of the most pertinent books to look at and that book taught me a lot about the way I use the Internet even though it was written well before its invention.
He has another book called “Technopoly.”
I've read that as well. That was a little bit later, right?
I don't know when it was published but I know it was published before so many of these things started happening. When I read it I just think about what's happened to education and the push toward the data sets and looking at the numbers. Whenever you talk to anybody in education about something that's happening it's always just, “Where are the numbers? Show me the numbers.”
We want some kind of proof.
And there are some things we just know, but everything has to be quantified. Everything.
That's something that comes up in the chapter on public opinion in my book, I think, is this strange — it's almost like a sickness in our cultural lives that everything has to be given a star rating now. Yelp and GoodReads and Amazon, Rotten Tomatoes, Netflix, all of these programs; when you have a deluge of content you have to make sense of it somehow. And the way we're doing that is by giving it a star rating and that becomes so dangerous, I think. Not least of all because you're getting a star rating based on a collection of ratings by the sort of people who give star ratings, which is not everybody. You have a very select group of the world that's judging everything for the rest of us.
Right. Because there's a certain kind of person who wants to do that. I have no desire to do that.
But I might prefer getting a book recommendation from you than from someone who is especially excited about rating a book or rating a movie on a website. We saw this in the evolution of polls, also. Unless polls become very sophisticated, what they're really giving you is the reactions of people who are the kind of people that answer telephone polls. And this becomes a huge problem. It's a bias.
I think I interrupted you. You were talking about, when I asked three things you could do you said batch-process your email and then you said read about the stuff which is so — I feel people kind of feel like “You know what? There are so many books about the Internet, come on, how many times can we read this?” But my feeling is you’ve got to keep reading about it because we have to be aware of what we're doing.
Actual things. Actual books. Not just a blog post or a 1,000-word thing somebody shared with you on Reddit. We need to read histories of technology, like Elizabeth Eisenstein's books on the printing press or James Gleick's fantastic book “The Information.” There are really serious thinkers out there who have done all this homework for us. I think those are the books we need to read, not just Op-Eds in the New York Times but really deep books. You're probably looking for a third thing to do, though. I guess the third thing that comes to mind that in the same way that people who might have drunk too much over the holidays will give themselves a week off from alcohol, we do need to start thinking about our media consumption as a diet that could benefit from the occasional detox or cleanse. So giving yourself two days off from the Internet, giving yourself a week off from the Internet or, like I did while I was working on this book, I took an entire month off from the Internet. You can do this without destroying all of your friendships and potential for jobs. Although people don't believe that. And when you do do it, in the same way that a food fast will reset your system to a certain degree, a media fast, a digital fast, really helps clarify your vision of your tech usage and it helps clear away that frenetic buzz we feel when we're obsessively going online.