Michael Harris recalls an encounter with a younger friend who was texting throughout the conversation. It wasn’t the texting that was memorable — who hasn’t been there? — but the chasm between a swath of people who see texting-while-talking as normal, and those who find discomfiture there.
“The really gruesome thing was that he didn’t notice or care that we were both so disengaged. The ‘natural’ attention of someone just a few years younger than me is vastly more kinetic and fractured – attention span has evolved,” Harris writes in The End of Absence, which he calls a “meditation” on digital culture, but is just as much blistering critique.
Harris is 33, but he’s an old soul troubled by a new age, one in which teens send 4,000 texts a month, compared to 764 for adults. “They mumble to each other friendly enough, but mostly it is their phones that grip their various attention,” Harris observes of today’s teens.
The teens are the eldest of a demographic that Harris calls “digital natives.” They dwell in violent contrast to their parents and grandparents, the “digital immigrants” who dabble in digital life. Between them are the “straddle generation,” those born, like Harris, in the 1980s, and who will eventually be the last people to remember life before the Internet.
The straddlers possess almost mystical power, with their vision of both future and past. They are the ones who see and understand what will be lost to coming generations, what Harris generalizes as “absence” but is also aptly described as distance. Either, the ability to remove oneself from the constant demands and solicitations of others.
“I fear we are the last of the daydreamers. I fear our children will lose lack, lose absence, and never comprehend its quiet, immeasurable value,” he writes.
Twenty years ago, the prescient cultural critic Neil Postman wrote in Technopoly that we need a “psychic distance from technology.” Here, Harris rises in his shoes, urging not just psychic distance, but physical, too. Frustrated with his own inability to finish War and Peace – 1,300 pages and “weighing the same as a dead cat” – Harris proposes to create the necessary absence from the incessant pinging, both internal and external, and to read 100 pages a week and finish within two weeks. After this experiment, he embarks on another: to unplug – to go “analog” – for a month, to the point of duct-taping his cell phone to an old-school telephone cord in his kitchen, and only using it for tethered conversations like our grandmothers did.
Throughout his own ruminations and experiences, Harris reports on the evolution of the digital age, interviewing sources as disparate as the founder of the online dating site Plentyoffish, to a medical doctor who serves as a moderator on Wikipedia, to the Stanford professor who was the first to put college courses online. In these passages, he’s utterly engaging.
Prude alert: Harris is gay, and although he is in a committed and respectful relationship with an artist, who makes frequent appearances in the narrative, in a chapter on digital dating he wades thigh-deep into territory that some might prefer not to know about, websites like Grindr, which, by comparison, make the denizens of Ashley Madison look buttoned-up and repressed. On the whole, this chapter didn’t seem to fit the theme of the book, and it’s not the only time that Harris wanders off the path, as he does in discourses on elitism and criticism. A longtime theatre critic for The Globe and Mail, Harris struggles with the new world in which everyone’s a critic. “What a lovely thing, to shut up and listen and not broadcast anything back,” he writes.
While the conclusion of the book, a diary of the digital fast, is vaguely predictable, The End of Absence is a satisfying discourse for anyone wishing Postman had lived another 50 years. And Harris, though his friends call him a Luddite and a curmudgeon, is young and nimble, able to both savage and embrace digital life. It’s not all terrible for the kids. “They will get lost in the woods, they will run naked on beaches, they will sometimes shut off their devices,” he promises. But this book is a reminder that parents must “proactively engineer moments of absence” for themselves and their kids. “We cannot afford to count on accidental absences any more than we can count on accidental veggies at dinner.” Hear, hear.
Originally published in The Hippo.