In our definition of work in the tech age, it may seem ‘normal’ to spend half a day blasting through email and tweets. For one who considers that as part of his ‘work,’ we are fortunate Michael Harris also found time to write this book about our obsession with digital life.
Drawn toward the lure of ever-present technology, Harris wrote The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection to share his personal story of trying to take a technology sabbatical, while discovering and researching the benefits of the slower life we used to know. Clearly, we’ve lost our way when five people sharing a meal are all talking to their tech devices, and when we spend half the day ‘working’ on clearing up email.
The greater problem comes when tech interruptions become our experience: that is, not a means to an end, but the end itself of our work, learning, or discovery. “Absence” as he calls it in the title is that feeling that there is no next thing waiting, pinging, or popping up – a type of solitude many of us lack.
In reading The End of Absence, we learn that the gifts of technology ask something of us. Harris includes extensive research and dialogue with people he has interviewed, including Dr. Gary Small, who works in neuroplasticity research. Dr. Small tested brain activity and learned that technology not only changes our lives but also our brains. Similar research by Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, explains how engagement with the Internet makes our minds more capable of ‘shallow’ thinking and less capable of ‘deep’ thinking. Over time, our screen reading loses effectiveness, causing Carr to remind us that ‘the brighter the software, the dimmer the user.’
This brings us to ‘Analog August‘ – Harris’s experiment to see if he can get through a month unplugged. Read of his wandering struggles to function without phone, email and internet, and you’ll realize how enmeshed we all are in the tech world.
The End of Absence works because it does not preach. It combines the wealth of the author’s research and traces our rapid path from analog days to today. It is also an enlightening and humorous study of ‘author as subject’.
Harris makes a valid point that the Straddle Generation, those born in the 1980s or before, will be the last people to remember life without the Internet. The End of Absence provides an engaging personal story and a serious look at both the past and the future.