The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We've Lost in a World of Constant Connection
Soon enough, nobody will remember life before the Internet. What does this unavoidable fact mean? Mark interviews Michael Harris, author of The End of Absence.
For future generations, it won’t mean anything very obvious. They will be so immersed in online life that questions about the Internet’s basic purpose or meaning will vanish.
But those of us who have lived both with and without the crowded connectivity of online life have a rare opportunity. We can still recognize the difference between Before and After. We catch ourselves idly reaching for our phones at the bus stop. Or we notice how, mid-conversation, a fumbling friend dives into the perfect recall of Google.
In this eloquent and thought-provoking book, Michael Harris argues that amid all the changes we’re experiencing, the most interesting is the one that future generations will find hardest to grasp. That is the end of absence—the loss of lack. The daydreaming silences in our lives are filled; the burning solitudes are extinguished. There’s no true “free time” when you carry a smartphone. Today’s rarest commodity is the chance to be alone with your own thoughts.
To understand our predicament, and what we should do about it, Harris explores this “loss of lack” in chapters devoted to every corner of our lives, from sex and commerce to memory and attention span. His book is a kind of witness for the “straddle generation”—a burst of empathy for those of us who suspect that our technologies use us as much as we use them.
By placing our situation in a rich historical context, Harris helps us remember which parts of that earlier world we don’t want to lose forever. He urges us to look up—even briefly—from our screens. To remain awake to what came before. To again take pleasure in absence.
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Bonus: Michael Harris' End of Absence Glossary
The end of absence is enigmatic; to talk about it we need new words.
Image: Kenny Park
The experience of too much inspiration, resulting in no further gains in creativity.
Over the weekend I watched a dozen TED Talks in a row and got this vaguely overspired feeling.
The appropriation of computer terminology to describe real-life experiences. Nick walked into the party and muttered to his girlfriend, “None of your preferred networks are available.”
Neither Digital Natives nor wholly Digital Immigrants; they were born in the 1980s and will be the last people to remember life without the Internet. After she got text-dumped, Stacey was determined to only date Straddle Gen guys. “They’re so Romantic!”
Wagging the Crowd
Purposeful manipulation of ratings on crowd-based voting systems like Yelp. Jim’s restaurant was failing so he hired a click farm in India to wag the crowd.
The degree to which each generation loosens their privacy settings and becomes more at ease with purveyors of big data. Typified by the automatic acceptance of unread “terms and conditions.” Jonah’s dad noted a bit of condition creep when he saw the links to homemade porn on his son’s Twitter feed.
The experience of forgetting one is viewing reality through a particular technological lens. George was shocked to discover that Rebecca had blurred out an unfortunate mole constellation in her profile photos.
The contention that everything ought to be gilded in supporting text. Looking up from the Google Map, Brady was discomfited to find himself in a baffling network of poorly labeled streets.
The act of granting worth or authenticity to something by upping its digital presence. For example, broadcasting images of the food one is about to consume. (Related to an Englightenment bias that presumes making information available is akin to making it valuable.) Before tucking in, the men gave their steaks a super-sanction on Instagram.
A person with no online presence who thus boasts a ghostly or mythical quality when he/she shows up in person. Clay’s Facebook sabbatical leant him a unicorn quality and upped his cachet at grad parties.
The assumption that algorithms and crowd-sourced data will invariably derive more meaningful outcomes. Long ago Derek had decided to choose movies based on cloud faith.
The fear of missing out on the first wave of a new technology. Carlos got a serious hit of betaphobia when he saw her robotic dog ambling over to meet them.
Programs that allow users to limit their access to online content. Mariko kept on getting sucked into Katy Perry videos so she jacked up her Slownet settings.
A genre of video in which the creator—typically a teenaged female—confesses private trauma through a series of flashcards bearing Sharpie text. The whole school saw her flashcard confessional so now she was a loser and an attention whore, too.
A relationship maintained by short and detached bursts of intensely affectionate messaging. Just one of Christina’s staccato love messages could keep him going for a week: OMG U R soooooooooo cute!!! ;-)
A distinct group of people born within five years of each other. At the party all the kids a minigen younger than me were obsessed with memes I’d never heard of.
The act of boosting something online in as many arenas as possible, often through passive “like” systems on Facebook, etc. It wasn’t enough to just buy the new Death Cab for Cutie album, Tomer opened his laptop and started megapproving it.
The sense that all content is now merely a revision of content from earlier decades.
Why didn’t I think of that Archie satire?
The love of derivative content over original content. Did you see the Dr. Who t-shirt Liam made? Amazing.
The act of cruising Google in tandem with a phone conversation in order to source info or anecdotes and bolster one’s own ideas. I thought Derek knew a lot about sea slugs but it turned out he was just tandem talking.
To offload a memory from brain to computer. It was such a relief to unmember Dai’s boyfriend’s name.
The experience of one person’s distraction compounding another’s. Julie kept texting while I was talking about my dog, so I started texting, too. Exists in two varietals: Limited Compound Distraction refers to a moment of positive feedback distraction (i.e. Bailey kept texting while I was telling him about the exam so I started Tweeting about it instead) whereas Assumed Compound Distraction refers to a pre-determined atmosphere of distraction wherein sustained, meaningful interaction feels awkward and unwelcome. (i.e. Harry and Bryce mumbled to each other about Iran while scrolling through the news on their respective phones)
The act of compulsively checking one’s phone in an awkward situation. Susan’s friends weren’t at the bar yet so she pulled a phone dodge and became fascinated by her Pinterest feed.
The state of waiting for a technology to complete an internal process, of being put on hold by a computer. Julie’s mouth dropped open an inch each time her tablet loaded a page.
The limit from home that one can travel without a phone before anxiety kicks in. He got two blocks down the street before his phone leash whipped him around.
A sudden and unaccountably fierce meltdown brought on by five minutes of lost access to the Internet. Susan bawled at the harried barista when the café’s wifi signal faltered.
The often ill-conceived decision to live without connective technologies for a period of time in order to cleanse the spirit. “While we’re in Bali,” said Harry, “what if we went totally Walden?”
An increased commitment to visual information, as encouraged by certain technologies. Tom’s eyes were bugged out with tech dilation after burrowing into his phone for twenty minutes.
The act of becoming dead to the world while pouring all attention into a phone. (Often more obvious in public spaces.) She froze in the intersection, dove into full phone burrow, and let her umbrella drop to the pavement.
Excerpted from The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost In a World of Constant Connection by Michael Harris, in agreement with Current, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Copyright (c) Michael Harris, 2014.
I asked Amy Parness, the co-founder of Sparkle Labs, maker of fantastic educational electronics kits, to write a Medium post about gender and the business of being a maker business person. Her terrific essay calls out the problems with “pink girly engineering kits.” From Medium:
Zero UI is the new term for “invisible interfaces”—what happens in the future when all the clicking and tapping and typing is history: “If you look at the history of computing, starting with the jacquard loom in 1801, humans have always had to interact with machines in a really abstract, complex way.” [Fast Company]
CEO Dick Costolo will resign, to be replaced in the interim by Jack Dorsey