Technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral. — Melvin Kranzberg
It won't be long before people fail to remember a world without the internet. Michael Harris explores what that means in his new book The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We've Lost in a World of Constant Connection.
For those billions who come next, of course, it won’t mean anything very obvious. Our online technologies, taken as a whole, will have become a kind of foundational myth —a story people are barely conscious of, something natural and, therefore, unnoticed. Just as previous generations were charmed by televisions until their sets were left always on, murmuring as consolingly as the radios before them, future generations will be so immersed in the Internet that questions about its basic purpose or meaning will have faded from notice. Something tremendous will be missing from their lives— a mind-set that their ancestors took entirely for granted— but they will hardly be able to notice its disappearance. Nor can we blame them.
However, we have in this brief historical moment, this moment in between two modes of being, a very rare opportunity. For those of us who have lived both with and without the vast, crowded connectivity the Internet provides, these are the few days when we can still notice the difference between Before and After.
This is the moment. Our awareness of this singular position pops up every now and again. We catch ourselves idly reaching for our phones at the bus stop. Or we notice how, midconversation, a fumbling friend dives into the perfect recall of Google.
I think that within the mess of changes we’re experiencing, there’s a single difference that we feel most keenly; and it’s also the difference 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.
Before all memory of those absences is shuttered, though, there is this brief time when we might record what came before. We might do something with those small, barely noticeable instances when we’re reminded of our love for absence. They flash at us amid the rush of our experience and seem to signal: Wait, wasn’t there something . . . ?
In 1998, the writer Linda Stone coined the phrase that perfectly describes the state of most people: “continuous partial attention.” More than welcoming this impoverished state, most of us run toward it.
We are constantly distracted. Pings. Texts. Emails. We're becoming slaves to devices and perpetual connectivity.
Dr. Gary Small, a researcher at UCLA, writes that “once people get used to this state, they tend to thrive on the perpetual connectivity. It feeds their egos and sense of self-worth, and it becomes irresistible.” We feel needed. We're weaving our self-identity with our devices. We think that if they are not constantly buzzing we're not “needed, necessary, crucial.” This “atmosphere of manic disruption makes (our) adrenal glands pump up production of cortisol and adrenaline.”
Dr. Small points out:
In the short run, these stress hormones boost energy levels and augment memory, but over time they actually impair cognition, lead to depression, and alter the neural circuitry in the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex— the brain regions that control mood and thought. Chronic and prolonged techno-brain burnout can even reshape the underlying brain structure.
Harris argues that there was a moment weirdly similar to this one: the year 1450. That's the year when Johannes Gutenberg managed to invent a printing press.
Like the Internet, Gutenberg’s machine made certain jobs either ridiculous or redundant (so long, scriptoria). But much more was dismantled by Gutenberg’s invention than the employment of a few recalcitrant scribes. As the fidelity and speed of copying was ratcheted way up, there was a boom in what we’d now call data transfer: A great sermon delivered in Paris might be perfectly replicated in Lyon. (Branding improved, too: for the first time subjects knew what their king looked like.) Such uniformity laid the groundwork for massive leaps in knowledge and scientific understanding as a scholastic world that was initially scattered began to cohere into a consistent international conversation, one where academics and authorities could build on one another’s work rather than repeat it. As its influence unfurled across Europe, the press would flatten entire monopolies of knowledge, even enabling Martin Luther to shake the foundations of the Catholic Church; next it jump -started the Enlightenment. And the printing press had its victims; its cheap and plentiful product undid whole swaths of life, from the recitation of epic poetry to the authority of those few who could afford handmade manuscripts.
For any single human to live through such a change is extraordinary. After all, the original Gutenberg shift in 1450 was not a moment that one person could have witnessed, but a slow-blooming era that took centuries before it was fully unpacked. Literacy in England was not common until the nineteenth century, so most folk until then had little direct contact with the printed book. And the printing machine itself was not fundamentally improved upon for the first 350 years of its existence.
But today is different.
How quickly, how irrevocably, this kills that. Since ours is truly a single moment and not an era, scholars who specialize in fifteenth-century history may be able to make only partial comparisons with the landscape we’re trekking through. While writing this book, I found it necessary to consult also with neuroscientists, psychiatrists, psychologists, technology gurus, literature professors, librarians, computer scientists, and more than a few random acquaintances who were willing to share their war stories. And all these folk, moving down their various roads, at last crossed paths— in that place called Absence. It was an idea of absence that seemed to come up time and again. Every expert, every scientist, and every friend I spoke with had a device in his or her pocket that could funnel a planet’s worth of unabridged, incomprehensible clamor. Yet it was absence that unified the elegies I heard.
The change with Gutenberg was so total that it became a lens through which we view the world. “The gains the press yielded,” Harris writes, “are mammoth and essential to our lives.” Yet each new technology — from the written word to Twitter — is both an opportunity for something new and an opportunity to give something up.
In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan wrote that: “a new medium is never an addition to an old one, nor does it leave the old one in peace.”
New mediums that become successful subjugate the older ones. It “never ceases to oppress the older media until it finds new shapes and positions for them.”
Harris challenges us: “As we embrace a technology’s gifts, we usually fail to consider what they ask from us in return—the subtle, hardly noticeable payments we make in exchange for their marvellous service.”
We don’t notice, for example , that the gaps in our schedules have disappeared because we’re too busy delighting in the amusements that fill them. We forget the games that childhood boredom forged because boredom itself has been outlawed. Why would we bother to register the end of solitude, of ignorance, of lack? Why would we care that an absence has disappeared?
The more I thought about this seismic shift in our lives— our rapid movement toward online experience and away from rarer, concrete things— the more I wanted to understand the nature of the experience itself. How does it feel to live through our own Gutenberg moment? How does it feel to be the only people in history to know life with and without the Internet?
After a month long break from the Internet, Harris emerges without an epiphany. “But it’s the break itself that’s the thing. It’s the break—that is, the questioning—that snaps us out of the spell, that can convince us that it was a spell in the first place,” he writes. While he doesn't propose taking a month off, he does propose the occasional break: “I think what you get is a richer interior light and the ability to see yourself in a critical light, living online. Because if you’re in the middle of something you can never see it properly.”
The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We've Lost in a World of Constant Connection urges us to remain aware of what came before and “to again take pleasure in absence.”