“The End of Absence” by Michael Harris

Have you ever been out to dinner with a friend or group of friends and you’ve looked around and everyone is looking at their phones. What is the appeal of these little devices that have become so pervasive in our lives? That little hit of dopamine we get when the soft buzz of a next text message comes in feeds the addiction dozens if not hundreds of times a day. We’ve replaced all of the quiet times in our lives with content and connection. But how is it that in a world that is so connected, we sometimes feel more alone than ever before?

  1. “Technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral.” ~Melvin Kranzberg
  2. 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, mid-conversation, a fumbling friend dives into the perfect recall of Google. We can still catch ourselves. We say, Wait…
    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.
  3. 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 marvelous 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 are that an absence has disappeared?
  4. How does it feel to be the only people in history to know life with and without the Internet?
  5. Just as every technology is an invitation to enhance some part of our lives, it’s also, necessarily, an invitation to be drawn away from something else.
  6. “Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.” ~Henry David Thoreau
  7. When we don’t want to be alone and yet don’t want the hassle that fellow humans represent either, the digital filter is an ideal compromise.
  8. The phone is easy, people are hard. But even then, it’s texting that is acceptable since voice-to-voice phone conversations have too many potential pitfalls. Text messages, even if they lack subtle intonation, are discreet and controllable. And that’s a trade-off we’re eager to make. “We have to be concerned that the simplification and reduction of relationship is no longer something we complain about. It may become that we expect, even desire.” ~Turkle
  9. As our phone banish the wide-open possibilities of boredom, they deliver a strict context that lets us moor ourselves in an ocean of distraction that would otherwise drown us.
  10. I think to myself that nobody would want to hire an individual capable of thinking in full sentences. The only significant advantage left to the young will be their youthful looks—their sex appeal—for which an older population will forgive very much. This, I tell myself with a shot of glee, will fade. And then what will a constantly distracted fifty-year-old really bring to the table, except a facility with the technology that made him or her that way? But that, of course, is a fantasy; that fifty-year-old will be a multi-tasker in a multi-tasking world. And my own idea of a work ethic will be outmoded.
  11. There’s actually a chasm between me and folk five years younger. The other day, I was speaking with a young friend of mine—a journalist in his late twenties—and he thought nothing of carrying on a text conversation with someone else while speaking with me. It’s a common annoyance, barely worth noting, except that I’d been thinking about what it meant to be constantly put on hold by a person I’m sharing a beer with. It seemed to me that 80 percent of his attention procured 20 percent of my interest.
  12. Children do need moments of solitude as well as moments of healthy interaction. How else would they learn that the mind makes its own happiness? But too often these moments of solitude are only stumbled upon by children, whereas socialization is constantly arranged.
  13. One doesn’t see teenagers staring into space anymore. Gone is the idle mind of the adolescent.
  14. In reality, life outside of orderly institutions like schools, jobs, and prisons is lacking in “gold star” moments; it passes by in a not-so-dignified way, and nobody tells us whether we’re getting it right or wrong. But publish your experience online and an institutional approval system rises to meet it—your photo is “liked,” you status is gilded with commentary.
  15. Access to everything encourages exploration of nothing.
  16. Commensurate with the devaluing of expert opinion is the hyper-valuing of amateur, public opinion—for its very amateurism. Often a comment field will be freckled with the acronym INHO, which stands for the innocuous phrase “in my honest opinion.” It crops up when someone wishes to say anything with impunity and has become the “get out of jail free” card of public debate. “IMHO Mexicans should learn to speak proper English if they’re going to work in our restaurants.” Can’t touch me! Just my opinion!
  17. Some lens has been shuttered over our vision. We all have felt it. Even as we draw more of the world into our lives, gaining access to people and events we never had access to before, we feel that the things we gather lose some veracity in transit.
  18. All our screen time, our digital indulgence, may well be wreaking havoc on our conception of the authentic—how could it not? But, paradoxically, it’s the impulse to hold more of the world in our arms that leaves us holding more of reality at arm’s length.
  19. Without absence in our lives, we risk fooling ourselves into believing that things (a message from a lover, the performance of a song, the face of a human body) matter less. De Beers hoards its diamonds to invent a scarcity that equals preciousness. Perhaps we now need to engineer scarcity in our communications, in our interactions, and in the things we consume.
  20. When we think we’re multitasking we’re actually multi-switching. That is what the brain is very good at doing—quickly diverting its attention from one place to the next. We think we’re being productive because we are, indeed, being busy. But in reality we’re simply giving ourselves extra work.
  21. Having evolved in an environment rife with danger and uncertainty, we are hardwired to always default to fast-paced shifts in focus. Orienting responses are the brain’s ever-armed alarm system and cannot be ignored.
  22. Real thinking requires retreat.
  23. The internet allows us to know fewer facts, since we can be sure they are always literally at our fingertips… but we should not forget that often in the scientific discovery process the greatest challenges are to ask the right question rather than answer a well-posed question and to correlate facts that no one thought of connecting. The existence of many available facts somewhere in the infinite ocean of the Internet is no help in such an endeavor.
  24. Reconsolidation: every retrieval of memory involves thinking about it in a new way. We edit the past in light of what we know now. But we remain utterly unaware that we’ve changed it.
  25. Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny. And I believe that memorizing something is the sowing of a thought.
  26. For many of us, the days begin and end with a consoling look at a phone or a laptop. We find ourselves on constant alert for connection.
  27. Will the omnipresence of choice, in other words, block us from the absences that so often fuel our desires?
  28. The American media adviser Lyman Bryson told us that technology is always about explicitness. Technologies—and online technologies especially, I think—focus our attention on one cramped view of things. They cut away the “haptic” symphony of senses and perceptions that make up real, lived interaction.
  29. The colonization presents us with an intellectual paradox—we know everything and we know nothing. Shoveling the Internet into our brains gives us a mental state where “we acknowledge that we’ve never been smarter as individuals and yet somehow we’ve never felt stupider.”
  30. It was Thoreau who first suggested it to me, the idea that we aren’t lonely because we are alone; we are lonely because we have failed in our solitude. Thoreau was never seeking out loneliness, after all. He went to the woods because of his loneliness; he went into the woods to enjoy the company of his bare self.
  31. The goal was to steer himself into crowds only when and how he saw fit. To not be drowned by “what was not life.” To limit the number of moments that brought him into the society of other men and women and thus to make them more meaningful.
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