On a recent panel about the creative process, several writers of a certain age were reminiscing about the Olden Days, when we penned first drafts in longhand, then moved to serial drafts on typewriters, and were thrilled with the sexy new technology of the IBM Selectric’s built-in correction tape (no more messy, smelly bottles of liquid Wite-Out!).
Fast-forward 30-odd years from our first Kaypro word processors, when you had to input an MS-DOS command to make a phrase miraculously print in italics. Canadian journalist Michael Harris watches his puzzled 2-year-old nephew turn from his iPad to toy with a curiosity: a print magazine.
The toddler fixates on a photo of a face in the Vanity Fair, and keeps fiddling on the page with his fingers; “it dawns on me that he’s attempting to zoom in,” Harris writes. “At last, he looks over at me, flummoxed and frustrated, as though to say, ‘This thing’s broken.’ ”
In The End of Absence, Harris’ premise is a simple yet enticing one. He isn’t purely nostalgic for the good old days — obviously, there’s no more going back to the pre-email, cellphone and Google world than there was of returning to the monk-drawn illuminated manuscript after Gutenberg.
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But Gutenberg’s revolution was “a slow blooming era that took centuries before it was fully unpacked.” Our technological revolution has burgeoned with astonishing speed. And Harris notes that we are the last generation that will have known life before and after the digital revolution, with its promise of instant connection with anyone and everything, anywhere. This gives us a singular vantage point to consider what we’ve gained — and at what cost.
Harris wonders whether all of our fact-gathering on Google and Wikipedia, our hookups on Tindr, our mountains of posts and texts and selfies, have made us dumber, less authentic. Because of the ease of our connectedness to information, we remember less and thus live with an “intellectual paradox — we know everything and we know nothing,” a condition that the futurist novelist Douglas Coupland calls feeling “smupid”: smart and stupid at once.
Harris further wonders whether future generations will be trapped in the “restless idleness” of endless distracted browsing, whether they will still be able to “access absence and solitude” of the kind that made Thoreau’s time at Walden Pond so rewarding.
Harris’ far-ranging research provides a wealth of thought-provoking statistics and details, and The End of Absence has a kinetic energy well-matched to our jumpy attention spans. His excellent chapter on the evolution of memory ranges from 2,000 years ago, when wealthy Sabinus trotted out his slaves at dinner parties to recite memorized passages of Homer and Hesiod, proud to own what were basically human search engines, to Lifelogging and Timehop applications that promise to help people organize and keep track of their pasts.
Harris also muses on his own experiences, like his arduous attempt to escape “the culture of distraction” to read War and Peace.
In his mind, absence makes the heart grow fonder. You need to long for a person intensely to feel deeply in love, and longing requires distance, not the instant hookups promised by applications like PlentyofFish. “Online technologies promote us towards a state of constant intimacy, and that’s not necessarily an ingredient in erotic desire.”
That may be true for online shopping as well as for love — at least for those of us who remember the thrill of discovering a long-sought volume at a used bookstore while traveling, as opposed to doing a global online search and pressing “buy now.”
Occasionally Harris hits on his need to “slip away from the world again” a little too insistently, exhorting us to acknowledge that we are, like Neo in The Matrix, in “servitude to a larger technological intelligence.” He embarks on an “analog August” — an entire month without cellphone, email or Internet. He admits that, even after his withdrawal, he doesn’t exactly experience an epiphany.
Neither do his readers, who have been hearing about similar experiments for years now. But in Harris’ defense, maybe they haven’t done that personally. Perhaps they’d dare to “take the challenge” proposed by his publisher and return to 1983 for an August weekend. As an enticement to unplug, the publisher will even cough up a free copy of War and Peace.
Lisa Zeidner reviewed this book for The Washington Post.