on ‘The End of Absence’

“I fear we are the last of the daydreamers. I fear our children will lose lack, lose absence, and never comprehend its quiet, immeasurable value.”  –  The End of Absence

Many children this winter, especially in Boston, are having days off from school because of the weather. They’re being ‘absent.’ I used to love being ‘absent,’ on snow days. There was a peculiar isolation in it, a kind of detachment that’s almost impossible to reproduce now. This winter, those kids in Boston are having an entirely different ‘absence.’ They’re not absent in the way that I used to be absent.

The End of Absence by Michael Harris is another book about the internet and how modern technology is changing the human experience. I keep reading books like this. Most of them have a pessimistic take on what it all means, and the fact that I spend many evenings reading stuff like this is at least moderately contrary to the fact that I spend all my days getting paid to embrace it. That’s going to have to wait for another blog post.

So, is this particular work saying something of significance, that other books like ‘The Circle,’ ‘The Shallows,’ or ‘You are Not a Gadget‘ hasn’t said already? Maybe, maybe not. They’re all reminders that this isn’t a localized phenomenon – everybody’s feeling it.

The book starts with a summary of ‘kids these days,’ laments how no one reads anymore, and guesses that due to the changing nature of communication and availability, neuroplacticity will turn our brains to puddles. The internet has led us to a permanent state of ‘continuous partial attention’ and we should be adequately concerned. One dramatic statistic claims that if you’re over thirty, you’re probably having just as many electronic interactions as you are physical ones. This is particularly difficult, because if you’re over thirty, you’re also old enough to remember when this wasn’t even possible, and be bewildered at what things have become.

So, what are the products of ‘continuous partial attention?’ We’re confessing a lot of stuff, writes the author: “it often seems natural, now, to reach for a broadcasting tool when anything momentous wells up.” Why does that matter? Because it’s apparently made us all think we’re celebrities. The findings of a study of 3000 parents in Britain was cited:

“the top three job aspirations of children today are sportsman, pop star, and actor. Twenty-five years ago, the top three aspirations were teacher, banker, and doctor.”

The technology enables our banalities to become public performance, so public performers we (or our children) want to be.

In addition to our newly permanent residence in a virtual confessional booth, we’re also all experts now. The expression of public opinion is no longer filtered, edited, and perfected before presentation by trained editors. Some validations are in place to prevent complete falsities to spread in places like Wikipedia and Yelp, but those forums are just too big to moderate efficiently. Bullshit abounds. Bullshit is what happens when someone is forced to talk about something that they don’t know anything about, and it exists everywhere, now that everyone is encouraged to be an ‘expert’ and rewarded for their ‘competence’ by likes, comments, re-tweets, etc.

Bullshit proliferation leads into the next problem created by the ‘end of absence’ – Authenticity. The author makes an interesting point about how ‘young, moneyed people’ have made the ‘re-folking’ of life a priority – think Mumford & Sons. The IFC show Portlandia has been awkwardly successful at satirizing and celebrating this kind of ‘return to roots’ culture, where after decades of fast food, people now want to know what kind of farm their dinner was raised on; or in the midst of the digital technology era, ‘steam-punk’ advocates rebel and hold intensely serious seminars. The fetishization of the ‘authentic’ – record players and ‘old-fashioned’ moustache wax – is ‘the exception that proves the rule,’ according to the author.

Between all our confessing, expertise-sharing, and bullshit spewing, we hardly have the attention for anything else. In the chapter on ‘Attention,’ and its recent universal obliteration, the author documents his attempt to read ‘War & Peace’ with the tone of someone trying to swim to the moon. He eventually finishes reading the novel, but not without claiming that he’s alienated himself from everyone and everything he knows in the process.

A few more chapters about erosion of ability to memorize, and the ‘permanent bathhouse’ state of mind afflicting online romance-seekers, lead up to the book’s final act – the author attempts a temporary return to absence. His phone duct-taped to a table, internet connection severed, kooky old neighbors visited for coffee – he makes a valiant effort to go back in time, to when people could be ‘unavailable.’ No one ends up homeless or murdered, but the experiment reads dangerously close to the irrevocable shattering of domestic tranquility between the author and his partner.

Following the toe-dip experiment in returning to absence, the book’s final lesson is this:

“Just as Thoreau never pretended that cutting out society entirely was an option— and never, as a humane person, wanted to be entirely removed— we shouldn’t pretend that deleting the Internet, undoing the online universe, is an option for us. Why would we, after all, want to delete, undo, something that came from us? It bears repeating: Technology is neither good nor evil. The most we can say about it is this: It has come. Casting judgments on the technologies themselves is like casting judgment on a bowl of tapioca pudding. We can only judge, only really profit from judging, the decisions we each make in our interactions with those technologies.”

– The End of Absence 

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