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Something lost, something gained: In conversation with Michael Harris

How have our social lives changed since the advent of the Internet? Those of us old enough to remember what came before the information superhighway might recall a quieter, gentler time; an era when we moved with greater ease through a world of solitude and mystery.

Michael Harris, in The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection (HarperCollins/Current, 2014) explores what has been lost and what has been gained as our daily lives and relationships to one another have shifted to the online world. This is a book not afraid to ask tough questions about how and why we use technology to interact not just with each other, but in conversation–or not–with our deepest selves.

Michael Harris is an award-winning journalist and a contributing editor at Western Living and Vancouver magazines. He lives in Toronto, Canada. He recently agreed to answer a few questions about his new book.

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Congratulations on the publication of The End of Absence. I couldn’t put it down. Can you tell me how the project came together? Was there a Eureka! moment when it became clear you might have a full-length manuscript on your hands?

At first I wrote an essay for The Walrus about how online life had removed “absence” from our sex lives. How apps like Grindr and Tinder bring us so much, but actually remove a certain mystery or lack that may be essential to the erotic experience. Only after I’d written that essay did I realize I was actually writing about online life in general—that the Internet as a whole removes absence and lack from our lives, and this changes every part of our experience.

As a fellow member of the “Straddle Generation”—those who know life both before and after the Internet—I think you nail the sense of how we’ve lost the ability to be alone, of how being alone has become something fearful, almost taboo. Do you think solitude as a concept has evolved in our culture?

I think we’ve grown very much afraid of solitude. We’re extremely uncomfortable when we’re alone with our thoughts; we burrow into our phones in order to avoid confronting our strange selves. But it’s only when we suffer through that initial discomfort that we begin to develop a rich interior life. Part of my research for the book dealt with the history of creativity and I found that an ability to be alone—to disconnect from the crowd, and from groupthink—has always been key to artistic pursuit.

In his review of the book in Quill and Quire, Steven Beatty suggests that we might in fact experience more—or different—absence in the age of high technology. For example, we are often ‘absent’ with one another within group situations, continually dropping out of a conversation to check our phones or send texts. What are your thoughts on this analysis?

I agree completely that “the end of absence” is also “the start of absence” in that sense. But “absence” in my book is referring to qualities like solitude, reverie, and daydreaming—those empty spaces that online life tends to fill in with noise and floods of data. “Absence” is a fuzzy word, though, so I guess I was asking for that kind of counter-argument when I put it in my title.

At one point in the book you point out that we often use technology as a shield to be able to control our social interactions or protect us from genuine interactions with real, live people. Do you believe we live in time of greater anxiety than previous generations? Or have we merely lost—in addition to absence—our ability to maintain basic social skills?

I really don’t know if our time is a more anxious one…are our daily stresses more intense or anxiety-provoking then those suffered by our ancestors in the 18th century or 15th? Probably not. As you say, we may simply be losing the ability to filter those stresses through a network of authentic social connections. When we rely on online ties, things get shallow and shaky pretty fast.

One thing I thought about while reading the book is that the situation you describe is in many ways a Western—or at least a global middle-class—phenomenon. Populations in many parts of the world still lack access to basic food and shelter, let alone communication technologies or social media. Do you see the end of absence as a symptom of Western privilege?

In some ways, sure. But keep in mind that there’s nearly a 1:1 ratio of cellphones to people on the planet now. A lot of people in developing countries do have cellphones now. That said, I actually worry that in the future solitude and absence will be privileges and the poor and disenfranchised of the world will be forced to remain constantly connected—data miners, etc.

I like that you highlight what we’ve gained as much as what we’ve lost in the transition to this brave new world—a sort of “Both Sides Now”. I think, for example, of how successful the Internet has been in connecting so many people who felt profoundly isolated or invisible pre-Internet—queer folks and people with mental health issues, as two examples. Do you think that for the generation growing up with the Net, there’s a greater affiliation with virtual communities, and less connection to actual physical spaces (like towns, neighbourhoods, etc)? What are the implications?

My hope is that my own generation (I’m 34) is the most naïve group of Internet users the world will ever know. Future generations of digital natives may be much more savvy about engineering absence and solitude for themselves. My hope is they’re going to design ways to incorporate the digital into the analog/physical. That “real life” and “digital life” start to inform each other in more meaningful ways. For example, I’m sure there will be cafes and parks where Internet connection is blocked, so that people can choose to move into disconnected zones and luxuriate in that solitude.

Final question—give everything you’ve read and learned, if you had the ability to time travel, would you choose go back to experience life in a certain historical period, or would you blast off into the future to see where this yellow brick road of technology will lead us?

I’d love to visit the future (pre-Matrix-style-apocalypse) but I actually think right now, this moment where we’re straddling Before and After, is a pretty awesome time to be alive. We’re the only generation in history that gets to live online while really knowing what came before.

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To find out how to order The End of Absence, or to learn more about Michael Harris, visit his website.

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