Book Review: The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection by Michael Harris
The line that got me in Michael Harris’ book “The End of Absence” was when he spoke about us being the only generation who would live in the before and after of the Internet and that we would know what it meant, how it felt, how we did things before there was this constant connection to everything, everyone, and all knowledge digitalized for our convenience and consumption. That statement is true and when I share it the person usually nods in agreement and then we both sigh in resignation.
The truth of that statement is not negative it only is. Just like the Internet is not negative. The ultimate question always comes down to not the technology itself but how that technology is used, by whom, and for what purpose. We are aware of the benefits – access to information, democratization of oppressed voices, collaboration for problem solving, etc. But the consequences have been surfacing as well – data breaches, identity theft, online rage, bullying leading to suicide, etc.
The book has a slow start but it becomes more engaging as it progresses through a series of explorations into how connected technologies (Internet, mobile, tablets, etc.) have affected society in general and us in specific. The chapters are not sequenced in a particular progression, but each one tackles a topic and most can be read as a stand-alone piece – Confession, Public Opinion, Authenticity, etc. Below I have listed a few highlights that I found interesting.
Chapter 3: Confession
How much [do] we all subvert our emotional lives into our technologies. (pg. 51)
We have all, in some way, become complicit in the massive broadcasting that online life invites. (pg. 52)
We’re led into deep intimacies with our gadgets precisely because our brains are imbued with a compulsion to socialize, to connect whenever possible, and connection is what our technologies are so good at offering. (pg. 54)
Yet, every time we use our technologies as a mediator for the chaotic elements of our lives, and every time we insist on managing our representation with a posted video or Facebook update, we change our relationship with those parts of our lives that we seek to control. (pg. 54)
This chapter discusses the impulse many have about documenting (some may call it “over sharing”) their lives online via social media platforms like Facebook. But even in that sharing we are seeing that some people also censor themselves and their posts as they consider how they may come across to others.
Chapter 4: Public Opinion
The real trouble with Wikipedia lies exactly where its strength lies; its democratic impulse. In an arena where everyone’s version of facts is equally valid, and the opinions of specialists become marginalized, corporate and politicized interests are potentially empowered. (pg. 75)
We get mob opinion instead of singular voices; crowdsourced culture. (pg. 88)
Eventually, the information you’re dealing with absolutely feels more personalized; it confirms your beliefs, your biases, your experiences. And it does this to the detriment of your personal evolution. Personalization – the glorification of your own tastes, your own opinion – can be deadly to real learning. No surprise content – no expansion. (pg. 91)
Others have also called the issue in this chapter “ametuarization” – meaning that it no longer matters what your expertise is (or the accuracy of what you say) just the reach of your social media platform. There was someone once who said “repeat a lie enough times and it becomes truth.” Do we know where we get our ideas? Are we critically analyzing our source or the agenda that the speaker may have in promoting a certain perspective? Digital literacy encompasses a series of important critical thinking skills – but are we (or our children) being taught them? The last concern Harris brings up in this chapter is the search customization of our queries. Google does not give the same results to everyone who puts in the same search term. Why? Because Google personalizes our results based on our preferences, prior searches, tidbits about our identities that it has picked up from our behavior online, etc.
Chapter 7: Memory
A person just feels smart when buttressing a phone conversation with Google-sourced knowledge and shooting it across the line as though it were innately understood. (pg. 142)
We constantly judge whether information will be available from an external source in the future, and if it will be, we are willing to forget. (pg. 142)
“Where” is prioritized and “what” is forgotten. (pg. 143)
We must remain plugged in to know what Google knows. (pg. 143)
Can you remember anyone’s phone number anymore? Do you need to – after all it’s in your phone. Lose your phone and for many, you may have lost your life – ways to connect to your family, friends, work colleagues; digital keys to open your car or your home; access to your financial accounts and online assets; the list goes on and on. We used to memorize things, now why bother if we can readily find it whenever we need to know it.
These are just a few of the statements that have stayed with me after reading this book. If you’ve read the book, share some of your thoughts in the comments below. If you haven’t read the book, this is highly recommended, but keep in mind the proof will be in the pudding – are you able to disconnect when you put the book down? Or even while you are reading it?
For more on this book:
Michael Harris Author Website: http://www.endofabsence.com
The NY Times Review http://nyti.ms/1AR7LrZ
Wall Street Journal Book Review http://on.wsj.com/1I71nlp
Washington Post Book Review: http://wapo.st/1DGv7qj