The End of Absence

Michael Harris “The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection” [HarperCollins, 2014]
“Johannes Trithemius was a bit of a worrier. In 1483 the Benedictine scribe had become abbot of a monastery in Sponheim, Germany, not more than 50 miles from the workshop where Johannes Gutenberg had printed his first bibles a few decades before. Trithemius was concerned by the mass produced volumes proliferating thanks to Gutenberg’s innovation. It was the delicate and crucial art of the scribe, he wrote in 1492, that lent “strength to words, memory to things, vigor to time.” If book printing were to replace religious scribes, “faith would weaken . . . law would perish, Scripture fall into oblivion.” At risk was not just the authority of the Church but the souls of its flock.
We are living in our own “Gutenberg moment,” according to Michael Harris; only today the Internet is to blame, not for corrupting religious belief but for disrupting thought itself. Digital technology, the author suggests in “The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection,” has filled the once sacrosanct silences in our heads that let us escape our fleeting daily concerns. Distracted by the constant buzzing of our devices, we lose the chance for novel insights and discoveries, “the kinds of thoughts that present themselves in our emptiest moments—the moments when we stare out the train’s windows or hover on a lawn to monitor the sky.”….
“Restless idleness” is a good description of our new digital default. Mr. Harris is also right to worry that, when services like Facebook grant us the opportunity to tirelessly tailor our own images and how others see them, we lose the ability to navigate between the authentic and the counterfeit. We snap, crop and filter the events of our lives in a manner that is supposed to portray true life but more often only presents a synthetic surface. The growing distance between online and offline realities reminds Mr. Harris of the Emerald City in “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” We choose to wear the emerald glasses because we prefer a glittering world to the real one.
Yet the topic Mr. Harris has chosen is so capacious, and the ways in which the Internet has invaded our lives so various, that his book does little more than gesture at the plethora of problems. And the one he chooses to dwell upon the most—the one that gives his book its title—is the most nebulous of all. Mr. Harris interviews neuroscientists, consults psychologists and discourses with philosophers to bolster his claim that we are losing something crucial, but he struggles to define what “absence” is, though his nostalgia for it seems endless. “The value of absence is always an intangible thing,” he writes, “whether that absence is a memory or a current reality.””

Extract from Jessica Kasmer-Jacobs “Book Review: ‘The End of Absence’ by Michael Harris” in“The Wall Street Journal” August 6, 2014:

“The daily barrage of texts, tweets and e-mails brings us information, connection, entertainment. But it also takes something away, argues journalist Harris. “The loss of lack, the end of absence”—a deficit of silence and solitude—is the price we pay for our plugged-in lives, he writes. His book invites readers, especially those old enough to remember life before the Web, to hold on to downtime, daydreams and stillness. “For those of us who have lived both with and without the vast, crowded connectivity the Internet provides,” Harris says, “these are the few days when we can still notice the difference between Before and After.””
“Scientific American”, July 15, 2014:



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