Technology has a lot to answer for: killing old businesses, destroying the middle class, Buzzfeed. Technology in the form of the internet is especially villainous, having been accused of everything from making us dumber (paywall) to aiding dictatorships. But Michael Harris, riffing on the observations of Melvin Kranzberg, argues that “technology is neither good nor evil. The most we can say about it is this: It has come.”
Harris is the author of “The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection,” a new book about how technology affects society. It follows in the footsteps of Nicholas Carr, whose “The Shallows” is a modern classic of internet criticism. But Harris takes a different path from those that have come before. Instead of a broad investigation into the effects of constant connectivity on human behaviour, Harris looks at a very specific demographic: people born before 1985, or the very opposite of the “millennial” demographic coveted by advertisers and targeted by new media outlets.
These people, says Harris, are the last of a dying breed. “If you were born before 1985, then you know what life is like both with the internet and without. You are making the pilgrimage from Before to After,” he writes. It is a nice conceit. Harris, like your correspondent, grew up in a very different world, one with limited channels of communication, fewer forms of entertainment, and less public scrutiny of quotidian actions or fleeting thoughts. It was neither better nor worse than the world we live in today. Like technology, it just was.
Being in this situation puts us in a privileged position.”If we’re the last people in history to know life before the internet, we are also the only ones who will ever speak, as it were, both languages. We are the only fluent translators of Before and After.”
That means being able to notice things like the reduction of interactions to numbers, and how that translates into quantifications of human worth. “I think it has to do with this notion of online accountability. That is, noticing that you actually count seems to be related to a sense of self worth,” he says over the phone from Toronto, where he is based. “So it’s like if a tweet gets retweeted a couple of hundred times, that must mean that my thoughts are worthy. If my Facebook photo is ‘liked,’ that must mean I am good looking. One of the things that concerns me about a media diet that is overly online, is that we lose the ability to decide for ourselves what we think about who we are.”
Not yet a Luddite
Harris isn’t railing against these things, though. He doesn’t prescribe fewer internet hours or complain much about “kids these days.” Instead he acknowledges that his worries stem mainly from his anxieties about his own behavior. Like many of us, Harris checks his email on his phone first thing in the morning. “When you wake up, you have this gift of a blank brain. You could fill it with anything. But for most of us, we have this kind of panic. Instead of wondering what should I do, we wonder what did I miss. It’s almost like our unconsciousness is a kind of failure and we can’t believe we’ve been offline for eight hours,” he says. It is habits like this that are insidious, not the internet itself. It is a personal thing.
Toward the end of the book, after having investigated our penchant for online confessionals, the perils of public opinion, and technology’s impact on everything from sex to memories to attention spans, Harris writes about his decision to take a month off from the internet. In the hands of a less talented writer or a shallower thinker, this might have been a bit of stunt journalism, and not a particularly original one either.
But Harris emerges unrepentant from his month in the wilds. Did he experience an epiphany? Not really. “But it’s the break itself that’s the thing. It’s the break—that is, the questioning—that snaps us out of the spell, that can convince us that it was a spell in the first place,” he writes. I asked Harris if he would recommend an “analog August” to others, as his publishers are doing to publicize the book—albeit only for a weekend rather than a whole month—with a free Penguin Classic thrown in for good measure. “A full month off is a huge luxury which I was able to take because I was writing a book. For most people, taking a month off would mean losing your job,” he says.
Still, Harris says an occasional break can be helpful. “I think what you get is a richer interior light and the ability to see yourself in a critical light, living online. Because if you’re in the middle of something you can never see it properly.”