Back in 2011, a YouTube video called “A Magazine is an iPad That Doesn’t Work” made the rounds online. The clip begins with a shot of a one-year-old child happily scrolling through images on an iPad, then cuts to a montage of the same one-year-old growing increasingly frustrated by her inability to zoom in, shuffle, or otherwise manipulate the images in a bunch of print magazines. The text at the end of the YouTube clip notes that this so-called digital native believes a magazine to be a malfunctioning electronic tablet, and concludes, “Steve Jobs has coded a part of her OS.”
The use of the term “OS” to describe the young girl’s neurological, sensory, and nervous systems would likely send a frisson of unease down the spine of Michael Harris, who relates a version of the YouTube narrative in his new book, The End of Absence. Harris is a member of the last generation to have experienced adult life without the Internet (he identifies 1985 as the birth year separating digital natives from what he refers to as “digital immigrants”), and he is therefore able to compare and contrast the advantages and disadvantages of the online paradigm shift, the greatest of its kind since Gutenberg invented moveable type in the 15th century. (The difference, Harris rightly points out, being that Gutenberg’s machine took several centuries to remake the world, whereas the Internet has done much the same in less than a single generation.)
What Harris notices in comparing life before and after the Internet’s ubiquity is that absence – those moments of solitude, slowness, and quiet that lead to contemplation or concentrated consideration – has largely disappeared from our lives, replaced by constant connection in the form of emails and text messages, Instagram photos, and cute cat videos. Harris relates a trip he took to the U.K. in 1999, and notes that it is the last such voyage he will ever embark on without a cell phone in his pocket. He examines the deleterious effect surfing online content has had on his concentration and memory. And he attempts to reclaim some measure of control over his inner life by taking a month-long sabbatical from the Internet. He also tackles the daunting task of reading War and Peace. (As a self-identified digital immigrant, Harris should be aware that this task was no less daunting prior to the advent of the digital Hydra, as anyone who as seen Happy New Year, Charlie Brown! can attest.)
Harris ranges widely in his study, and generally avoids the kind of panicked, hectoring tone that infects the work of digital apostates such as Andrew Keen. He correctly notes that the Internet has become such an essential part of our lives in the Western world that simply opting out in the manner of Henry David Thoreau is no longer an option.
There is much to recommend in Harris’s analysis of the way the online world invades – and in some ways degrades – our modern existence, but it’s impossible to quell a niggling dissatisfaction with the limited way in which the author constructs his titular subject. One of the most depressing experiences for some digital immigrants (not all, of course: many people of Harris’s age have already forgotten what life offline used to be like) is to watch a group of people sitting around a restaurant table, all of them feverishly engaged in interaction with their smartphones. Is this not a kind of absence? Harris acknowledges this paradoxical situation (most especially in a story about two teens on a Vancouver bus), but doesn’t fully pursue its implications. One wonders if an effect of our overweening obsession with mobile technology might not be a dearth of absence, but an overabundance of it.