Only Disconnect

A new book chronicles one man’s struggle to get back inside his own head

About this time last year, I lived one of the stranger episodes in my 33 years. There I was, a recently graduated English PhD, quietly plying my trade in a classroom at the University of Toronto. Sitting in my office one day, I got a call from CBC Radio, asking me if I would participate in the inaugural Q debate, on the sweeping question “Is the internet making us smarter or stupider?” I was still adjusting to my newfound qualifications—I was teaching a popular new class, “The Digital Text,” and had just signed on with Cambridge University Press to write a book on literature in the digital age—but apparently word travelled fast. And who was I to quibble with the wisdom of the CBC? I thought about it for about a millisecond before replying, “Yes, please!”

A week later, I was in another world. A CBC security pass taped proudly on my breast, I sat in the Q studio’s green room, chatting with Clive Thompson, whose technology column in Wired I had grown up reading. The show started, and things continued swimmingly. Eventually, I took my seat at the microphone. Then Jian Ghomeshi asked me one of the stupidest questions I have ever been asked. I should have seen it coming. “So, Adam,” he said: “Which is it? Smarter or stupider?”

Oh, to be back in my classroom! There, my job was to say “I see your point,” and “there is some truth in that”—but never, ever, “the answer is definitely, incontrovertibly x.” How could I possibly answer such a hopelessly broad question? “What would Marshall McLuhan do?” I asked myself, taking it as my momentary mantra. He was a U of T English prof, and he’d been good on the radio. But I knew my McLuhan too well: anything as epochal as a medium shift has complicated, unpredictable, multiform effects that reveal themselves over centuries. My answer needed nuance.

But nothing presented itself. Shamelessly, and to my eternal regret, I answered, after about two milliseconds, “Stupider!”

Walking home that day, I vowed never again to boil down such complex issues into simple “better or worse” answers. Leave that to the professional pundits. My job, as an academic and a thinker, was to pursue complexity. If I was ever invited on the radio again (alas, the call has not come), if I was ever again asked that stupid question, I would take a deep breath, look my questioner in the eye, and say, “Listen, it is just not that simple.”

Maybe Michael Harris heard the so-called debate that day. Maybe he listened to my one-sided responses and shared in my silent “never again.”

His book, The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, enters a crowded and polarized field. “What the internet is doing to our minds and our society” is one of the few truly “hot” 21st-century genres; along with vampire fiction and mommy porn, it may be all that is keeping the publishing business going. The hottest examples of the genre take a hard stand on the Q question: Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget and Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other are direct and straightforward denunciations of connected life; Jane McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations and, yes, Clive Thompson’s Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better offer unbridled techno‑utopianism.

The End of Absence is different. My first impression was that it was something like the Canadian adaptation of Carr: a repetition of its arguments, but with examples from north of the 49th parallel. Then I realized it was something else entirely, and far more interesting: it is not a Canadian adaptation of the genre; it is a Canadian takedown of the genre. Harris considers the same issues as his peers; he draws on many of the same sources and studies; and he shares their general approach. But he distinguishes himself with a particularly Canadian kind of boldness: ruminating at length on the Q question, considering the issues in all their multiform shades of grey, he refuses to stake an absolute position. The End of Absence is a book-length elaboration of my own mixed feelings on the subject: a protracted “possibly.”

Harris’s argumentative starting point is the observation that, “If you were born before 1985, then you know what life is like both with the Internet and without.” Such people—and I am among them—possess a valuable sort of double vision. Since they have experienced the world both “pre” and “post,” they are in a unique position to weigh the merits of both sides and make informed decisions about their use of technology. What the straddlers know, Harris contends, is “absence”—we know what it is like to be alone, off the grid, bored and stuck in our own minds. In one of the stranger complaints I have recently encountered, Harris writes, “one doesn’t see teenagers staring into space any more. Gone is the idle mind of the adolescent.” The pre-1985 generation stared into space during their teenage years—and the coming of the internet taught them to appreciate the paradoxical value of idleness, absence and lack. Sounding a bit like someone born before 1885, Harris writes, “the memory of a quieter yesteryear is dearly useful. Awake—or at least partly so—to the tremendous influence of today’s tech-littered landscape, I have the choice to say yes and no to the wondrous utility of these machines.”

Temperamentally, Harris is clearly on the “stupider!” side; his nostalgia for the pre-digital yesteryear and contempt for the tech-littered present make that quite plain. But methodologically, ambivalence is his modus operandi: this is a book of “at least partly so”; of “yes and no.” The most militant-seeming moment of The End of Absence comes when he compares our internet-addled lot to the situation in The Matrix, where humanity is kept alive by a technological cartel that sucks power from our prone bodies by feeding us electronic illusions. “We must, like Neo, awaken,” Harris writes. But while he wants us all to wake up, he has no interest in telling us what to do once we are out of our pods. His aim is to foster self-consciousness, not to outline an insurrection. His subtitle, Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, is thus rather misleading: this is a book about “acknowledging” and “realizing”—not “reclaiming.” In a characteristic phrase halfway through the book, Harris writes, “perhaps we now need to engineer scarcity in our communications, in our interactions, and in the things we consume”—perhaps, but Harris will not pretend to tell us how. “Every technology will alienate you from some part of your life,” he writes in his closing lines: “That is its job. Your job is to notice. First notice the difference. And then, every time, choose.”

Within the genre of the “smarter or stupider” bestseller, Harris’s measured ambivalence is decidedly brave. It is such a game changer, in fact, that it calls for a new way of writing about the topic. But although we see glimpses of it, The End of Absence does not quite deliver. For the most part, Harris follows the genre’s “calling on experts” conventions; some 23 times, by my count, he utters a variation on the phrase “I wanted to know more about x, so I went to visit Professor Y.” This model makes sense when, as for Carr or Shirky or Turkle, your book is aimed at proving a hard thesis. It is rather stranger to call on experts to confirm your ambivalence rather than back up your point. In the “Confession” chapter, centred on the suicide of Amanda Todd, Harris speaks to Karthik Dinakar of the MIT Media Lab, who is developing an automatic method for dealing with online bullying. While Harris applauds Dinakar’s aims, he questions the plausibility that “some algorithm will digest the mess that is our experience into something legible.” He calls Dinakar’s approach “Digital Band-Aids” for “digital wounds.”

Far more successful are the moments when Harris foregoes the experts and speaks from personal experience. If the objective truth sought by his peers is “out there,” in the land of the experts, Harris’s subjective ambivalence is personal, and is best explored in anecdote. Harris allows himself only two real sustained departures into autobiography, but they are the most gripping sections of the book. In one, Harris—an erstwhile literature student who, in his current career as a journalist, has lost his knack for literary reading—challenges himself to get through War and Peace in two weeks. In the other, he goes offline for an entire month, an experience he labels “Analog August.”

It is easy to see why there are only two such episodes, and why they are so brief: they are utterly inconclusive. Far from a blissful return to pre-digital absence, Harris finds his Analog August a slog. He feels bored and alienated from his friends, and he realizes that his professional life is impossible without an internet connection: he cannot do research, cannot keep in touch with his interviewees and his editors do not do phone calls. “We shouldn’t pretend that deleting the Internet, undoing the online universe, is an option for us,” he concludes. Harris struggles mightily with War and Peace, as well. “It’s torture to stay still,” he reports in the early going: “it feels far beyond the powers of my tiny will.” Harris’s friends are aggravated with him for choosing nights of solitary reading over socializing: “People don’t like it when you read War and Peace,” he says: they think “you’re elitist for trying.” After a week, he gets over his “withdrawal symptoms” and finally gets lost in Tolstoy’s narrative. But there is no great aha moment; no deus ex machina that reveals, finally, why “absence” is so important. All he really learns is that he can no longer experience literature as an end in itself: reading is not a portal to a compelling narrative or unique perspective, but a test of attention. Rather than reading Tolstoy, Harris reads himself reading Tolstoy. He is doomed to “make a constant study of concentration itself.”

In his epilogue, Harris writes, “This book is a meditation more than a prescription. There are no ten easy steps to living a healthy digital life; there is no totalizing theory, no maxim, with which we can armor ourselves.” It is a startlingly honest conclusion. No doubt his editor would have welcomed a totalizing theory or two; no doubt Harris himself embarked on his Analog August hoping for some clear insight. It is to their mutual credit that they did not try to paste over this manifest ambivalence with the semblance of certainty. But I could not help wanting something more. Harris is at the beginning of his journey—aware of his desire for absence but unable to tear himself away. What strategies will he come up with? What steps will he take? There could be a fascinating book there—one without experts and interviews, just a personal account of what he tried, what helped, and what did not.

As we wait for Harris’s sequel—The Return to Absence, he might call it—I might step in and offer a few suggestions of my own. If Harris is at the beginning of his journey, mine is already well underway. Solitude is my passion; if Gladwell’s 10,000 hours thesis is to be believed, I might call myself a specialist. Although, like Harris, I cannot say exactly why I am so drawn to disconnection, the pursuit of it has guided all my major life decisions. As a teen in the 1990s, introversion was what led me to computers in the first place: I ran my own dial-up bulletin board service (BBS), using it to keep in touch with other introverts, but mostly pursuing it as an end in itself—a project I could tinker with in solitude. When it became clear that the internet was being taken over by extroverts, I turned my attention to film. If I went out drinking on a Friday, I would stay home alone on Saturday, watching strange European films on the Showcase Review. When I discovered the still greater solitudes of literature, I abandoned my plans to become an engineer and got a BA in English. When I found out that there was such a thing as a PhD—a period of five years when you were paid (not well, but paid) to sit around and think—I did not hesitate. When the grip of technology started to intervene in my doctoral solitude, I worked very hard, got six months ahead in my work, and moved to Budapest for half a year, where I lived on almost nothing and so thoroughly absented myself that I managed to read all seven volumes of Proust in a two-month span. Lately I have taken to cheap, last-minute cruises because the internet-at-sea is too expensive to use. I read a lot, I write a lot, I eat a lot.

My case is not the stuff of ten-point plans; I have gone to absurd lengths in my quest for absence. But I do, alas, live and work in the world, and I have developed some less extreme day-to-day solutions. I do not have a Facebook account, for instance. This is my way of telling my friends to leave me alone if I feel like staying home and reading War and Peace. They do not seem to mind. If I have important reading to do, I put my phone in Do Not Disturb mode. I wake up early, before the emails and text messages start flooding in, and I do my most important thinking then. Rather than driving to work, I take the bus, since that allows me to read.

Harris is right: absence is important, at least to a lot of us. Books like his alert us to the necessity of making space for it. In my experience, it is hard, but not impossible. We can reclaim it.