Sunday, August 10, 2014


In The End of Absence, journalist Michael Harris (best known for his work in The Walrus and Frieze) takes on the question of whether we've given up something nigh-undetectable in our vaunted quest for connection. He opens (and spends the first half of the book) declaring his worries that our obsession with having immediate access--to information, to one another, to memories--has robbed us of the ability to enjoy absence: the moments of tranquility where our attention is not vied for by dozens of nagging, pinging notifications.

For a book with absence in the title, I wish that Harris had spent more time talking about it. As previously mentioned, the first half of the book is a treatise of “what's wrong with the Internet culture of today” in a way that makes Harris seem like the Chicken Little of the Information Age. That's not to say that the unprecedented connectivity brought to us by the world wide web doesn't have its problems, but numerous books (Smarter Than You Think by Clive Thompson and The Blind Giant by Nick Harkaway to name a couple) have tackled these issues in a much more even-handed (and frankly, better informed) way. Rather than starting with a question and examining the facts to assess its validity, Harris starts from a very specific perspective, and at least seems to come across as falling victim to confirmation bias, highlighting information that reinforces his original thesis rather than opening it up to discussion.

The above is a shame, because once the reader enters into the latter half of the book, the first gets put into a much more reasonable perspective. When taken as one man's personal journey, wrestling with the desire to slow down and enjoy life in a world that obsessively tugs at the mind's periphery like an impatient toddler, The End of Absence becomes much more interesting. Much like a character arc in a fictional tale, its not until 3/4 of the way through EoA that Harris begins to realize that no magical epiphany is to be found through the mere 'presence of absence', for lack of a better term. The value of absence comes in the possibility for generating new ideas and genuine understanding in those moments of repose where we are unable to get lost in the digital labyrinth of Wikipedia, buffeted by hailstorms of email.

To give credit where credit is due, Michael Harris brings the value of quiet repose into stark relief with a prosaic style that draws upon inspiration from Thoreau's Walden, and acknowledgement of the parallels of his situation with that of scholars and scribes following the invention of the printing press. While his tragic martyring of “the last generation that will know the pre-Internet age”, and kvetching over the ubiquity of common, aggregate opinion makes him come off as more than a bit of a curmudgeon, somewhere within this whinge-storm is a kernel of truth that's worth paying attention to. It's ironic that while, at first reading, I bristled in response to his opinions, upon further reflection I believe that his desire for moments of silence in a world that can't stop talking (tweeting?) is one that we can all relate to.

End of Absence is a book best read at a pre-Internet pace, but one worth reading nonetheless.

Vincent Smith is a taoist, aspiring writer, and dyed-in-the-wool psychology geek at the University of Guelph. You can find his writing on video games, comics, movies, and all things geek over at The Rogue's Gallery. Check out his FB page, Vincent Smith: Writer, Scholar, Gentleman, for more musings from the dark corners of the internet. Plus the occasional cat photo.

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