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The End of Absence: Reclaiming What…

The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of…

by Michael Harris

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1731199,881 (3.4)6



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I've talked about, recommended and pulled parts of this book away to think more about since finishing it only a couple days ago -

why? Perhaps because it was for me a winning combination of a seemingly sincere journalistic rather than highbrow examination of ideas with a candid, even droll memoir - to me an irresistible pairing perfect for the subject matter ! ( )
  nkmunn | Nov 17, 2018 |
The End of Absence is a book covering a subject I personally have great interest in: "How should those of us think about a world that is fundamentally different than it was even a couple decades ago?" ... and, to be more specific, will people who only ever grew up with the internet ever be able to appreciate (or return to) the world before the internet?

I was able to pick this book up fairly cheap off eBay (about $4, with free shipping) and I was surprised to find so many used copies for a book that only came out a few years ago (later on I realized why so few kept their copy). Still, I devoured it upon getting it in the mail, mainly because I was so excited to see if the author was going to elaborate on a subject that had been in my mind for quite awhile. And for the first few chapters of the book, I really got the impression that this 200 page book would do just that.

Instead, I soon found myself being caught off guard by the author's references to "his partner," and "his boyfriend." Fine, I thought, this professional writer for magazines and newspapers in Canada likes men -- not my cup of tea -- but perhaps these were just slips of the tongue while he detailed his own journey into how the internet affects his life. But then, in Chapter 8 or so, near the tail end of the book, we encounter an entire chapter filled with lewd and risque references to all sorts of things he finds hunky-dory in his choice of lifestyle. I mean, stuff I wouldn't read to my parents. I skipped most of the chapter, because I had no interest in the "hookup" patterns of men, or the detailed garbage that made up that corner of the internet/app industry. It was at this point, while reading this divisive chapter tucked far away at the end, did I realize that this is yet another subtle leftist agenda book aimed at poisoning the mind of readers, masquerading as an non-fiction work of research. If Chapter 8 was Chapter 2 or 3, I and most others would have put it down immediately.

If I were to recommend the book to anyone for its subject, they would get the author's deviant mindset included. No thanks.

Also, after the first 25% of the book, the entire thing starts to fall apart on the core subject matter. Even without his "partner" stuff the book falls on its face. He spends way too much time talking about memorization and reading War and Peace and how he can't function without email for a month. Absolutely none of this covers real problems, like young person academic abilities in K-12, relationships being damaged by always-on connectivity, the dangers of not reading, the loss of payphones/non-cellphone connectivity and the benefits of a slower news cycle, to name a few. Basically, the author was obsessed with discussing "absence" ... but ironically his book is absent of a purpose. ( )
  scottcc | Mar 23, 2018 |
The End of Absence is thoroughly enjoyable meditation on the vagaries of our relationship to computer technology and the pitfalls this relationship entails. It rests nicely, and perhaps more accessibly, in the tradition of Marshall McLuhan and especially of Neil Postman and his "technological resistance fighter [who] maintains an epistemological and psychic distance from any technology, so that it always appears somewhat strange, never inevitable, never natural." ( Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology , p. 285).

It is precisely this distancing which constitutes the mental experiment and ultimate value of this book - the criticism and probity into our technologies, which is the first step in dismantling or controlling any undue power that they may possess in our lives. The End of Absence, however, only suggests, and never prescribes practices that may allow us to regain the knowledge and experience of "absence". Reading War and Peace seemed to be a fruitful, if initially frustrating, experience for the author, but his one-month technology fast did not prove to be especially enlightening. The author does not dwell too much on this fact, except to advise temperance rather than complete abstinence, but I think it shows that the perils of modern computer technologies are well moderated by a parallel habit of using the older technologies, so that the benefits of both may be obtained and the influence of their drawbacks softened. The question, however, is whether such a state of affairs can be maintained on a larger, societal scale. History seems to suggest its impossibility, and even Harris is extremely skeptical, which lends his prose a desperate and ultimately defeatist note. That is not to say that there isn't a certain dose of optimism and inspiration to evaluate and curtail one's own use of computer technologies (something that I was definitely prompted to do after reading, and which led me to delete my Snapchat and Instagram accounts - oh the freedom!); but it is far too limited in a book that is ostensibly all about "reclaiming what we've lost in a world of constant connection".

I fear also that Harris' well-reasoned advice will mostly be of use to quite privileged people as himself (or myself). I fear that many of the people who are most in need of technological moderation will never experience it, because of Harris' reticence to even suggest matters of public policy (although I realize that is not the aim of his book). Individual choices make a difference, but more often than not, these choices are only available to the better educated and relatively wealthier populace, which may result in the poor having to bear the brunt of the negative consequences of extreme computer/smartphone use. What I mean is that Silicon Valley millionaires might well send their children to private schools where pen-and-pencil is the permanent state of affairs, they might well limit these same children's smartphone use, but what about the parents who have to send their children to public schools, where increasing integration of technology is the current orthodoxy (very much so here in the folkeskoler of Denmark, for example)? What about the parents who don't have the time or the cultural capital to monitor and regulate technology use? Who might themselves be impervious to its pitfalls?

My criticism then is that Harris is far too modest, far too unambitious. He is too careful in balancing things out, because he insists on personal choice, and people like him do benefit from such choice. And while he does engage, as I mentioned, in the tradition of those such as Postman, the latter, although mostly preoccupied with critique, also manages to offer solutions, such a vastly different school curriculum that focuses on the epistemology and history of subjects, as opposed to their current disjointed and non-contextualized form. Harris never addresses anything of the sort. He speaks of societal problems: children weaned on iPads, trying to zoom into a magazine cover, whose perception of reality is detrimentally colored by computer technologies; the perils of the confessional nature of the internet, exemplified in the distressing story of Amanda Todd; the pitfalls of relying on blogs and comments rather than the refined subjectivity and depth of experience that critics draw on; the replacement of memory by reminiscence, knowledge by information, and so on and so forth, but the only solutions he tries to invoke are small and personal, unable to seriously challenge the flow of societal change, even though he is at times almost shrill in his denunciations of technological reality.

While this criticism is significant, I still give the the book 4 stars for readability, solid writing, depth of reflection, enjoyment and for the personal challenge it issued to me. Ironically, as Lisa Zeidner remarks in her Washington Post review of the book, it "has a kinetic energy well-matched to our jumpy attention spans." The breadth of research and material involved is not unimpressive, and I appreciated how Harris tackled the issue from many angles in consulting neurologists, writers, it experts and anecdotes. He aptly puts the issue in historical context, drawing from the history of writing and printing as predecessors to our own dilemma, and competently sifting through both the differences and similarities between these technological developments. Ultimately, The End of Absence is less ambitious and narrower in scope than, for example, Postman's Technopoly, but it is a good start and Harris is a worthy contemporary example of Postmans's "technological resistance fighter". Additionally, the book relevantly addresses newer technological advances and phenomena that are not covered in older works, and so it functions as welcome update and companion to them. I very much enjoyed it, and would warmly recommend. ( )
  bulgarianrose | Mar 13, 2018 |
The first half or so was very interesting & thought-provoking, but then it bogged down. ( )
  Siubhan | Feb 28, 2018 |
Complain complain complain complain From Amazon's page: "Every revolution in communication technology—from papyrus to the printing press to Twitter—is as much an opportunity to be drawn away from something as it is to be drawn toward something. And yet, as we embrace technology's gifts, we usually fail to consider what we're giving up in the process."
From the page and the hype I had assumed this would be more about how to regain and cut ourselves away from constantly checking our emails and messages, and how not to be plugged in 24/7, like say Ariana Huffington's Thrive. I wasn't expecting (or wanting!) a self-help book, but this book definitely isn't quite what I thought it would be. It's not even about the "lack" of absence either. It's really a much too long piece where the author focuses mainly on the negatives of technology today. A Goodreads review says it's like a too long blog post and that's not a bad summary.
To be fair Harris does a great job in exploring some of the dark side of the internet and technology. For example, he writes in depth of a young woman named Amanda Todd who was goaded into nude picture and videos (as an underage teenager) by an adult man. Harris traces her story as she becomes the subject of bullying, both online and off. Eventually she commits suicide, but not before uploading a YouTube video talking about her harassment and what she had been going through. Harris meets with Amanda's mother, who even requests she see the piece he's writing, because she is still her daughter and the mother wants to protect Amanda as much as she can, even in death.
But Harris doesn't do much to offer SOLUTIONS or looking at what technology has given us. Yes, it leads to cyberbullying, but it also has given us a democratization of technology. Yes, Wikipedia can sometimes be inaccurate or slanted. But it also is a MUCH cheaper resource than buying a set of encyclopedias. Yeah, Yelp can sometimes make or break a business. But it can also be a way for a smaller business to get word about itself out there and it can also help consumers make informed choices, when you sort through the reviews obviously written by the owners or their friends.
Harris isn't wrong, but this book isn't really about reclaiming anything or exploring what it is to reclaim. This is going right back to the library. Can't recommend it. Read a few chapters before deciding to buy or borrow. ( )
  acciolibros | Feb 11, 2018 |
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"Only one generation in history (ours) will experience life both with and without the Internet. For everyone who follows us, online life will simply be the air they breathe. Today, we revel in ubiquitous information and constant connection, rarely stopping to consider the implications for our logged-on lives. Michael Harris chronicles this massive shift, exploring what we've gained--and lost--in the bargain. In this eloquent and thought-provoking book, Harris argues that our greatest loss has been that of absence itself--of silence, wonder, and solitude. It's a surprisingly precious commodity, and one we have less of every year. Drawing on a vast trove of research and scores of interviews with global experts, Harris explores this "loss of lack" in chapters devoted to every corner of our lives, from sex and commerce to memory and attention span. The book's message is urgent: once we've lost the gift of absence, we may never remember its value"--… (more)

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