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.
Staking a modest claim in areas explored at length by Nicholas Carr and James Gleick, Harris, a magazine journalist and author of the YA novel Homo, frets over what humanity is losing by tethering its work routines and leisure hours so closely to technology. Across nine sporadically engaging but meandering chapters, he asserts but does not prove that digital gadgetry is causing those with access to experience a downward qualitative difference in their lives. (As for the qualitative difference between, say, one schedule of television-watching and another of text-checking, the author does not provide comparative data.) In addition, he says the "straddle generation," who have experienced existence before and after the Internet, as well as those born later, are now plagued by the "end of absence," by which Harris appears to mean an inability to focus on a task such as daydreaming or reading without being distracted by texting and peeks at e-mails. Examining an assortment of interrelated subjects from online dating to "crowdsourced culture" the book serves adequately as an introductory survey of the questions it raises. Still, heavy reliance on personal anecdotes and an explicitly Couplandesque glossary suggests an author in the process of crafting a voice with something distinctive to say.