This is the first of a multipart series of reviews that I will write on The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection written by Michael Harris in 2014.
I have written on the main point of Harris’ book in “Dementia of the Preoccupied: How Multitasking and Being Attached to Technology 24/7 is Creating A Dementia Effect on Society” and “The Quintessential Leader Perspective On the Art – and Beauty – of Silence,” which everybody should take some time now to read.
I would also highly recommend that everyone read The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection. At about 200 pages, it is completely doable for the shorter attention spans (one of the side effects, as I’ve noted and Harris notes, of a life immersed in digital technology).
Michael Harris and I, it turns out, are, completely independently of each other, raising the same red flags about the brain that morphs (or is born into) into an existence that resides primarily or solely in a digital, always-connected world.
This post will look at some of the research, statistics, and ideas presented in the first quarter of the book, along with my commentary on them.
Reading should ignite an intense interaction in us that includes questioning, testing, proving, thinking deeply about, and making connections with experience and information we already have in our neurological repository of neurons, interconnected lobes, and synaptic networks.
Reading should challenge us, educate us, and give us a broad and rich knowledge base from which we can glean wisdom and understanding.
Reading should also spark creativity and original thinking that moves us mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually beyond where we were to begin with.
I seldom see this anywhere anymore.
I think that is directly related to how and what in terms of quality and content we’re reading, if, in fact, we’re reading at all (based on my research and observations, it appears the overwhelming majority of us are either on a steady junk-food diet or we’re starving ourselves in this area of life).
Instead, it seems we become the masters of copying and sharing hackneyed and trite little sayings in glancing blows that neither we nor anyone else even pauses at or pays attention to.
This is a result of the end of absence, and it has made us, future generations, and humanity in general poorer. We’ve become slaves to the machines and given up being the captains of our own destinies. In other words, we’ve capitulated to being controlled by technology without even putting up a fight.
I have, over the past couple of years, gradually pulled back from even a semblance of constant connection (I never have been completely connected because I value and need peace and quiet and solitude – all things that “absence” gives us – too much to allow myself to be enslaved by a master that will destroy all that).
I have accelerated that even more in the last few months because I realized I couldn’t function well mentally with the constant and loud cocaphony that it seemed I could never get away from and of all those things that were contributors, this was the one I had complete control over.
Although I tend to be a Type-A, naturally intense (mainly because I do think pretty seriously all the time and I’ve always found it almost impossible to relax and not be either looking for answers to the questions my thinking brings or for new ways to approach existing problems and dilemmas to resolve or get past them) person, I have seen one source of stress significantly lessen.
And that has helped me clear out some much-needed room in my brain to work on important things, oh, like, life. Even if the answers aren’t here yet and all the problems aren’t solved or behind me yet, at least life in that area is quieter because I’ve consciously and purposefully made it much quieter and much more peaceful.
Peace and quiet can never be overrated.
Before I go further, we need to put digital technology in its proper big-picture perspective. Essentially that is why I write about the dangers and why Harris has written this book. Because there is no proper perspective and no balance. It’s all or nothing and that’s the danger.
But technology is not the source of that danger. We – you and I – are the source of danger. Human beings tend to be polar in their thinking and their behavior by default. If a little of something is good, then nothing but that must be sheer nirvana.
To quote a line from a John Mellencamp song that resonated with me as much in my very early adulthood as it does today “…we keep no check on our appetites” nor do we recognize that overindulgence in any and all corporeal things will first make us sick, then increasingly unhealthy over time, until at last it finally destroys us.
And that lack of self-control and balance is at the crux of my posts on this subject (as well as the subject of lifestyle dementias) and The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection.
And I’m very qualified to discuss this because my entire career has been in technology. There are incredibly effective and efficient (in terms of usability, financial feasibility, and operational streamlining – in other words, maximizing value while minimizing overhead) uses for technology and I continually endorse, support, and advocate for those.
One area that I see where technology is best in increasing value and reducing costs is in routine brick-and-mortar operations and organizations.
These include companies that don’t sell tangible products, organizations that don’t promote or support tangible products, governmental regulatory departments (local, state, and federal), and educational institutions.
Brick-and-mortar operations are extremely costly and offer little in the way of value when considered in the light of new technologies that allow people to connect remotely – as if they were in the same room – face-to-face to meet and do business or get an education.
Buildings cost money. Maintaining them costs money. Furnishing them costs money. Supplying them with utilities and office expendables and technology costs money. Expanding them costs money.
People filling the chairs in-house cost way more than people working remotely (both to the organization and to the employees in terms of transportation, food, clothing, childcare, and time lost with families).
This is such an inefficient and costly way to work for everybody involved. The benefits are miniscule compared to the costs, which never end and will always encompass the bulk of brick-and-mortar operating capital.
And here’s the irony that most brick-and-mortar institutions don’t realize or recognize: the true success of any service, business, support, or educational organization is doing more and better in both meeting existing needs and anticipating and growing toward potential needs.
Greater success, progress, and innovation is where the most money should be invested (in other words, a growth model). Instead, most of the money is invested in treading water and going nowhere and having nothing but a lot of unnecessary costs to show for it.
No sane business model would support this, and yet, at least here in the U.S., this is still primarily how most organizations set themselves up.
For someone like me who knows that in most cases this isn’t necessary (and for a fraction of the brick-and-mortar costs, offering better wages and better benefits encourage the best talent), it doesn’t make any sense and I have little patience for all the “oh, we can’t afford that” or “oh, we need more money” when they’re bleeding it out left and right in archaic-based waste.
Another reality of this brick-and-mortar structure is the endless meetings that accomplish next to nothing, but seem to take up the bulk of time. The truth is that most in-house meetings are a waste of time, but remote meetings where participants fly in are both a colossal waste of money and time.
However, there are very few people who want to give up flying somewhere for a few days and “doing business” for a fraction of the time they are there, while spending the bulk of time and money on socializing and entertainment. That’s so antiquated, so ineffective and so incredibly inefficient when compared to its cost and what actually gets accomplished to move forward.
However, some things lend themselves to brick-and-mortar. These are smaller operations that either sell perishable goods (bakeries are a good example) or goods that require an in-person visit to get it right the first time (shoes and clothing are good examples). These, however, are exceptions to the general rule.
Because I’ve been intimately involved with technology all my adult life, I have always been acutely aware of the dangers of constant connection and how it changes the brain.
I will never forget the one and only time that I, in an effort to combat a sleepless night, decided that playing a computer game with lots of motion, flashing lights, and noises at 2 a.m. would be just the thing to make me sleepy and calm me down.
I got sleepy after an hour or so, but every time I closed my eyes, all I could hear was noise and all I could see was flashes of light, and I never got to sleep that night. And I never made that mistake again.
Because of my knowledge and experience, I’ve always been consciously careful to make sure to maintain an offline life and an online life as balanced as possible because I have always recognized that I need both of them equally in my life.
One of the things that Harris talks about in his book is the divide between those of us born before 1985, who knew a world of solitude, peace, quiet, boredom, disconnection for extended periods of time, and the resulting creativity and problem-solving associated with that, and those born after 1985 who came of age in a digital world and have known nothing else.
There were two quotes from Harris’ book that struck me as I considered this divide:
“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.”
“As we embrace technology’s gifts, we usually fail to consider what they ask from us in return – the subtle, hardly noticeable payments we make in exchange for their marvelous service.”
For those of us who knew a world at one time that was mostly offline and have transitioned full-tilt into an online world, we should ask ourselves what worthy and healthy things we have sacrificed to do so.
It has never ceased to amaze me that people can’t go anywhere, even into a church service or funeral, without their cell phones (being on).
Our parents didn’t have cell phones (they didn’t even have answering machines until we were teenagers, if then). If there was an emergency while they were in church services or at funerals (most cell phone calls and texts, by the way, are not emergencies, despite the fact that we’ve elevated the mundane to a level of importance it doesn’t deserve), they didn’t know until hours later when they were home and could answer the phone or play the answering machine.
The world didn’t end with that lapse of time. So what has changed that we think it will now?
We’ve changed. Technology and being constantly connected to a digital world has given us a distorted and unrealistic, but frenetic and immediate, view of the natural rhythm and flow of communication, of life, and, even, of death.
We’ve surrendered the beauty and serenity of an offline life that we had more control over to a 24/7 online life that controls us 100% of the time. We’ve become mere puppets to a puppetmaster that is constantly pulling our strings in every which way but loose.
Harris’ book urges us to bring back the offline life we knew and find a balance between it and our online life, because what we’ve given up by surrendering our offline lives is costing us dearly and in ways we don’t even realize.
As I’ve been reading this book, 1984 by George Orwell just kept going parallel in my mind because we’ve become the society that Orwell describes in that novel.
Those of us few who are aware of the danger are like Winston Smith, the novel’s protagonist, and the outcome for us is as grim as it was for him: either we will eventually and under great duress and pressure capitulate and become mere shells of our former selves or we will be destroyed because of the threat we pose.
We’ve surrendered our entire lives to technology. We’re not even aware that this has happened. But, as Harris says, “the sheer volume of time we devote to our devices means we are carving ‘expendable’ time away from other parts of our lives.” In other words, instead of enhancing our lives, technology instead becomes our lives and our experiences.
“Ceci tuera cela.” This line from Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is apt for the impact of technology on humanity in terms of absence: “This will kill that.”
Here are a couple – at least for me – of surprising statistics just about kids and adults and text messages.
Kids send and receive an average of 4000 texts a month.
Adults send and receive an average of 746 texts a month. (I was not surprised that I’m not even close to being an average adult here, since I can count the average number of texts I send and receive in a month on less than one hand).
The volume boggles my mind for both kids and adults. Who has that kind of time? And who’s got that much to say? It’s beyond my comprehension.
But what happens neurologically is even more drastic. We become more comfortable with technology than we do with each other. Texting simplifies and reduces the quality of our relationships and increases our emotional distance.
Friends are replaced with contacts. We pretend that complete strangers are our new best friends and the people in our lives who choose less technological connection or are unable to have it fall off of our radars for good.
In other words, we abandon something for nothing.
And our brains form new neural pathways that make this not only okay, but the new normal for how we live.
It is very similar to the same mechanism – and the overarching demand it exerts – that is behind addiction: we crave “quick hits” and “fast fixes” and our lives are consumed with getting the next one.
Anything that requires investment, focus, concentrated attention, and thinking we ignore and turn away from.
It is the same reaction that an addict who doesn’t want to stop using has when they are confronted with rehab.
Neurologically, this becomes totally acceptable for us as technology literally changes the way our brains are connected and what our brains expect.
The changes to the brain, though, go even deeper than connections and expectations. Constant connection causes us to either abandon our memories (based on our actual existences) or subdue them in favor of what we come to believe are memories (stored in brain) but are actually reminiscences (found in an external source).
In other words, our brains are totally reprogrammed in terms of information: how we get it, whether we have to keep it, and whether it means anything or not.
It becomes a simple passive action of processing something outside us and our experiences, instead of the active action of finding, keeping, doing that builds unique records of our actual experiences in our brains.
An example of a reminiscence is doing a Google search for something we should know the answer to. If we don’t remember the answer, we Google it instead of taking the time to work with our brains to search and find the answer and all the original ancillary information and memories that are associated with that answer.
So let’s look a little more closely at what happens in the brain, where it happens, and what the implications are with constant connection to technology.
Digital technology reorganizes the brain. Because the frontal lobe of the brain (which handles decision making, problem solving, control of purposeful behaviors, consciousness, and emotions) is primarily involved in response to digital technology, new neural pathways get formed there.
Changes become evident (much in the same way as frontotemperal dementia) in areas of executive functioning. We become more fragmented, more unorganized, more unfocused, and more easily distracted and bored.
The thinking process changes as well. We become what Nicholas Carr has described in The Shallows: more capable of “shallow” thinking and less capable of “deep” thinking. Therefore our interests turn to things that don’t require us to think and we studiously and consciously avoid things that would give us no choice but to think.
As thinking is disrupted continually and systematically within the brain, eventually it becomes altogether too difficult, and we abandon it completely.
This is where we become completely vulnerable and susceptible to external programming (whether that comes through people or technology), much like the society that Orwell describes in 1984.
We parrot opinions, beliefs, ideas that are fed to us, but we don’t have any knowledge, proof, or investment neurologically behind them to back them up. In other words, we become simply somebody’s “yes” people.
If we’re looking carefully, we’ll see the world around us is pretty much already like this. Thinking has become too hard and too time-consuming in the face of constant digital connection where we don’t have to think because all the answers are already there when we need them and the answers are right because Google said so, so what’s the point?
And yet that is the point. I would far rather have somebody who’s thinking deeply disagree with me and tell me why so we can put our heads together and reach a more comprehensive understanding or perspective on something (even if we still disagree on some aspects, which is okay) than to be surrounded by “yes” people who don’t have a clue or people who just don’t care.
And, quite frankly, I’ve observed, as Harris has observed in his book as well, that the latter two – the no-cluers and the don’t-carers – are the majority now.
And that’s tragic for humanity on a personal level, on a community level, and on a species level.
We are quickly disintegrating into a unconscious and complete embrace of in-and-out emotional processing (which is not reason and thinking based on logic, knowledge, and facts) and total abandonment of the gifts that are unique to us – that make us human.
These gifts are the ability to reason, to critically think, to test everything, to prove everything, to know because we’ve done the time-and-labor intensive personal work of testing and proving what is true and what is not. What is right and what is wrong. What is good and what is bad.
We will not be able to have any kind of meaningful life without these gifts. Without a framework, without a moral compass, without the ability to think, we will simply exist, unhappily, in increasing fear as well as mental, emotional, and spiritual poverty until we don’t.
No one in their right mind would bring children into this kind of bleak existence, so if time goes on long enough, we as a species will simply die out, if we’re don’t all destroy each other first.
In the next post on The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, we will look at the next section of the book and see if Harris is any more hopeful than I am in anticipating what the future of humanity left to its own devices and constant connection looks like.