This is the last of a three-part series of reviews that I am writing on The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection written by Michael Harris in 2014.
In “Part 1 – The End of Absence (Michael Harris) Book Review,” we looked at the definition of absence and how it relates to our quality of life.
We also discussed how constant connection to technology is eliminating absence from our lives, and in the process, rewiring our brains with dementia-like characteristics. It is a lifestyle dementia that we are consciously creating by choosing to live in a world of constant connection.
We also discussed how the disappearance of absence is also causing the disappearance of our ability to think, to to reason, to plan, to dream, to create, and to innovate. In short, we’re trading the depth of real life, with all its hills and valleys, simplicities and complexities, and triumphs and failures (all of which make us better people, in the end), for a fake, virtual, shallow life that, in the end, means absolutely nothing.
In “Part 2 – The End of Absence (Michael Harris) Book Review,” we discussed data mining and predictive analysis, showing how the internet is actually shrinking our worlds, instead of expanding them.
We also discussed how our virtual worlds, with our ability to easily eliminate anyone and anything that doesn’t look us, ends up just being a mirror we look into, which first stagnates, then eliminates growth, change, maturity, and thinking.
We also discussed how we’ve surrendered our critical thinking to the internet world of public opinion, which is often ignorant, uninformed, and devoid of expertise. As a result, we get a lot of wrong, bad, and possibly even dangerous information that we are increasingly accepting as valuable and good, without any control mechanisms in place to follow through and make sure that we’re not being led down the primrose path.
And, finally, we discussed how a constant connection to technology erodes the selfless part of us (empathy, caring, serving, looking for all others) and cultivates the self-centered, self-absorbed, selfish part of us.
The reward factor of being the center of attention all the time, even when we’re just typing nonsense or run-of-the-mill things, motivates and grows this self-absorption until all we look for is adulation and affirmation.
The impact of this is that truth – as hard as it can be to stomach sometimes – goes by the wayside and a completely false sense of self, worth, and value, albeit virtual and not real, becomes our view of ourselves.
In this last part of our review of The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, we are going to examine further how our lives are being robbed of meaning, experience and richness by our constant connection to technology.
We are also going to look at ways to bring absence back into our lives, if we’re brave enough, daring enough, and strong enough to quit following the masses into intellectual oblivion by enslaving ourselves to the machines.
My experience says that humanity in general just doesn’t have the willpower nor the intense desire to free itself from what’s destroying it. Once we get comfortable, we don’t want to move.
I hope that I’m wrong in this case, but the pragmatist in me says I’m probably not.
One of the ways in which our constant connection to technology is robbing us of meaning, experience, and richness in our lives is that our focus has become broadcasting life instead of living life. We, in effect, live in an augmented reality that we stage, produce, and filter through the lenses of our smart phones or digital cameras, but which we don’t experience in the moment or spontaneously participate in.
Harris gives a perfect example of augmented reality from L. Frank Baum’s classic book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Although in the 1939 movie, Emerald City is actually green (the movie starts out in black and white and then suddenly changes to full color as soon as Dorothy leaves Kansas and is on her way to Oz), in the book it was not.
The reason that Dorothy and Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, and Tin Man believe that Emerald City is green in the book is because the Wizard of Oz tells them to put on safety glasses to protect their eyes. The safety glasses are tinted green, so everything these four see is green.
In other words, they’re not seeing anything as it actually is, but instead they seeing it through a filter that makes what they are seeing seem real, but in fact, it’s not.
Just like most of us don’t normally style our food every day like the chefs on the Food Network and most of us don’t naturally stage our lives and homes to be photo-perfect. That’s just not reality, if we’re actually living our lives.
However, the trend toward this as our normal way of treating life is growing, and we are increasingly spending more time making our lives social-media-friendly than we are actually living them as they naturally occur and not even worrying about whether all our virtual world even knows anything about them.
Examples of this abound on social media with pictures of food we eat and events that we go to such as weddings, family reunions, social gatherings, etc.
How many times – and for how much time – have we stepped out of the reality of a messy kitchen while we’re cooking and plates of food that aren’t perfectly arranged and garnished to stage our breakfast or dinner meals for social media?
How many times at social gatherings do we spend all our time documenting activities and sharing them on social media instead of actually participating in what’s going on?
When we start living an augmented reality, then we lose authenticity and genuineness. The more and the longer we do this, the less able we will be able to know the difference between what’s real and what’s staged, and the less we exercise our natural and tint-free sight, the more easily we will be manipulated and controlled by other people and other things.
If you haven’t seen the movie, Wag the Dog, you should watch it soon. This movie was prescient with regard to the augmented reality of all media, politics, and “news” and how it would manipulate the United State public into believing whatever they saw or heard, without questioning and without verifying. Digital technology has just exponentially enhanced this manipulation.
It is always with this movie in the back of my mind that I take most of the stuff I read or hear from any media outlet with a grain of salt, because I know it’s not true (spinning, angling, omissions, innuendo, gossip, etc.) and I also know it’s not genuine or authentic, but instead staged and produced to have a desired effect on the general population.
Augmented reality destroys truth. For those of us – and it seems there aren’t many of us left who aren’t all caught up in it, hook, line, and sinker as if it is true – who know it’s not true, it has also destroyed our trust.
Another example of augmented reality is with US citizens and their participation in political processes.
Here’s the reality. All politicians are liars and the process of politics is dishonest and dishonesty (the first two seasons were so hard for me to stomach that I refuse to watch any more of it, but Netflix’s original series House of Cards, with Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, gets this in every disgusting and gut-wrenching detail).
And yet a lot of American citizens want to participate in a process that ultimately (here’s the other augmented reality: money and electoral colleges do the down and dirty decision-making, not the American public – the voting thing is just a ruse to make people believe they are instrumental in the process, but they’re not) chooses somebody who is thoroughly dishonest and can’t be trusted.
And when Americans are asked why they participate when confronted with the corruption, the dishonesty, and the lies of politicians and politics, nine times out of ten, one of the answers is “I’m choosing the lesser of two evils.”
That’s augmented reality, folks. Evil is evil. Why would any of us choose it at all?
And augmented reality is not limited to the media, to politics, and to politicians. It is everywhere in our society today. Education, entertainment, religion, social activism, nonprofits, business – if you can name it, augmented reality rules.
And technology has fueled this infiltration into everything we see and we hear.
But that alone is not enough to dupe us, to manipulate us, and to control us.
What makes us entirely susceptible to being duped, manipulated, and controlled is our constant connection to technology. It is analogous to the certainty of radiation contamination – and death – with prolonged exposure to radioactive materials.
Where and with what we spend most of our time is what we come to believe is true and reality.
Because we have, over time, chosen to spend our time constantly connected to digital technology and have gradually eliminated absence in our lives, our ability to objectively think, logically think, and critically think, as well as to prove or disprove information and things as true or untrue by analysis and research, we have also put ourselves into the position of completely accepting lies as truth and fake as real.
How many times have we seen some internet hoax automatically recycled on the internet as truth (and then tons of people start sharing it and broadcasting it), when a simple (and fast) check of Snopes before we share it all over the internet would tell us it’s a hoax?
Our constant connection to digital technology has made us vulnerable and gullible. We are much more willing to accept augmented reality than we are actual reality.
Here’s why. Actual reality contains inherent risks. It’s also messy at times. It’s hard at times. It’s ugly at times. And it’s negative at times. That’s part of breathing for a living.
But digital technology, with its filtering capabilities that let us choose to unfriend, unfollow, unlike anything that is risky, messy, hard, ugly, and negative, has essentially created an augmented reality made up of rainbows, lollipops, and unicorns that completely disconnects us from the realities of life, growth, change, and maturity, as well as developing our uniquely human capacity to care, to empathize, to comfort, to encourage, to be patient, and to be kind and merciful toward other people.
Of course, we expect all those things from other people – and we get an inauthentic and superficial version from our virtual world (I mean, really, how hard is to type a few letters saying “sorry,” and then just go on with life because it is not right in front of you and it’s not impacting you in real time?) – because our constant connection to digital technology has led us to believe that everything really is “all about me.”
Technology is not the originator of this “You’re Good Enough, You’re Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like You” narcissism that infects our entire society today, but it has been the catalyst for its rampant and invasive spread into every part of our society and our lives.
So now you know the bad news that all of us are facing with regard to a constant connection to technology.
Are we doomed to this fate with no recourse?
Have we irreversibly surrendered all our power to this invisible monster that is gorging itself on all the things that make you you and me me until we’re all just hollow shells of nothingness on the outside attached to technology’s puppetmaster strings?
The good news is that we are not doomed with no recourse nor is this current trajectory irreversible.
However, like any addiction or entrenched habit, we will first have to consciously choose, then commit, and then act, making those actions a permanent replacement for what we are doing now, to reverse it.
And it will be hard until it becomes our new (and for those of born before 1985, our old) habit. And it will take a huge amount of self-control and discipline to actually accomplish it.
Are we up to the challenge? I hope so.
So, then, what steps can we implement right now to start the reversal?
The first step is to limit our exposure to constant connection.
Instead of checking email every hour, commit to checking it no more than three times a day (morning, noon, and, this is my usual cutoff, the end of the day…meaning the end of daylight hours).
Instead of wearing your smart phone like underwear, leave it on a desk or a cabinet out of your immediate reach. You really don’t have to pick it up and answer every text or every call as soon as they come in. If someone really wants to talk to you, they’ll leave a voicemail (most people don’t).
Limit checking texts and voicemails to three times a day. Set aside, within each of those times, a certain amount of time to deal with them, and stop when time runs out. And put the phone away again until the next time you’re scheduled to check it.
Here’s the funny thing. People will adjust to this schedule and they will learn when you’re available and when you’re not and eventually that’ll be the only time they contact you.
Emergencies, of course, are still emergencies and they are always exceptions to this rule.
However, we need to make sure that we understand what a real emergency is. Being out of milk for coffee, for example, is not an emergency. Our brains are going have to be retrained in a lot of different ways.
Allocate a certain amount of time each day (no more than two hours total) that you will spend on social media sites. The reality is that social media sites are the biggest time-wasters, for the most part, within digital technology.
This is time that we can easily recover for absence – solitude, peace, and quiet to reflect, to think, to dream, to plan, to innovate, to create, to learn – to be a part of our daily lives.
Instead of immediately going to Google when you don’t know something or you can’t remember something, write the question down and go to the library or a bookstore when you’re able and find a book and look it up.
This will be hard, because our constant connection to technology has produced impatience and a need for immediate gratification in us.
But delayed gratification will do two things. First, it will build patience. Second, we will begin to sort through things and regain a balance of what’s important and what isn’t.
If the effort of going to library or a bookstore to answer a question we have isn’t worth the time and energy, we’ll know that’s unimportant – and we can get rid of it.
However, if we can’t wait to get to the library or the bookstore to research our question, and we make that an urgent to-do item, then we’ll know that’s important – and we will keep it.
With a constant connection to technology, everything’s important, while in real life, there are some things that are important and some things that aren’t. This will help us regain that balance and perspective.
Turn your devices and all the noise (including music) off. On weekdays, set a time and turn them off with no exceptions.
Replace that time you would have spent on them with interacting with a good book (yeah, the ones with the pages and the real covers) or interacting with real people, like family and friends, by having dinner together or playing a board game or cards (not video games) together. This will naturally lead to conversation and connection with real people and real life. Do not turn the devices back on until the next day.
Choose one or two days a week to disconnect altogether from technology. Turn it all off. The weekend is an excellent time to do this and will give you plenty of absence in which to rest, recharge, and regroup with no extraneous interference impeding you.
I personally find it very difficult to jump back into the world of connection each week when I do this myself. I love not even thinking about and I don’t miss it at all.
With all the absence it builds into my weekends, I often find myself wishing I never had to reconnect ever again because I realize how disruptive it is in my life, even though I have strict limits on it and I’ve cut my exposure time down to the bare minimum.
In the end, even a little is still too much, at least for me.
When you have all the time back that doing these few things will give you, use it wisely.
If you have a neglected hobby, take it up again. If you don’t have a hobby, find one.
Read books. Take walks.
If you’ve got snow on the ground, bundle up and go outside to play in it. Build a snow fort or build a snowman. Admire the beauty and cleanness of a freshly-fallen snow.
Watch how the sun reflects off of it. Watch the clouds in the sky. Watch a sunset from beginning to end.
When spring comes, go find a lush, grassy hill or meadow and lie down on the ground and look at the sky.
Ride a bike. In the summer, go outside at night and look at the sky and the stars and the planets and dream.
In the fall, walk through the unparalleled beauty of the vast array of colors of the trees as they change.
Get outside and do something, not just for your body, but also for your mind.
The bottom line is there is no substitute for absence.
We aren’t missing it because we let it go gradually along the way over time and we didn’t even notice.
But when we start bringing absence back into our lives, we will be surprised, after we get used to it again, how much we missed it and how much we almost lost it for good, and, my hope, is that we will be determined never to let it go again.