This is the second 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 discussed how absence gives rise to critical thinking, problem-solving, short-term and long-term planning, concentrated focus, and creativity.
We also discussed the physical, emotional, and mental benefits of absence.
And, finally, we discussed how absence has been eroded by our constant connection to technology to the point that it is virtually extinct in our current society.
We discussed how this has dumbed down society as a whole and how susceptible that makes us to being controlled, manipulated, and deceived by technology.
And, finally, we looked at how much technology and our constant connection to it mirrors the society that George Orwell described in 1984, coming to the conclusion that the frighteningly eerie similarities should compel each of us to consciously choose not to follow the crowd and intentionally limit our connection and ensure a healthy amount of absence exists in our lives individually.
In this post, we’ll take a behind-the-scenes look at what happens with all the data you’re willingly and freely putting into digital technology every time you text on your phone, go to a website, input anything onto social media (including the infamous “like” button on Facebook), do a Google search, buy something online, watch streaming video, and play internet video games.
We’ll also see how being constantly connected to digital technology brings that data back to us and shrinks our exposure to real and complete knowledge (Google infamously does this with their industry-standard data mining and predictive analysis processes, which narrow search results down to what we want to see, based on our input, rather than everything there is to see).
In effect, we are being shaped and manipulated in an endless loop of our own little world of preferences and beliefs with subtle changes and false ideas about value and credibility being implanted along the way.
Our constant connection to technology is literally rewiring and incorrectly programming our brains. This negatively affects – if not outright destroys – our value systems and belief systems.
Additionally, our ability to not only think for ourselves – and change our minds based on that – but also to critically and objectively think, as well as to think outside the boxes of what we know and are familiar with is rapidly being destroyed because we depend on technology to do our “thinking” for us.
Additionally, we’ll continue our look at how our constant connection to technology is essentially creating a virtual life (think the movie The Matrix) that we are being conned into believing is real life, while actual real life, which includes lack and absence, is rapidly disappearing for all but a few of us who are aware of what’s happening and refusing to let it happen to us.
Our lifestyles, which now center around technology, are creating a new kind of lifestyle dementia, and most of us don’t even realize it’s happening. That’s why you need to read this book and that’s why I’m spending so much time reviewing it.
Perhaps you think what is being described here is impossible and this is just an alarmist warning that you can blow off because “that’ll never happen.”
It’s already happened and it is happening. I know technology very well from a big-picture and a behind-the-scenes perspective, so I’m speaking as an insider and an expert who has worked and does work with this on a daily basis.
Here’s the reality. Whether you choose to ignore this is immaterial. It’s already well in motion and progressing rapidly and, if we choose to remain ignorant and we choose to continue our constant connection, we will be devastatingly changed in the process.
And the sad part is that, like the society that Orwell discusses in 1984, not only will we not be aware, but we will not care, even if it’s the most destructive thing that can happen to humanity.
One of the ways in which our constant connection to technology has changed us is that now our default choice is to use technology to interact with people and things rather than actually interact with people and things for real.
Here’s a simple comparative survey of why our brains have been rewired to prefer technological interaction with people and things rather than real interaction with people and things.
With technology, we can ignore or eliminate or limit our time with anybody or anything we don’t want to have to deal with. This can include people and things we find challenging, who disagree with us, who don’t “tickle our fancy,” and who “make” our lives “harder” just by their presence.
With a click of a button, we can unfriend them or unfollow them and turn off their news feeds, or we can avoid those things altogether until they simply no longer exist to us.
What we end up with in the process is an artificial, virtual world that we create to make us feel good. It’s also a shallow and stagnant world that ends up being essentially us looking in a mirror and seeing nothing but our own image reflected, because the people and things that are left after our unfriending, unfollowing, and avoiding are those that never challenge us, always agree with us (even when we’re wrong), and boost our feel-good emotions (as we do theirs).
In real life, those people or things are right there with us and we have figure out the best way to deal with them whether we want to or not, even if that means putting up with our co-workers, friends, and relatives or all the tough things that exist in real life.
In other words, we can’t turn them off (and if we eliminate them, in the case of people, then we go to prison). So it forces us to find creative and workable ways to share the same space with them and it increases our relating-to-humanity-and-things skills and builds traits like patience, kindness, gentleness, understanding, empathy and mercy.
These are character-related traits that cannot be developed in the artificial, virtual world that constant connection to technology enables us to create in our own image.
And our artificial, virtual worlds make demands on us as well, although this dark side is seldom, if ever, on our minds or consciences. They demand our 24/7 attention and presence and because of our acquiescence to those demands, we lose absence. Solitude. Peace. Disconnection.
Absence gives us time alone with our thoughts, alone with ourselves, and alone with our ideas, our dreams, our hopes, and our imaginations. Absence also gives us the ability to regroup and recharge our brains and ourselves. It gives us a chance to get away from all the “noise” of life and have peace and quiet.
Here’s the irony. We need solitude as part of our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health. There’s no other way to survive life.
Yet, even for those of us born before 1985, from the moment we’re born the emphasis is on socialization.
Society is so insistent on this – my parents often had to drag me kicking and screaming as a small child into social situations because I was always very uncomfortable with them, and as I got into my teenage years and could make my own choices, more often than not, I chose staying home over going somewhere either for a few hours or overnight – that most of us are uncomfortable being alone and being quiet, with nothing to entertain or distract us.
Technology and constant connection ensure that we don’t have to be uncomfortable, and it amplifies the illusion of constant company.
This, by the way, began before digital technology. Before there was the internet, there was television. And before television, there was radio. All of these technologies gave – and give – the illusion of constant company because of the noise and the distraction they provide.
And here’s the reality for humanity now. For those of us who remember absence, we have the constant choice of saying “yes” or “no” to constant connection. For those of us who came of age with constant connection as part of our normal lives, we don’t even know there is a choice. And that is truly sad.
Because our artificial, virtual worlds seem real to us because they’re replacing real life, our brains get rewired in additional ways by the illusion this creates.
One way is that we feel surrounded by people like us, so we feel free to say whatever we want to say however we want to say it. We don’t care how wrong it is, how hurtful it is, or how confessional it is. Constant connection, by subverting thinking, has removed the filtering that normally goes into thinking before we speak.
In this way, the words spewed out on the internet actually mimic one of the tell-tale signs of dementia: the loss of impulse control and ability to know what things to verbalize and what things to keep to ourselves.
Another way that constant connection to technology rewires our brains is that it promotes the self all the time. With an artificial, virtual world that we have created and are the center of, we can continuously draw all the attention to ourselves.
This self-broadcasting, which shares many traits with narcissism, includes fervent self-documentation consisting of constant tweets, continual status updates, and a never-ending supply of selfies.
In effect, a constant connection to technology makes us incredibly self-centered, self-absorbed, selfish, and it reinforces our belief that “it’s all about me.”
So it’s no surprise that we’re less empathetic, less genuinely caring (caring for someone online takes little effort, engagement, involvement, and commitment while caring for someone in real life takes continual effort, engagement, involvement, and commitment, no matter what circumstances arise), less able to listen and hear what people are saying or trying to say, less understanding, and less able to provide authentic comfort, encouragement and support.
In other words, a constant connection to technology makes us less human.
So why do we do it? Because it’s rewarding online. The more attention we garner, the more we want. If everybody notices us and loves – or likes – us, that is very motivating to continue our self-tracking because it feeds our egos.
A constant connection to technology and self-broadcasting gives us the approval we crave just for living life and doing the mundane things it requires of all of us. Somehow, having a bunch of people like and praise some routine, ordinary thing we’ve done makes us feel extraordinary and accomplished.
It doesn’t happen like that in real life. Most of what we say and do goes completely unnoticed, even though we may say and do a lot and say and do a lot of good, but despite that reality, those of us who are invested in real life just keep going on and putting one foot in front of the other.
A constant connection to technology rewires our brains to stop doing our own thinking and shop it out the the public opinion of the internet.
This costs us far more than we are remotely aware of.
In choosing constant connection and public opinion to do our thinking and decision-making, we choose to abandon the most powerful workshop we have access to, which is our lone minds.
In our lone minds, which only solitude can give us, we can think objectively and critically through things. We can solve problems. We can fill in missing pieces of the puzzles that life inherently has. We can find connections between things that don’t look connected on the surface. And we can innovate and create scenarios and options that point us forward in our lives.
When we abandon our lone minds, we offer ourselves up to indiscriminate information from public opinion, much of which is conflicting, wrong, and worthless.
But because our brains are rewired to believe that’s a valid and real world, we accept all the input we’re given and make the erroneous assumption that it all has the same quality, the same value, and the same veracity.
And that will destroy us, because most of what we get is uninformed, uneducated, and unknowledgeable in the context of being “expert” information.
In addition to this and what most people don’t know is that public opinion is manipulated, especially on the organizational level.
For example, many organizations have people internal to the organization write a lot of positive reviews about whatever their products are to feed the search engines to give them a higher rating of satisfaction.
Data mining cannot analyze quality, only quantity. So the more times a search engine sees a name and sees positive input, the higher it ranks it organically. This is a driving force – and goal – in every organization with an online presence.
There are two types of search engine results, paid and organic.
Paid search engine results (the ones in the example above with AD to the left of the link) are those that organizations pay, often a lot of money, to the search engine for significant keywords to get top-of-the-page (or top-right-side-of-the-page), first-page placement.
This is known as pay-per-click (PPC) advertising. Each time someone clicks on the paid advertisement, whatever that keyword costs is what is charged to the organization. This can get really expensive really fast.
Organic search engine results (in the example above, below the faint gray line, starting with the Alzheimer’s Association’s link) are generated in order by how many times the keyword appears on the site and how much traffic (search engines don’t really care where the traffic comes from, only how much of it there is) goes to the site (this is where social media sharing has really taken center stage in driving traffic to sites). This doesn’t cost anything.
So, it should be obvious why organizations manipulate their data behind the scenes to get higher organic ranking. The most prevalent (and most dishonest) way has become social media sharing and having people internal to the organization physically go to the site as often as they can. More hits equals higher ranking in the organic search results.
What does that have to do with us and the end of absence and constant connection to technology? Everything!
We instinctively choose what’s listed first because we connect that with what must be the best. However, because what’s listed first is simply because of manipulation (which we are unaware of) and not because of proven and tested quality, we get duped in accepting things as “best,” “right,” or “most” when in fact there is no proof any of those things are true. It’s all an illusion.
Because we have come to believe that Google is always right and if it’s on the internet then it must true and because the answers are alway immediate, we have abandoned the mental processes that time would allow – comparison, analysis, perspective, insight, and wisdom – so that we could be sure we were making the right and best choice. That’s the lack of absence that real life decision-making gives us.
And what do Google and Facebook do with all that data you share with Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Google (these are just a few – everything you do on the internet gets stored somewhere and is analyzed by software that gets a sense of who and what you are about using predictive analysis, so that what you ask for ends up being things that appeal to or interest you, not everything there is on the subject)?
The next time you do a Google search, log in to your Facebook account afterwards. Look at the right hand side of the screen where the ads are. Odds are good they will be for what you just searched for in Google.
Pay attention when you share links on Facebook to that same right hand side of the screen. The odds are good that whatever the content is within the link you shared will be what the advertising is for.
This is predictive analysis in your face. Most of it is not, but Facebook makes no secret that is what they are doing to try to get you to buy something.
Google’s method is invisible, but much more detrimental and dangerous.
Google uses what is known as a “filter bubble” to generate search results. This gets personalized for each person that uses Google and it is based on our preferences and our activities.
Google keeps meticulous track of our searching history, promoting the same results each time we repeat a search and further personalizing them based on which results we choose to follow through on by clicking on the links Google shows.
Each time we do the search, results are pared down to match our personalization preferences, which in effect means we get exposed to a narrower and narrower view of the universe.
Facebook uses this same algorithm in our newsfeeds. We might have 100 Facebook friends, but we interact with 10 or so almost constantly.
All the statuses of those 10 will always show up in our news feeds. The other 90 friends will randomly show up in our news feeds based on how much we interact with them and they interact with us.
The more interaction, the more likely the statuses will show up randomly – not always – in our news feeds. For friends with whom we have little interaction on Facebook, their statuses disappear from our news feeds altogether.
In other words, the internet is making our worlds smaller, not bigger.
And the personalization that makes our worlds smaller, not bigger has affected every part of our lives. The music we listen to. The suggested content for us to watch on live streaming. How and if we get employed by an organization.
And it seems that our brains are, with their constant connection rewiring, accepting this as being okay and we’ve adopted an “out of sight. out of mind” mentality toward anyone or anything we don’t see regularly or at all.
Here’s what we must understand and realize about how dangerous this is and how much we’re losing in the process.
Personalization is really just the glorification of our own tastes and our own opinions. It eliminates the big picture and a general, broad and comprehensive base of knowledge and understanding while embracing customization, specialization, and a singular viewpoint that takes nothing around it into account (no context).
Personalization cuts off our access to real learning and real knowledge. It cuts us off from the very things – and people – who could help us the most.
Because there is no “surprise” content to challenge us, to think about, to learn from, and to grow and mature in, we stagnate in life.
Stagnation is one step away from the regression to the kind of mindlessness that typified 1984‘s society as a whole. We are not that far from it ourselves.
In the next and last post reviewing The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, we will look at the final third of the book, still looking for signs of hope, although the prospects of that are getting dimmer.