About five years ago, I took a vacation where my traveling partner and I decided that we would eschew searching the internet when we had a question, and instead write that question down on paper. By the end of the trip, we had amassed a long “things we could have Googled but we didn’t” list, an artifact from the trip that helped spur memories every time we pulled it out of the drawer.
For someone who is considered to be quite digitally connected, the idea of stepping away and being present in the moment has never been foreign to me. I am comfortable being alone with my thoughts, with having nothing to do; absence of stimulation is not something I struggle with, despite my seemingly always-connected life.
That is why, perhaps, I found the opening arguments of Michael Harris’ The End of Absence to be reductive, simple, and unnecessary. In the opening chapters, Harris extols the value of absence and decries our digitally-connected lives—he will tell you he is not averse to it, but his prose conveys a general disdain—in a way that makes you want to tell him to stop complaining and just turn off his phone.
While many of the arguments he makes in the early parts of the book seem silly and diminutive, the latter part of The End of Absence does share some good insight on the value of scarcity, boredom, and nothingness. Sadly, his more salient insights are muddied by a curmudgeonliness and condescension that pervades the narrative; too many times it feels as though as Harris is talking down to us, saying that we are not as enlightened as he is because we like to engage with our friends on Twitter, and that his disconnectedness equals superiority.
This was perhaps not his intent, but it is, sadly, the message that comes out through the book. Instead, The End of Absence would perhaps have been better posited as a long-form essay that took away much of the judgment and was just edited down to the more insightful thoughts that are buried towards the end of the book. (Ironically, his message is best suited to the kind of format, the essay, that is currently flourishing on the world wide web because of our ability to connect and share.)
For the perils of always being connected, for losing track of the value of scarcity and absence that Harris decries, I say: just go for a stroll and enjoy the world, a little. We’re not losing our collective humanity because the internet exists; we just need to remember that other things exist, too.