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The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We've Lost in a World of Constant Connection

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When online experiences dominate our lives, what gets lost?

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 ...

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The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We've Lost in a World of Constant Connection

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When online experiences dominate our lives, what gets lost?

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.

Winner of the 2014 Governor General's Literary Award for Nonfiction

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Jacob Silverman
The End of Absence is a genial and philosophical tour through one man's anxieties surrounding digital life.
Kirkus Reviews
A personalized jeremiad against the state of constant distraction in which our benevolent technologies have ensnared us.Toronto-based journalist Harris argues that our full-time engagement with the Internet, smartphones and social media has robbed us of “absence”—the ability to withdraw from life’s dissonant demands, whether for personal growth, intellectual accomplishment or simple serenity. The author begins by noting that all readers born before 1985 are experiencing a moment akin to the invention of printing, in that no other generation will again experience nondigital society. He notes that ever since Plato, the old have groused about younger generations’ adaptations of technology for its convenience. Yet he cites studies suggesting that digital technology may affect the plasticity of adolescents’ developing brains, arguing that without absence, “our children suffer as surely as kids with endless access to fast food do. The result is a digital native population that’s less well rounded than we know they could be.” Harris examines the many aspects of contemporary life that have been quickly transformed by this constant digital engagement, ranging from the relentless nature of online bullying to the transactional sexuality encouraged by “hookup” sites like Grindr. He even suggests that the notion of expertise itself has been destroyed by the open-source nature of Wikipedia. Harris supports his discussion by engaging the work of technology writers and philosophers, plus some behind-the-curtain interviews with social media CEOs and personalities likeGeneration Xauthor Douglas Coupland. Finally, Harris chronicles his experiment called “Analog August,” when he disconnected from the Internet and his phone entirely: “I wanted to remember the absences that online life had replaced with constant content.” Harris’ core argument regarding the values of technological disengagement feels valid, and his prose is graceful, but as a social narrative, the book becomes repetitive and less focused as it proceeds.A thoughtful addition to the bookshelf addressing the unintended consequences of a wired world.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781591846932
  • Publisher: Current Hardcover
  • Publication date: 8/7/2014
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 62,351
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Harris is a contributing editor at Western Living and Vancouver magazine. His award-winning writing appears regularly in magazines such as The Walrus and Frieze. He lives in Vancouver, Canada.

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 4, 2014

    This book reminds me a little of Susan Cain's book Quiet in that

    This book reminds me a little of Susan Cain's book Quiet in that it is an imperfect book about an important subject.  
     I can't help but like any book that says we need more time for solitude, reverie contemplation, and downtime.  
     The book asks people who were born before the internet to remember what life was like before it was invented.
     I love the internet and I was an adult way before it was invented.   I got into social media in 2009 and can’t now live without it.  
    However, I do feel the downside of the internet is that it has taken away some of my ability to occupy myself solely with my thoughts
     rather than looking for outside distractions.   Michael Harris raises some important questions in asking how the internet affects us.
     However, the book does have some flaws.

    First of all, the book takes a long time to get to the internet.
       A big part of the first part of the book is about how all new technology has an impact on society.
     I can't render judgment on this part of the book because I have studied a lot about how new technology changes society.  
     However, the examples the author uses of how technology changes society is how the invention of writing and the
     printing press changed human culture.   Those inventions happened a long time ago and it seems hard to compare them
     to the invention of the internet.  I felt better source of comparison might be how the newspaper, railroad, telegraph and telephone
     changed society.   Many people in the nineteenth century were complaining how new technology was making life more fast paced
     and getting overwhelmed with the information overload.   Below is a quote from Oscar Wilde about his compliant of the information
    overload in the nineteen century:

    Most modern calendars mar the sweet simplicity of our lives by reminding us that each day that passes is the anniversary of some
    perfectly uninteresting event. 

    We know more about how these inventions changed society than we do about the changes reading and writing bring to society.    
    I got impatient reading about the losses that came to society with increasing literacy and wondering when the writer was
    going to deal with the invention of the internet.

    For me the book got more interesting when he gets to the internet and the different ways people
     use it to connect which is what I thought the book was going to be about(the book is called the End of Absence).  
     One interesting part of the book describes the ways gay men use the internet to meet other gay men which are not
     yet widely used by the straight community. According to Harris who is gay, gay men can be at the vanguard of new trends.

    However large parts of the book were concerned about Google and the effect having information at ones fingertips.
     This aspect of the internet strikes me a solitary not social aspect of the internet which is what I expected the book to be about.  

    The internet is a fast technology with many aspects to it.  It has affected society both in work and in recreation.  
    It can bring people together or keep them more isolated (because they are working on a solo project with a computer).  
     It can be used as a phone, a television, newspaper or a book.   It is too big a subject to deal with its effect on society in one
     small book.   I think the author would have been better off picking a one side of the internet (i.e. blogging or internet dating)
     and stuck with that topic.

    However, the book was not hard to read and I have a deep commitment to the topic discussed.
     The internet is changing society in many deep and profound ways.  Any readable book that supports the need for quiet reflection
    deserves two thumbs up in my estimation.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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