The End of Presence

  • Michael Harris
    The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection. HarperCollins (purchase at
Reviewed by Andre Furlani

Michael Harris belongs to the digital “straddle generation,” one foot on the dry land of pre-internet reality, one foot in the internet ocean of virtuality, separated only by a Wi-Fi Starbucks. His will have been the last generation, he notes, with cherished formative memories from before the web. Privacy was then the inalienable safeguard of liberal freedoms rather than an irritant to the growth of commerce, understanding was held in no less esteem than knowledge, fellowship was largely by chancy personal encounter rather than digital profile, memory was a kinetic forum of cognitive synapses rather than a circuit-board silo of binaries.

One learned to read maps, books, faces. One did not commit suicide on the 4chan message board, ventilate libels on snapchat, or surrender one’s powers of discrimination to an algorithm. One developed a personality rather than projected a flattering simulacrum of oneself on Facebook; one flirted rather than scheduled Grindr assignations, wrote long missives rather than tweets, struggled to find the choice word rather than the cutest emoticon, slowly earned credentials rather than accumulated “hits” by paying to “wag the crowd” (i.e., rig crowd-based on-line voting systems); one participated in university class discussions instead of downloading lectures; “going Walden” meant modelling an environmentally responsible, politically activist, non-consumerist ecology rather than a brief idyll from connective technologies in some resort for harassed techies.

For Harris, however, what particularly dignified that antediluvian life was absence, for now “the daydreaming silences of our lives are filled” with cybernetic clarions. “Absence” to him is what those older than the straddle generation still think of rather as presence: enrapt phases of seclusion in a nook or a book, engrossment in alien or familiar surroundings, tangible proximity to living things, physical plenitude and mental release. So ceaselessly solicited for his attention, his preferences, his dime, and so stuffed with digitized facts and appeals and seductions is he that Harris longs for lack. One would have thought that virtuality, not reality, was predicated on absence. It was immersion in virtual experience that was regarded as involving an evacuation of presence.

Douglas Coupland reveals to him that his favourite activity is not online explorations of digital tomorrows but beachcombing with a nonagenarian painter. Harris is amazed, but others less wired will recognize and cherish the pleasures of idly reading a landscape with one’s foot-soles, open pores, and roused senses rather than with an app or URL or QR code.

The End of Absence is the revealing testimonial of a self-divided digital straddler, hesitant, as much as he adores them, to wear permanently those Oz-like Google lenses that lend an emerald cast to Silicon Valley and its products. He worries about the fate of reading, overlooking the more alarming fact that computers have long since surpassed their users as readers. For years Harris has been unable to read more than a few early chapters of a literary classic before being fatally distracted by the bells and chimes emanating from his digital devices. Computers meanwhile have been reading him like a book, cover to cover, every time he answers those bells.

This kind of pervasive electronic reading does not detain Harris, but reading books proves a revelatory nostrum. He finds inspiration in John Milton’s decade-long retreat to the study, and in the pedagogy of an old high school teacher who inculcated memorization of the opening of Paradise Lost. Though he diligently goes offline for a month to discover what such privation might instil, what alters his attitude and reforms his practice is the initially laborious but soon exhilarating two-weeks required to finally read through War and Peace.

Harris conjures certain “green hills” of reverie beyond his suburb where as a youth he tramped and dawdled, a refuge that, after a month without “connection” and two weeks with Tolstoy, is reawakened for him as what the California poet Robert Duncan, an enthusiast for Baum’s Oz series, once called “a place of first permission, everlasting portent of what is.” It’s an Eden you can reach on foot in a matter of hours. You might bring along a book.

Harris’s stated antidotes to the spread of digital surrogates are, by contrast, anodyne. He prescribes a laborious regimen of hourly vigilance over one’s technological preferences, wearisome interjections of sober agency, willing this digital connection, not willing that one. “Every technology will alienate you from some part of your life. That is its job. Your job is to notice. First notice the difference. And then, every time, choose.” Despite the evidence presented in his own pages, Harris treats “constant connection” as a lifestyle choice rather than an element in a totalizing scheme of social organization. He imagines that there are yet isles of meaningful personal choice in this universal technological imperative. Of course, it is a function of the technology to generate mirages of free choice, one monopoly at a time.

Employees of many companies are already getting incentives to “choose” to receive subcutaneous implants of silicon chips that monitor labour efficiency—and soon enough, monitor most everything else. . . . And most everybody else. “There’s gonna be a meter in your bed that will disclose / what everybody knows,” Leonard Cohen intoned twenty years ago, and already that meter is being inserted into still more intimate folds.

This review “The End of Presence” originally appeared in Queer Frontiers. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 224 (Spring 2015): 124-26.

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