Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The End of Absence

The Absence of the End of Absence

In Michael Harris’ well written and researched book, The End of Absence (Penguin, 2014) he explores the startlingly obvious truth that adults today over the age of 30 (roughly) are the last living witnesses to life both before and after the Internet and our current state of connectivity. We are the “straddle generation.”

 Anyone born now or in the last ten years can only know the wired world.  I’m 71, and I‘ve lived more than half of my life without any kind of computer or hand held device.  And, like the rest of us today I’m mired in all that owning a smart phone means. I am one of those 10 million scratching and clawing to be the first to purchase the newest IPhone. It’s a clichĂ© to say that the world has changed in every way. 

Harris lays down a charge to those of us who know both worlds.  “Write about your experiences,” he prompts. We are the last who can so testify.  It’s not about comparing the “old ways with the new ways,” but it is about reflecting on the differences in ordinary lives.  “If we’re the last people in history to know life before the Internet, we are also the only ones who will ever speak, as it were, both languages.  We are the only fluent translators of Before and After.

A central hope in reading his book was to get to the last chapters in which I’d imagined he would give us some tips about how to manage this brave new world which has so little spaciousness or solitude in it.  He conducts an experiment to document his quest: he goes on a 30 day digital blackout, sharing daily notes of his experience during this “no email, no Internet time.”  Curiously (or perhaps predictably) there is hardly a line in this section during the unhooked days when he mentions anything other than his longing or anxiety with the desire to check his email or something.  His diary seems to be all about thoughts of this withdrawal. Oddly there is a total ABSENCE of ABSENCE experienced (or at least recorded in these diary entries.) 

What this points out is we don’t reclaim that spaciousness simply by turning off the gizmos when we allow our tech addiction anxiety to fill up the spaces now available.  What Harris misses illustrating in his month off the grid is what it might feel like to take advantage of the new found time.  What might it be like to dive into our ordinary daily experience (not just those mountain vista moments) and really live the moment.  I think that is what we have lost (if we ever had it) the capacity to engage and appreciate our lives.  Emily in Our Town got it right: “Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it--every, every minute?”
Harris’ final lines:  “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.” (p. 206)  This, while an obvious injunction, is finally his only real advice. 
So, if we can’t bring back solitude or spaciousness as a fact of life, our single modicum of control is our attention.  We can notice how long we’ve been staring at a screen.   “ Then, every time, choose.” 
Then, . . . .every time . . . . choose. 
Then . . .every time. . . choose.
(I’m running out of ways to be emphatic!)
 This advice takes us back to Thoreau and his intention of deliberateness.   “I went into the woods because I wanted to live deliberately.” 

I think there are two issues here.  One is deliberateness.  The other is mindfulness.
Once we have chosen to be in our skins and live the moment we are in currently we still need to discover how to relish the moment., how to live and appreciate the ordinary world we inhabit. 

I am reminded of a story from forty years ago.  I think it speaks to the second point.

The Penn State Walk
My second University teaching job was at Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania. As an Assistant Professor in Theatre Arts I had a lot on my mind.  I remember one particularly stressful day in the fall of my second year of teaching in 1976.  It was just after a fast lunch in the school cafeteria and I was walking at a rapid clip across the campus, rushing to the Theatre Arts Building for my three o’clock class.  I was in high gear.  My mind was racing with a growing sense of panic.  The inner monologue was something like this: “And when I get to the office I’d better photocopy the class exercise sheets, and then after the Voice class I have to go to rehearsal until 9:00 PM, and then I have to pick up the dry cleaning before it closes, and then I have to drop off the books at the library, and then I have to be sure to remember to call Ellen about tomorrow’s lecture, and then I have to get gas, and then.  .  .”  My mind had become a “demon date book,” barking at me.  As my frustration mounted, I tripped slightly on the path, and suddenly I heard a voice somewhere inside my head, speaking quite calmly and clearly: “Patricia, PATRICIA, did you know that all you have to do right now is walk to the Theatre Arts building?    So, why not just do that?” 
Wow.  YES!  That’s true, I thought.  All I can do right now is walk to the building.  I can’t actually do the photocopying or any of the other tasks I was listing in my litany of “things I had to do.”  All I can do RIGHT NOW is walk.  Why not do that really well?  Just walk to class.
 It was as if I had woken up suddenly.  I slowed down and began looking around at the colorful fall maples lining the path.  What lovely trees! As I walked, I noticed the beauty of the campus; I felt the crisp fall air brush my cheeks, I noticed the other people on the path, all hurrying, too.  All at once I was simply living that walk.  I can still remember everything about the scene and this was forty years ago.   All I was doing at that moment was walking to my office and living the day.
The End of Absence message is a wake up call, not so much to simply putdown our digital toys, but to find a way to learn to cherish the life we have.  Remember Emily’s exclamation.  Can we learn how to live every minute?
Thank you, Michael Harris.  You wrote an important book. 

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