Disclaimer: I now realise I’ve written not a book review but a general rant. I enjoyed thinking about it and writing it, though, so I’ll leave it as it is.
I quite often think about how much the internet has changed the world in a relatively short space of time. When I went up to University in 1994, it wasn’t really there; a few people I knew had email addresses during their degree, but mostly we wrote letters (and I have boxes and boxes of them, exchanging often one long letter a week with my closest friends). Research was all done in the library, or quite often by browsing secondhand bookshops on the Charing Cross Road. Phone calls home meant queuing for the one phone box in the halls of residence. One of the big differences between my undergraduate experience and that of my students was that if I wanted to ask my tutor a question, I would leave a polite letter in their pigeonhole and await a summons to their office; this is a world away from firing off a 2am email that begins “hey Serina” [sic]. Sometimes I like to entertain students with stories of how we wrote off for university prospectuses which were delivered, glossy beautiful documents, with a thump through the letterbox. And sometimes I wonder how different my experience might have been if as a 15-year-old I had had access to the internet and discovered that, for example, there were actually other people out there who collected vintage dresses (which wasn’t really a thing in 1991).
Michael Harris’s premise in The End of Absence: Rethinking What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection is that ours (born pre-1980) is the only generation that will ever know what it’s really like both with and without the internet; we are now in a period of adjustment to new technology, as Marshall McLuhan put it, which may last another 50 or more years. My examples above are minor, really; rather, think how childhood has changed, how learning has changed, how easily mass-thinking is disseminated, how access to information has been broadened – though these are the same questions raised by Gutenberg’s printing, when suddenly information and ideas (often bad ones, as well as good) could be distributed more widely. Harris encourages his readers to think about whether the internet is really a benign technology, and there’s no answer to this: on the one hand, I love the idea that everyone now has access to the complete works of Shakespeare (for example); it’s great that I can keep in touch with friends far away through Facebook, that I can share research on twitter and here on my blog; living in a fairly rural location, I love online shopping which means I don’t have to tramp round shops (which I always hated anyway). I can pursue my love of vintage through eBay and vintage clothing blogs. And frankly I’m glad I don’t have to go into the office every day to deal with a mass of handwritten pleading notes in my pigeonhole. But on the other hand…on the other hand, I get a lot more emails than I ever would have got notes, because of the ease of the medium. I waste a lot of time browsing blogs and eBay. And, most of all – and this is Harris’s concern – I never really switch off. I might not check my emails/social media feeds as many times a day as some, but I do do it; I have an inability to not reply to/deal with work emails (and an equal tardiness about replying to personal emails – sorry, friends). Surely my life would be better if I spent more time reading? I have days when all I really do is reply to emails: setting up conferences, organising speakers for events, helping students think about their assignments, these all happen online. Even though I worked in offices before the advent of email, I now find it difficult to imagine how businesses actually ran before. But I also wonder: when did the business of being an academic become primarily conducted in front of a computer screen, rather than in a library with a pile of books?
Harris refers to Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows, which outlines the way in which the distracting buzziness and connectedness of the internet has changed the way people think and perceive the world (not for the better). I can see the truth of this: Harris points out that we are given easily digestible ‘bitesize’ news, often with a political spin which is tailored for us based on what we have previously read, listened to or viewed (although all I can say is: Spotify, you have no idea what I like). Consequently, our world-view is actually narrower than we think due to this filter bubble: the tailoring removes the things we might not ‘like’, and ‘Personalization – the glorification of your own taste, your own opinion – can be deadly to real learning’ (p.91). And though we are superficially encouraged to celebrate our ‘individuality’ through social media sites such as Instagram and Facebook, we are also, perhaps, by using the same apps and the same groupthink, becoming more and more a homogeneous mass. Slow, deep reading of the kind which my discipline of English Literature requires is antithetical to the internet, despite the numerous websites and forums devoted to reading. I find this kind of contradiction difficult to deal with: conceptually, it’s a good thing, but in practice – well, aren’t we overwhelmed with information? A problem I often encounter is that students struggle to differentiate between different sorts of information and sources on the internet; Wikipedia might be useful to give you facts (though, as I discovered to my cost during my PhD viva, it can be wrong) but it certainly doesn’t provide valuable literary criticism. Chatrooms are full of people with opinions, but most of them shouldn’t be cited in an essay on Tennyson.
There is something nostalgic and backward-looking about Harris’s approach, but I’m absolutely with him. Like me, he is a ‘digital immigrant’ who has embraced the internet and all its foibles, and sees its enormous benefits, but also is aware of its dangers. He is particularly emphatic on the subject of memory, and again this is something that concerns me professionally. As a child, I memorised poetry. I still memorise things; I have a good memory (hence my A for Latin GCSE: 35 pages of set translation memorised). For me, this has been crucial: I entertain myself on bus journeys, or overcome insomnia, by reciting my favourite passages from Shakespeare (silently!), but I also find it incredibly useful when teaching that I can remember ideas, details, passages of poetry. Using memory, we make connections; not the synthesised and often obvious connections that a search engine makes for us, but surprise ones, unexpected resonances, for example, which are crucial to research. Harris points out that the Web is becoming an external or ‘downloaded’ memory function, though: we don’t need to remember things as long as we have search engines. Why memorise a poem when you can find it on your phone? No wonder students find exams increasingly difficult; they don’t need to remember. With the increase of blogging, Facebook etc, we don’t even need to remember our own personal memories; we are constantly reminded of statistically significant moments in our lives (ie those posts which got the most likes). Yet ‘Memorizing something literally informs your mind … You are programming yourself’ (p.158). You are what you internalise.
One of the particular concerns of the book is that we have lost ‘absence’. There is no room, now, for boredom (which can be very valuable): from the endless range of TV channels, to the internet on our phones, we can be always switched on, always entertained. The space once taken up by watching the world go by, by staring at landscapes from train windows, idly thinking, praying, wondering, speculating – there is less room for that now. Harris is determined to make room for it: he forces himself to read War and Peace, and finds that his concentration is indeed – at first – much depleted, but he can, and does, restore it, learning the value of deep reading. This is significant: though modern thinking urges teachers and lecturers to engage with the changing brains and approaches of digital native students, I’m now encouraged to resist this: to try to encourage my students to spend more time away from their web-enabled devices in order to return to a slower but ultimately much more effective way of learning and understanding; the ‘learning’ we do online is often shallow, easily forgotten, and ultimately meaningless (not always, mind, but that is the danger). A life lived online is not ‘authentic’, according to Harris, hence the desire for ‘authenticity’ in other things (a return to crafts such as knitting, brewing beer, etc) because this kind of old-fashioned handiwork presents a stark difference. ‘Real’ life may go on outside the internet, but increasingly it is filtered through the medium of photographs of food on Instagram, experiences related on forums, Facebook status updates. We can create ‘brands’ for ourselves online, expressing our own views democratically, although Harris does point out the plethora of views which the internet offers, and suggests this isn’t a good thing either, in the Communist sense that too much choice and too much information doesn’t make us happy – there is ‘an uncredentialed, ambivalent plenitude of opinion’ – of which this blog is, of course, a part.
I’m not planning to give up my internet connection just yet; I enjoy blogging; I like my online yoga classes; I have Radio 4 podcasts with me at all times, and I couldn’t do my job without email and online research portals. The internet itself isn’t a bad thing, and times are changing along with it; it is literally reshaping our world, and there are a lot of books out there about it: You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier, Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle, The App Generation by Howard Gardner, to name a few, several of which are cited by Harris. There is much to embrace, despite this widespread anxiety, and I’m certainly not being Luddite about it; I just wonder, like Michael Harris, if we might just take a step back sometimes and think about how else we might do things. He cites Bertrand Russell’s comment that ‘the ability to fill leisure time intelligently is the last product of civilization’ (p.195). So I might just go on a bit of a diet: interesting as an evening pursuing a 1940s dress on eBay might be, or absorbing as it is (to me) to browse websites trying to understand problems in modern agricultural methods (I know…), actually, I’d be happier if I read a book, or talked to my husband, or played a game with my son. Perhaps, ultimately, it is about giving 100% attention to whatever we do: not checking phones every time they ping (I’ve turned off the sound), not browsing while we watch a film or texting while we talk. Absence, then, in Harris’s book, is also about presence. We might have gained the world, through internet access, but what have we lost? The time we spend (waste?) on the internet is time we spend not doing other things; ultimately, it’s about how we value our time.