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Soon enough, nobody will remember life before the Internet. What does this unavoidable fact mean? For future generations, it won't mean anything very obvious. They will be so immersed in online life that questions about the Internet's basic purpose or meaning will vanish. But those of us who have lived both with and without the crowded connectivity of online life have a rare opportunity. We can still recognize the difference between Before and After. We catch ourselves idly reaching for our phones at the bus stop. Or we notice how, mid-conversation, a fumbling friend dives into the perfect recall of Google. In this eloquent and thought-provoking book, Michael Harris argues that amid all the changes we're experiencing, the most interesting is the one that future generations will find hardest to grasp. That is the end of absence-the loss of lack. The daydreaming silences in our lives are filled; the burning solitudes are extinguished. There's no true "free time" when you carry a smartphone. Today's rarest commodity is the chance to be alone with your own thoughts.
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Michael Harris is an award-winning journalist and a contributing editor at Western Living and Vancouver magazines. He lives in Toronto, Canada.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
This Can Show You Everything
THE settlement called Batu Lima sat deep in the tropical forests of eastern Malaysia, about three miles from the closest real village. Its one-room houses, largely abandoned or dismantled by the time our story begins, stood on stilts, with floors of bamboo. One family was left—made up of Siandim Gunda, Jimi Sinting, and their twelve children. One daughter, Linda Jimi, was fourteen years old and ready to leave.
There was a box with four little legs in their house, and in the box was a black-and-white television. There was no electricity (Linda was tasked with gathering firewood for the kitchen stove each day), but on special occasions, Linda’s father would take the car battery that powered the TV into the village and have it charged. Then Linda could watch Sesame Street, which was senseless but wonderful, with its American children and Muppets prattling in confounding English, playing out their deeply foreign antics.
Big Bird was yellow, Linda learned. The village children had electricity and color televisions; they would brag about their colors. Linda said, “I know,” and told the other children that her family had colors, too.
Sesame Street was baffling, but Linda’s family believed intrinsically in spirits and ghosts, so the apparitions that flashed on the television screen could be folded into a larger trust in magic, in brushes with the unknowable.
Besides, more magical by far was the komburongoh that Linda’s grandmother Sukat wielded. Linda never touched the sacred object herself, for fear of angering the spirits and growing sick—but she could look across the hut at the thing in her grandmother’s hands, a tight bundle of teeth taken from several animals, knotted together with a collection of small bones. Sukat, who could handle the komburongoh with impunity, had access to the spirit of an ancestor, and she could call upon the spirit for help when attempting to heal members of the Dusun tribe.
Once, before the village was abandoned, Linda watched her grandmother work her magic over a child who’d been stricken with fever. This was only a small ritual, so Sukat hadn’t bothered to dress in the full garb of a bobolian (high priestess)—she’d worn an ordinary sarong and a long-sleeved blouse. Sukat had moved her komburongoh over the sickly child’s head, shaking her bundle of teeth for five full minutes while the infant sweated beneath. Sukat had told the spirit to undo this child’s illness, and the spirit had asked for a sacrifice—a chicken or a few cups of rice.
Sukat’s healing powers were meant to be passed on to her daughter—Linda’s mother—but Sukat died too early, and then, like many Malaysians, Linda’s mother converted to Catholicism. When the family finally left Batu Lima and moved to town, Linda’s mother left behind Sukat’s mystical equipment.
Linda, too, was taking steps away from that miniature settlement, away from the mythical past of Malaysia. She wanted something more, though she couldn’t say what “more” might look like. At eighteen, she ran away from home and moved to the city of Sabah (a relative metropolis with its two thousand people). There she worked at a KFC restaurant (much the same setup as the American version, though minus the American pay). She saved her meager wages for months before purchasing a mobile phone, which became precious to her. She wanted badly to enter the modern world, to live, at last, in the full glow of the world’s future. Eventually, Linda worked her way up to the far “classier” Little Italy restaurant in Kota Kinabalu. The pay was the same, but at least tourists dined there, which meant Linda could practice her English.
Tourists like Nate, a Canadian who’d just graduated from college and was backpacking around the region. “Come hang out in Singapore with me,” he offered.
“Sure,” said Linda, and she went a little farther afield. The couple had their affair and Nate left for home, promising to return in the fall. Linda hoped, rather than believed, that the promise would be fulfilled. And when Nate did return, eventually inviting Linda to come live on the other side of the world, in Vancouver, she might well have undergone severe culture shock. The Canadian city was almost a letdown, though, since Linda had assumed that every city in North America looked like the city she’d seen, in black and white, on Sesame Street.
· · · · ·
A few years and many miles later, Linda returned to Malaysia. Now she was a soon-to-be Canadian, lugging a laptop to her mother’s home. She patched into the Internet through a shaky dial-up connection and managed to introduce her mother to the wonder that is Google.
“This can show you everything,” she told her mother. Videos of celebrities flashed across the laptop’s screen. “Here, I’ll show you where I live in Canada.” A few taps later, the laptop’s screen was displaying a map of the world and Linda proceeded to zoom into Canada, into British Columbia, into Vancouver, into the city’s east side, and finally into the block where she lived with Nate. “There,” she said to her mother, pointing. “That’s where I live. That’s my home.” Her mother didn’t understand at first, and Linda continued to wave at the screen. “This can show you everything.”
“It can show me everything?” her mother asked, now leaning in, full of wonder.
“Everything. What do you want to see?”
The answer came through tears: “Show me my mother in the afterlife.”
We think we have discovered a grotto that is stored with bewildering treasure; we come back to the light of day, and the gems we have brought are false—mere pieces of glass—and yet does the treasure shine on, unceasingly, in the darkness.
This Kills That
Technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral.
SOON enough, nobody will remember life before the Internet. What does this unavoidable fact mean?
For those billions who come next, of course, it won’t mean anything very obvious. Our online technologies, taken as a whole, will have become a kind of foundational myth—a story people are barely conscious of, something natural and, therefore, unnoticed. Just as previous generations were charmed by televisions until their sets were left always on, murmuring as consolingly as the radios before them, future generations will be so immersed in the Internet that questions about its basic purpose or meaning will have faded from notice. Something tremendous will be missing from their lives—a mind-set that their ancestors took entirely for granted—but they will hardly be able to notice its disappearance. Nor can we blame them.
However, we have in this brief historical moment, this moment in between two modes of being, a very rare opportunity. For those of us who have lived both with and without the vast, crowded connectivity the Internet provides, these are the few days when we can still notice the difference between Before and After.
This is the moment. Our awareness of this singular position pops up every now and again. We catch ourselves idly reaching for our phones at the bus stop. Or we notice how, midconversation, a fumbling friend dives into the perfect recall of Google. We can still catch ourselves. We say, Wait. . . .
I think that within the mess of changes we’re experiencing, there’s a single difference that we feel most keenly; and it’s also the difference that future generations will find hardest to grasp. That is the end of absence—the loss of lack. The daydreaming silences in our lives are filled; the burning solitudes are extinguished.
Before all memory of those absences is shuttered, though, there is this brief time when we might record what came before. We might do something with those small, barely noticeable instances when we’re reminded of our love for absence. They flash at us amid the rush of our experience and seem to signal: Wait, wasn’t there something . . . ?
I was shaken by one of these moments, one not-so-special day, at the offices of Vancouver magazine. I was employed there for years as an editor and staff writer. I was, to use the stultifying phrase we were offered, a “content creator.”
· · · · ·
I presume I’m late for work as I trundle over the Granville Street Bridge on the #10 bus toward the magazine offices. Out the window, I can monitor the gunmetal sky while licking at my knuckles where Starbucks dribbles down my hand. I wonder whether I’m (a) ten minutes late, which is acceptable, even advised; or (b) twenty minutes late, at which point one invites passive-aggressive comments.
Alas. It is (b). A jockish intern smiles—“So, you decided to join us”—as I move by his gray cubicle toward my own. I give a quick laugh to avoid seeming rude, but I don’t slow my pace. Stopping leaves one open to requests for “coffee,” which means career advice. These talks only depress me, since the interns tote such fierce and poorly researched ambitions. They stream from journalism schools, expecting internships to lead to jobs at magazines and newspapers, never quite believing the truth of our haggard faces.
Our business is ailing. Each magazine, like a freighter, groans in its effort to turn, to adapt to online life—but too slow, too slow. Some publications shutter; others collapse their international bureaus; all grow anorexic; sales departments, empowered by the desperation of publishers, are able to blur the lines between advertisements and editorial further and further. (When I brought up the old concept of church and state with a senior sales associate at one magazine, she chirped, “Oh, we are church and state. But, you know, ish.”)
We aren’t quite willing to see the writing on the wall. I took an editing job at Vancouver magazine in 2008, immediately before the global recession added dynamite to our industry’s collapse. Corporate overlords in Montreal slashed a third of the jobs in the office. Meanwhile, the advent of digital technologies brought new responsibilities that we remaining few grudgingly took on each year. Ten years ago, no magazine editor imagined spending half the day maintaining Twitter feeds or refereeing comment trails on Facebook. But there we were, managing content instead of creating it. We spent most of our lives pushing electronic nothings around while staring at a glowing rectangle.
After an editorial meeting (where we’re informed that our Twitter avatar lacks “punch”), I retreat to my cubicle and begin opening windows within windows on the two monitors that are always lit atop my desk. I begin to work on a small item about the Cirque du Soleil but am derailed seventy-five words in by a video of Anderson Cooper coming out of the closet that the art director has sent me via iChat. Another iChat window opens while I’m watching the video, this time a question from the editor in chief, which requires that I open my in-box to dig up an old e-mail. My mother, meanwhile, has e-mailed me on a separate account, asking me to bring that salad she likes to dinner tomorrow night. And so on. Within ten minutes I am partway through a dozen digital interactions, but none are complete. The jockish intern drifts by with a question of his own and I give him a clipped response, because at that moment he’s just another window that I want to shut. Back in 1998, the writer Linda Stone coined the phrase that describes the state I’m in: “continuous partial attention.” It’s an impoverished state, but one I seem to welcome into my life every day.
Most of us at the magazine would actually become distraught if forced to complete a task before a new one was presented. I never ignore my computer’s alerts; every ping from my phone is seen to. Dr. Gary Small, a researcher at UCLA, writes that “once people get used to this state, they tend to thrive on the perpetual connectivity. It feeds their egos and sense of self-worth, and it becomes irresistible.” And I do, I suppose, feel a certain importance with all these pings, all these requests for connection hailing down on me. I must be very, very important. I must be needed, necessary, crucial. But something has changed since my initial few years at the magazine, something in my attitude toward the pings. What has changed?
Dr. Small points out that this atmosphere of manic disruption makes my adrenal gland pump up production of cortisol and adrenaline.
In the short run, these stress hormones boost energy levels and augment memory, but over time they actually impair cognition, lead to depression, and alter the neural circuitry in the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex—the brain regions that control mood and thought. Chronic and prolonged techno-brain burnout can even reshape the underlying brain structure.
Techno-brain burnout. That sounds about it. At one point that harried afternoon, I stop and count the number of windows open on my two monitors. Fourteen. As I count them up, my phone pings again and I look down at the text message glowing there:
Dude, are you alive or what?
The text is just a flick from an impatient friend, but in my distracted state I read it as a sincere question. Are you alive or what?
And that was the moment. I picked up the phone and, ignoring the message, switched on its camera function. I photographed my monitors, plastered over with e-mails and instant messages and Word files and .pdfs. Never forget that you don’t want this, I thought. Never forget that you live in an ecosystem designed to disrupt you and it will take you for a ride if you let it.
Just before the magazine forfeited half its office space—a bid to consolidate ranks and bring in some money by subletting—I quit my job.
This left me with a distressing amount of free time—time I filled, initially, by reading about a moment weirdly similar to our own: the year 1450, when a German patrician called Johannes Gutenberg, after decades of tinkering and some very sketchy loans, managed to invent a printing press with movable type.
Like the Internet, Gutenberg’s machine made certain jobs either ridiculous or redundant (so long, scriptoria). But much more was dismantled by Gutenberg’s invention than the employment of a few recalcitrant scribes. As the fidelity and speed of copying was ratcheted way up, there was a boom in what we’d now call data transfer: A great sermon delivered in Paris might be perfectly replicated in Lyon. (Branding improved, too: for the first time subjects knew what their king looked like.) Such uniformity laid the groundwork for massive leaps in knowledge and scientific understanding as a scholastic world that was initially scattered began to cohere into a consistent international conversation, one where academics and authorities could build on one another’s work rather than repeat it.1 As its influence unfurled across Europe, the press would flatten entire monopolies of knowledge, even enabling Martin Luther to shake the foundations of the Catholic Church; next it jump-started the Enlightenment. And the printing press had its vi...
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