Thursday, December 18, 2014

Book Review

            The End of Absence by Michael Harris is a recent book that focuses on the idea of not having any “true” free time because society is constantly connected, whether it is on our laptops, iPhones or tablets. This book is split up into two parts, the first named “Gathering,” talks about society as a whole and how we are so wrapped up in technology. The second part of the book is named “Breaking Away” and more focuses on how this constant connection is affecting us and how we can absent oneself from it while still being in the loop. Michael Harris argues that among all of the changes that society is experiencing, the most interesting is the one that future generations will find hardest to grasp; the end of absence.
            The book starts off with a quote that is kind of scary for our generation. “Soon enough, nobody will remember life before the internet.” This quote is kind of frightening, because the next generation will always have the Internet to turn to whenever they are in need of information or in an awkward instance. Yes, I have had access to the Internet for most of my life, but when I was younger there weren’t smart phones or Netflix. It seems like even some elementary school kids have smart phones these days. Michael highlights this in a chapter about kids these days and how technology is already affecting them. He witnessed his nephew playing with a tablet and then took it away from him and handed him a magazine. The toddler tried to touch the magazine and swipe like he was still using a tablet. The author also states that he is also guilty of this and so is most of society. It most likely isn’t to the same extent as swiping at a magazine, but we are way to reliant on auto corrections to the point where I am worried future generations wont know how to spell as well because as long as they can get close their computer will correct it for them. Carlo Rotella wrote an excerpt in the New York Times titled “No Child Left Untableted.” This article focuses on the idea implementing tablets into schools for every child. One problem that seems would arise from giving students tablets would be students not using them for educational purposes, but instead distracting them from learning. “To get the most of educational technology, teachers must combine those traditional classroom skills with new ones” (Rotella, 10). If the teachers can find a way to use the tablets in an educational and effective way I think they can be beneficial because our society is moving in a digital direction, so it is better for the students to get started early.
            Michael makes it clear that there are definitely pros and cons of our society moving to a more digital age. One of these cons is the aspect of cyber bullying. In his book he takes about a girl that got bullied by a stranger on the Internet and it completely turned her world upside down. She ended up ending three different schools in the span of a year and tried to kill herself on multiple occasions. She then posted an online video about her troubled story and explained her suffering hoping maybe people would reach out to her and comfort her in a time of need. What happened was much worse, she was made fun of and ridiculed relentlessly by people behind a keyboard who she had never met before, it got so bad that she attempted suicide again and was successful. This story proves how vicious the Internet can be because people think they can say whatever they want because they are anonymous. People need to be held accountable for what they say and do on the Internet or else we are going to continue to have more problems online as we move forward into a more digital society. Another con that the author brings up is the idea of authenticity and knowing whether something is true or not on the Internet. He brings up the idea of Wikipedia and how it seems to be risky because anyone can edit it, but Wikipedia has in fact come a long ways over the years. They are very good about changing information back right away if false information is put on there and proceeds to ban that users IP address if it is a usual occurrence. I take this as a reassurance that the Internet is making moves in the right direction to put out useful and factual information to its users.
            The second part of this book focuses on if it is even possible to unconnected from the digital universe and the effects the constant screen time has on us. The first chapter talks about how children are spending way too much time in front of screens and it is having negative effects. They are finding that babies who watch television in particular end up more likely having attention deficit disorder when they reach school age. It was mentioned in the book that the recommended time is one to two hours of screen time a day. But it is pretty obvious that almost no one meets that standard because of the need for constant connection online. According to Craig Watkins, “one of the main factors driving young people to online sites is the lack of places in the off-line world for theme to regularly congregate and truly call their own (Watkins, 59).  Michael Harris also touches on the topic of how teens are migrating to online chat and online dating. He devotes a chapter in his book to “hooking up.” He being a gay man talks about an app called Grinder, where gay men can find other gay men in their area. Harris says that this is a good way to meet people that you know have the same sexual desires as you and saves you time from trying to hit on people at a bar. Apps on an iPhone such as this use algorithms to match up people thru common interests and location. “Algorithms play an increasingly important role in selecting what information is considered most relevant to us, a crucial feature of our participation in public life” (Gillespie, 167). These algorithms are not always perfect but they do a good job of setting people up with common interests.
            Whenever we have a break in their schedule or are in an awkward situation, it seems like we always turn to our phones as an escape goat. But what if we didn’t just sit on our phones on the subway and actually interacted with others around us like we used to. Are we starting to lose the ability to interact in person with strangers? Only one way to find out would be to put the electronics down. Michael Harris challenged himself to not interact with the Internet for 30 days. He was successful in it and even though he completed it, he said it would be near impossible to do that in today’s world. We are the last generation who has lived with and without the crowded connectivity of online life. We can still catch ourselves reaching for our phones constantly or googling everyday facts, but what will happen when the only thing people know how to do is turn to the Internet?

Works Cited
Gillespie, Tarleton. "The Relevance of Algorithms." Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society. N.p.: n.p., 2014. 167. Print.

Rotella, Carlo. "No Child Left Untableted." New York Times 12 Sept. 2013: 10. Print.

Watkins, S. Craig. "The Very Well Connected: Friending, Bonding, and Communicating in the Digital Age." The Young and the Digital: What the Migration to Social-network Sites, Games, and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means for Our Future. Boston: Beacon, 2009. 59. Print.

About the Author

Michael Harris worked for several years as an editor at Vancouver magazine and Western Living.  He lives with his partner, Kenny Park, in Toronto, Canada. He has been nominated several times at the Western and National Magazine awards. His writing has appeared in many publication including Wired, Salon, Huffington Post, The Globe & Mail, The national Post and The Walrus. This was Michael’s first book and he is not sure what the future holds as far as his writing goes. Michael talked a lot about his personal life in this book and it was interesting to see his take on where our society is headed. There is not that much information out there about him because this is his first book but the little he has is all positive about his writing style and his perspective.


Washington Post Review: by Lisa Zeidner

This review was overall positive. She liked how Harris involved factual information along with personal stories to get his point across. Along with this she agrees that we are approaching the end of absence but she wasn’t to keen about the part where he went without Internet for a month.

National Post Review: by Shannon Tien

This review was also overall positive. She really liked that Harris provided a dozen or so of his own absence experiences. This is a way for him relate to his audience but then push the question back on his readers asking us “how will you live?” Similar to the first review, she is a little put off by the fact that Harris separates himself from his readers by the fact that he went 31 days without the Internet.

The Wall Street Journal: by Jessica Kasmer-Jacobs

This review seems a lot less positive then the other two but more so neutral then negative. It simply states what Harris talked about in his book and the information he used. The writing style is very clear cut and no praise is given.