“We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us.” John Culkin
Those of us over the age of 30 can remember life before the internet. In the End of Absence Michael Harris examines the impact it has had on our lives. We are so surrounded by our devices that we don’t notice how much our behaviour has changed:
“…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, mid conversation, a fumbling friend dives into the perfect recall of Google.
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.”
Harris isn’t the first person to bring the unintended consequences of technology on behaviour to our attention. Be it how humans absorb information (e.g. Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows) or how we interact with other people (e.g. Shelley Turkle’s Alone Together) there’s a wealth of authors examining technology from a critical perspective.
What struck me as different was the first-person perspective and urgent tone. It makes it a compelling read. Harris is a freelance journalist who relies – as many of us do – on tech for work and play. He is not criticising from the sidelines, but critiquing his own behaviour and examining his own mixed feelings towards his laptop and smartphone. In this way I think he is midway on the techno utopian <> neo-luddite continuum. A technorealist perhaps. He writes:
“As we embrace a technology’s gifts, we usually fail to consider what they ask from us in return—the subtle, hardly noticeable payments we make in exchange for their marvellous service.”
Harris’ conclusion is not to stop using technology, merely to be aware and to seek balance. I’m sure he won’t be last person making this argument in years to come.
There is a wealth of information in the book, but four themes stood out:
1) Technology designed to liberate can enslave. The human need to communicate, acquire knowledge and form relationships are increasingly being met online. Love, life and laughter are all too often mediated through a screen. The dopamine hit we get when receiving a text message trains us to constantly check and re-check just in case. Once habituated, the device – which represents a multitude of potential connections – can be more appealing than the person in front of us. The cliché of Pavlov’s dogs rings true.
“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…in the short run the stress hormones [cortisol and adrenaline] 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.’”
2) “Restless idleness” means our ability to concentrate is compromised. Once habituated to constant connection, many find it hard to switch off. Is “restless idleness” becoming a default state as we flit from one thing to the next? Is concentrated thought required to make a breakthrough in science, art – or your client presentation – undermined? He writes:
“Real thinking requires retreat. True contemplation is always a two part act: We go out into the world for a time, see what they’ve got, and then we find some isolated chamber where all that experience can be digested. You can never think about the crowd from its centre. You have to judge from the place of absence.”
3) Focussed, calm thinking is important because it is how we learn. It fosters the laying down of long term memory. Evidence from neuroscience shows our brains are changed by our environments (neuroplasticity). If every fact is a google away, it is easy to become a conduit rather than a receptacle for information. This leads to an “intellectual paradox — we know everything and we know nothing” a feeling of being smart and stupid at the same time (or “smupid” as Douglas Coupland calls it).
Education researcher Daisy Christodoulou extends this point in a recent Guardian article:
“Long-term memory is vast, but working memory is limited to about four to seven items and is easily overloaded. By committing facts to long-term memory, we free up precious space in our working memory to manipulate those facts and combine them with new ones.
That’s why it’s so important for pupils to learn their times tables: memorising them doesn’t stifle conceptual understanding but rather enables it. We also need a framework of facts in long-term memory to make sense of what we find on the internet; studies show that pupils frequently make errors when asked to look up unfamiliar knowledge.
Long-term memory is not a bolted-on part of the mind that we can outsource to the cloud. It is integral to all our thinking processes; researchers even suggest it may be “the seat of human intellectual skill.”
4) The rapidity of technological change means the evidence isn’t in yet. We don’t know what the effects on brains and social norms will be for young people growing up with technology. Academics don’t agree: I’m sure UVA Professor Daniel Willingham and Oxford Professor Dame Susan Greenfield would have an inspired debate on the matter.