Michael Harris

Author, The End of Absence

THIS CHAT HAPPENED ON October 29, 2015

Discussion

Michael Harris@vancouverharris · Author, The End of Absence
Hello! I’m the author of The End of Absence, a book about what it’s like to be the last generation in history that remembers life before the Internet. Mainly, I’m interested in how things like solitude, daydreaming, and reverie, are threatened by an age of screens and how we can recall their value. Really looking forward to hearing your thoughts.
Russ Frushtick@russfrushtick
@vancouverharris What do you miss most about living in a world without the internet?
Michael Harris@vancouverharris · Author, The End of Absence
@russfrushtick Hi Russ! So I've got this piece of art by Doug Coupland hanging up in my office. It's a slogan, basically, which reads: I Miss My Pre-Internet Brain. That's about the tightest way I know to answer your question. Basically: I miss having easy access to other modes of thinking; modes that involved more day-dreaming and less "searching." It often feels like we've become hunter-gatherers of data, which can be a phenomenal way to process some things but doesn't always get you where you want to be.
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Community and Marketing, Product Hunt
Hi Michael. Do you think we were better off, so to speak, before the internet?
Michael Harris@vancouverharris · Author, The End of Absence
@ems_hodge Hi Emily. I get called Luddite on a pretty regular basis. But no, I don't think we were better off. Online technologies are neither good nor evil, I'd argue. They're just these beautiful-dangerous things that we need to know how to use. For example: what we're doing right now would have been unthinkable thirty years ago. And I'm pretty happy to be here.
Steve Biddick@stevebiddick · CEO Canyu.do
@vancouverharris @ems_hodge I agree here - as a parallel I imagine that you could apply the same logic to the advent of printing? Are we better off since Caxton et al? Sure we are - we get to learn first aid and distribute ideas while avoiding being lynched for subversion - while at the same time the storyteller in the square the old lady selling potions and the angels in the church lost some subtle magic forever.
Hash_tag_jeff@jeffumbro · Book Marketing and PR - get in touch
@vancouverharris What are your favorite apps and programs designed to help achieve this untethering and do you find it ironic that we're using new connections in order to disconnect?
Michael Harris@vancouverharris · Author, The End of Absence
@jeffumbro You mean programs like "Freedom"? Tres ironic, yes. (Alanis-scale ironic.) I usually get weirded out by the idea of patching a tech-induced problem with more technology. In extreme cases it may be necessary but I think most of us have a reserve of will power that we can draw on. I think the important thing, always, is to a grown-up and to make active choices about when we're looking at a screen and when we're not.
Ryan Hoover@rrhoover · Founder, Product Hunt
Hi, Michael! I spoke with @schneidertobias earlier this week on his podcast about how we're increasingly "living" inside of technology. My social interactions and majority of my day is focused on a screen (my Mac or phone) and I believe VR/AR will inevitably change the way we live dramatically. When I ask people about this, they often feel nervous or uneasy about this, calling it "unnatural". Maybe it is but is this technology-influence future a bad thing, really? Taking it even further, is it wrong to live your life inside of a virtual world 24/7? If so, why?
Michael Harris@vancouverharris · Author, The End of Absence
@rrhoover Hey Ryan! Here's a spooky thought: you are part of the first generation in history to have more interactions with avatars than with real people. Add this spooky thought on top: in 20 years most of those avatars will be controlled by bots. (Okay, I made up that second one, but it's possible.) Is there something automatically WRONG about living most of your life online? No. But there IS something wrong in living an impoverished life where you don't CHOOSE what your reality looks like. There is a symphony of sense information that you aren't getting when you interact online, and I'm guessing you know the difference between what you're gaining and what you're losing. The only thing that makes me really worry in all this is that future generations might not be allowed to choose disconnection when they want to.
Lejla Bajgoric@lejlahunts · Intern, Product Hunt
How would you respond to someone who argued that we're in fact more "alone" than ever? That we may have smartphones in our palms at all times, constant stimulation and the like, but that the replacement of direct human interaction for everything post-internet is actually cultivating a new type of "absence"? Thanks so much for your thoughts.
Michael Harris@vancouverharris · Author, The End of Absence
@lejlahunts Hey Lejla! I'd say that they were right. We're getting into semantics here, though. My focus is on solitude, as opposed to loneliness. In a way, loneliness is what you get when you try for solitude and fail. Does that make sense? I think your question is totally on-point, by the way. I was speaking with a super-smart friend of mine the other day, and he asked the same thing: "Your book is called The End of Absence," he said, "but isn't this also the beginning of Absence?" Maybe this is the big paradox of our time: we are lonely in the crowd, we are starved by constantly consuming a fast-food equivalent to social grooming.
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Community and Marketing, Product Hunt
As a follow up - what more do you think we will lose, as the internet, smartphones and technology advance further and further?
Michael Harris@vancouverharris · Author, The End of Absence
@ems_hodge So, when I called my book "The End of Absence" I was really using "absence" as a catchall term, to include daydreaming, solitude, reverie... All those things that constant connection tends to elbow out of the way. But I'm actually feeling optimistic these days: I think our generation will be, naturally, the most naive Internet users in history and future generations are going to think in terms of a "media diet" the same way we think about a food diet. (Ask me again when I haven't had any coffee, though.)
Ben Tossell@bentossell · Partner https://theupstarters.co/
@vancouverharris What were some of the most surprising things you discovered while writing this book?
Michael Harris@vancouverharris · Author, The End of Absence
@bentossell Hey, Ben. To be honest, the parts that surprised me most when writing my book were all the links between our current tech-situation and the technological problems people puzzled through centuries ago. Socrates used to worry about whether the invention of writing would destroy people's memories. (And, guess what? It did!) There's a book on this subject that I'd recommend to anyone interested called "Writing On The Wall: Social Media--The First Two Thousand Years" by Tom Standage. Really gives you a sense of how deep the history of media really is.
Hash_tag_jeff@jeffumbro · Book Marketing and PR - get in touch
Hi @vancouverharris There are a lot of initiatives and books that deal with this same issue - WNYC's Bored and Brilliant project, Arianna Huffington's project I can't recall the name of, Kim Stolz's Unfriending My Ex. What did you hope to achieve that wasn't already out there and do you think you've done it?
Michael Harris@vancouverharris · Author, The End of Absence
@jeffumbro Hi Jeff. You're right: bookshelves are bursting with tomes about how the Internet is making us Stupid, etc. I guess what I was trying to add to the conversation is something a bit more human. I'm not a tech geek myself, so I really was trying to channel the "everyperson." Also tried to make my book distinct by focusing on "absence" as an actual commodity, a resource, that could be depleted by merchants of distraction. (Yikes, that sounded really wonky! But you know what I mean.)
Hash_tag_jeff@jeffumbro · Book Marketing and PR - get in touch
@vancouverharris What are the benefits of living with the Internet?
Jacqueline von Tesmar@jacqvon · Community, Product Hunt ⚡️
I think about us being the last generation to know what it was like to live without the internet all the time! What are some of the things you do to preserve the pre-internet you? Do you try to convince younger folks to try those things too?
Michael Harris@vancouverharris · Author, The End of Absence
@jacqvon Hi Jacq. Glad you like that idea! I think we have an incredible opportunity.... I'm 35 years old and I'm one of the only people in history that will know what life is like both with and without the Internet. It's like living on both sides of the Gutenberg Revolution. (We're so, so lucky.) Anyway, I spend a lot of time talking with digital natives. I ask them to explain things to me, and then I tell them about myself, as a point of comparison. It's a little like taking someone who spent their whole life in New York, and flying them to Paris before you ask them to describe NY. We only understand ourselves by stepping outside the place we come from.
Niv Dror@nivo0o0 · Words @ProductHunt & @AngelList
Hey @vancouverharris! Do you think about the singularity, and the works of Ray Kurzweil?
Michael Harris@vancouverharris · Author, The End of Absence
@nivo0o0 Do I!? (Hey Niv.) I think about the singularity pretty much every time I have a beer with friends. That said, I've heard plenty of arguments for why computers can't become sentient and I'm still on the fence about it. But the point is: whether it's feasible or not, the Singularity is a foundational myth of the 21st century. It has this powerful tidal effect on all our conversations, our anxieties, our hopes.
Niv Dror@nivo0o0 · Words @ProductHunt & @AngelList
@vancouverharris fascinating. I thought a lot about this a few months ago and wrote an article that describes Kurzweil's thinking. The strongest point from it, I think, is that it may seem like it's a long way ahead -- and it may be -- but once we get to the "other side of the chessboard" technology like nanobots, etc. then things will happen very quickly. If you're interested :) https://twitter.com/nivo0o0/stat...
Alex Carter@alexcartaz · Operations @ 60dB. Ex-PH Podcasts 😻
Do you think fewer kids growing up these days will spend time outdoors, ultimately leading to a decrease in classical activities like camping, fishing, summer camp, etc.? If so, how do you think this will ultimately effect American culture (for better, for worse)?
Michael Harris@vancouverharris · Author, The End of Absence
@alexcartaz Hi Alex. Sadly, we don't really need to guess about this one. We know now that kids are spending less time outdoors and that the circumference around a child's home that he or she wanders in has been getting smaller and smaller as years go by. I was actually just researching the positive psychological effects of nature this morning and it makes me so sad to think about the nature deficit that younger people are growing up with. (By the way: in Japan they've coined the notion of "forest bathing" as a restorative activity. I love that term. But then I'm a bath man.)
jaavvii@javiernegrete · 🕵☠
@vancouverharris If you can listen to one song on repeat, what would it be?
Michael Harris@vancouverharris · Author, The End of Absence
@javiernegrete Hi: so I go running a few times a week and the go-to soundtrack lately has been deeply, deeply embarrassing. The soundtrack to Disney's Beauty & the Beast. That stuff is seriously witty.
Erik Torenberg@eriktorenberg · Former Product Hunt
Hey Michael! What's something you used to fervently believe that you now see as misguided?
Michael Harris@vancouverharris · Author, The End of Absence
Hey Erik. That is a very good question. (One more people should ask themselves.) Let's see... When I was a kid I believed that history was moving up, up, up in this linear path toward bigger-better-happier times. I believed, you could say, in technological progress as a natural part of evolution. Today, however, I believe that because technology doesn't follow the same glacial pace as biological evolution (and because it's really humans behind the steering wheel) it's actually far more chaotic than that. In other words: I became a tech critic--somebody who loves the future but believes we have to shape it ourselves.
Jacqueline von Tesmar@jacqvon · Community, Product Hunt ⚡️
Who would your 4 fantasy dinner party guests be (dead or alive) and why?
Michael Harris@vancouverharris · Author, The End of Absence
@jacqvon Ha! Okay: I'd invite the poet Anne Carson (for the brains); Paul Rudd (for the cute); Glenn Gould (for the weird); and my boyfriend (for help cleaning up).
Michael Harris@vancouverharris · Author, The End of Absence
Okay guys, looks like we've run out of time. Thanks everybody for the smart and curious questions! Cheers.
Jacqueline von Tesmar@jacqvon · Community, Product Hunt ⚡️
Thank you for being here @vancouverharris !! It's been a real pleasure 😻