It was like a big book club meeting – with the author in attendance.
Students, staff and faculty from Huron University College, as well as members of the broader Western community, had an opportunity last week to present reflections and questions to writer and journalist Michael Harris, after collectively reading his recent award-winning book, The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection.
The book was the inaugural selection for Huron 1 Read, a common reading program meant to foster a connection among incoming students across all disciplines. The Huron Library launched the program last fall, providing a copy of the book to all incoming first-year students at their summer transition session. All faculty and staff of the Western affiliate were likewise required to read The End of Absence, along with various student leaders.
This first session of Huron 1 Read culminated with last week’s campus visit and discussion with Harris.
In The End of Absence, Harris takes a close and personal look at the digital era and the mark it has left on our social and private lives, on our psyche, on relationships with others as well as the world in which we live. Even though our mobile devices, our apps and technologies mean we are constantly connected to others and the world, Harris argues we live in a state of constant distraction, unable to sit alone with our thoughts. He laments this most, this loss of absence – that silence, solitude and wonder that existed before the digital age.
In response to student questions and friendly disagreements on points ranging from the value of social media, to the value of solitude, Harris discussed the general use of social media as continued “acts of social grooming.” The way we portray our lives and identities on Facebook and Instagram today is an antiquated practice exacerbated by technology, he said, one in which we use platforms to present false or filtered versions of our lives and identities.
“If you have a latte, but you don’t Instagram the latte, did you really have a latte?” Harris asked, noting if we do not chronicle the events of our lives using technology, the social media perception is such that the events never happened. Had they happened, they would be on the ‘timeline.’
“If social media was going to make us happier, it would have by now. Just because you are connected, it doesn’t mean you have a wholesome connection,” he continued.
In place of that wholesome connection, social media has left users in a state of crowded loneliness, Harris said. We are overwhelmed with technology, we have an abundance and we are abusing that abundance, he explained.
“In the same way we had to re-jig our food diet, we might need to re-jig our media diet. We partake in media gluttony,” Harris said. “We think of these things (social media and technology) as being 5 years old, but in another sense, they’re 500 years old. We think Twitter is new, but really, Twitter is the latest extension of something that’s been going on ever since we could scrawl our names onto a wall.”
It’s just that today, apps, technologies and social media platforms are at our ready. We depend on them, we use them too much, and we use them without giving that use much thought or reflection.
At this, one student asked Harris, “If all this is just an ‘extension,’ how can it be detrimental? If communication is innate, how can it be bad?”
Harris answered, “We lived through the Industrial Revolution, too, but that doesn’t mean climate change isn’t real. Technology is dangerous and beautiful, but we need to know how to use something; we don’t need to abstain from it, necessarily.”
He asked students to consider going on short media diets, trying a weekend without going on Facebook, if a week or a month away from their devices would prove too difficult. He encouraged thoughtful and active reflection of our use of technology, and what it strips from our daily lives. And finally, he encouraged the audience to seek that absence, that stillness where one can be alone in one’s thoughts.