Wednesday, 27 May 2015

A Seemingly Small Change

I have been reading The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We've Lost in a World of Constant Connection by Michael Harris. As a Canadian writer, Harris' thoughts and research feel very local and relevant. The book is focused on the following point: "Soon enough, nobody will remember life before the Internet. What does this unavoidable fact mean?"

As the title suggests, Harris argues that the main thing that the Internet has taken from us is the notion and experience of solitude. This is something I wholeheartedly agree with, but at the same time I fear solitude and sense danger at being left alone with my thoughts for too long a stretch of time.

Harris says, "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 marvelous service. We don't notice, for example, that the gaps in our scheduled have disappeared because we're too busy delighting in the amusements that fill them. We forget the games that childhood boredom forged because boredom itself has been outlawed. Why would we bother to register the end of solitude, or ignorance, or lack? Why would we care that an absence has disappeared?" But for me these thoughts are incorrectly worded, because I DID notice, and I DO care. I don't know if I want to change it but I have been making a point to register this change for a long time. I feel the change deep in my being and I worry about what it means for the future and for my future children.

I also feel and acknowledge the unprecedented speed at which change is occurring. It has always been easy to equate the rise of digital text/information to the switch from scribes to a printing press, or from oral history to a written one. This type of technology shift is not new, but the pace is shocking. I will allow Harris to provide a succinct explanation, "The rate of penetration - the amount of time it takes for a new technology to be adopted by fifty million people. Radio took thirty-eight years to reach that mark; the telephone took twenty years; and television took thirteen. More recently the World Wide Web took four years, Facebook took 3.6, Twitter took three, and the iPad took 2. Google Plus, which nobody even finds useful, took only eighty-eight days." The book is filled with these types of lists, facts you know and are not even surprised by but they can still somehow be shocking to read.

I remember an English teacher in high school saying that computers were not revolutionary - that they didn't actually do anything new, just found a new way to store thoughts and information. I remember thinking at the time how incorrect he was, that this new type of storage solution and ease of information transfer was going to touch every part of our lives in ways that we could not yet understand in 1999. Almost 15 years later, in my Master's program, we often argued about whether the Digital Revolution was an era in its own right, or merely an extension of the Industrial Revolution. I still don't know the answer.

For me, the most powerful passage in the entire book is a brief musing about modern teenagers in the current era of smart phones, iPods, the Internet, and basically access to more digital technology and information than any generation to come before. Even though the words state that the author feels great regret at the prospect, in the grand scheme of the book it is just a couple of tiny sentences that seem thrown in merely for their cute factor - but reading them struck me to my core:

"There is a single, seemingly small change that I'll be most sorry about. It will sound meaningless, but: One doesn't see teenagers staring into space anymore."


Anonymous said...

Haha no, you see them staring into their laps!

What English teCher said that?


Christine Sweeton said...

Mr. Stutley, in Grade 9 English. He didn't say it to the whole class, it was part of a discussion with him about the challenges (spelling) I was having doing so much writing without a computer (we had a journal book that we had to hand-write certain assignments in - I ended up using a lot of white out.) The conversation moved on to being about computers and the internet in general. I don't remember which semester I had (Enriched) English that year, but it would have been the 1998-1999 school year.

Anonymous said...

Oh man, was he wrong. What an eccentric guy. If he had you writing in a journal he shouldn't have marked the spelling. I had ms. Merritt in grade 9. Stutley in gr 10.