Michael Harris hit his breaking point during an all-too-typical day at the office.
Hunkered down in front of his dual-monitor computer setup, populated with dozens of web browser tabs fighting for his attention, he peered down at the third glowing screen in his periphery, a cellphone urgently demanding a response.
“Are you alive or what?” read a friend’s text message.
He’d apparently violated an unspoken rule by not immediately responding to his pal’s text. Ignoring it wasn’t an option, as the insistent pings would just keep coming.
Fed up with the relentless barrage of distractions that punctuate a life lived almost entirely online, Harris vowed to go a month without his phone and any Internet access. He documents the experiment in his new book, The End of Absence – Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, which explores the consequences of being too plugged into technology at the expense of deep thought and self reflection.
It was sobering to quickly realize just how addicted he was to his digital soothers and the instant gratification of reading social media streams, using Google to look up facts in a blink, and idly conversing by text messaging.
“I experienced what I called withdrawal symptoms,” says Harris, who admits that his month of going without the web – which largely consisted of quiet walks in the woods and reading Leo Tolstoy’s tome War and Peace – didn’t cure him of his addictions.
“I would dream about texting people and had constant compulsions to go check my e-mail and a kind of anxiety around it.
“The closest to epiphany that I got was realizing how deep that addiction and compulsion really is. (Now) every moment that I go online has to be a choice, and if it’s not a choice, I have to be aware of how passive I’m being.”
As the title of the book implies, Harris does urge people to consider spending a little less time online to get reacquainted with their inner voice.
“If you’re looking at Facebook every 30 seconds you aren’t managing the same kind of thinking and the same kind of critique that you can manage with longer pieces of attention. In those moments of absence we find a way to develop a richer interior life,” he says.
“If you don’t have moments of solitude or reverie or daydreaming you’re not going to develop a rich interior life, you’re not going to break away from groupthink in a meaningful way.
“It’s about finding a healthy media diet.”
As difficult as his digital detox was, he imagines it’d be even tougher for members of today’s younger generation who have never lived without the Internet.
“We’ve got this rare, rare opportunity to witness a huge technological shift,” Harris says.
“I think it’s important, because we get to – if we take the chance – put down for future generations in books or however what it was that came before, what absence and solitude (were like), what the value of that was.”