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Are you alive but not longer in the first blush of youth? If so, congratulations – because you occupy a unique place in human history!
Or so says Michael Harris who’s written a book about you called The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection. It’s reviewed for Quartz by Leo Mirani:
“Harris looks at a very specific demographic: people born before 1985, or the very opposite of the ‘millennial’ demographic coveted by advertisers and targeted by new media outlets.
“These people, says Harris, are the last of a dying breed. ‘If you were born before 1985, then you know what life is like both with the internet and without. You are making the pilgrimage from Before to After,’ he writes. It is a nice conceit. Harris, like your correspondent, grew up in a very different world, one with limited channels of communication, fewer forms of entertainment, and less public scrutiny of quotidian actions or fleeting thoughts. It was neither better nor worse than the world we live in today. Like technology, it just was.”
When you think about it, this is an astonishing thought.
A middle-aged person alive today is living in a world where a truly vast quantity of information is connected and available at the touch of a button. It’s an exaggeration to describe it as the sum total of human knowledge, but given the capacity of even the most brilliant individual to absorb it all, it might as well be. And yet the same person has also experienced life in an age when this wondrous facility didn’t exist (other than in an embryonic form that most people didn’t use or even know about).
But, be honest now, having lived through the “pilgrimage from Before to After” how much of a difference has it really made?
Of course, there’s practical things like phones you can carry around with you, email, online shopping and SatNav – and it would be silly to say that none of that matters. There’s also all the unseen applications of the internet without which the 21st century economy wouldn’t work.
But what about the human mind? Has easy access to unlimited information brought about a new renaissance, a cultural flowering the like of which the world has never seen? Er… not really, but thanks for all the cat videos.
Then there’s the idea of digital technology bringing about a new age of people power. The political establishment, we are told, lives in fear not of the Molotov cocktail, but the well-aimed tweet. And just look at the news: UKIP! Syriza! Trump! Corbyn!
But is this evidence of a fundamental change? They didn’t have access to Twitter in 1780s France, 1960s America or 1980s Poland – yet somehow the mass movements of those times still altered the course of history.
And yet, for all the misplaced hype, one can’t deny that the digital age is colonising our minds:
“Like many of us, Harris checks his email on his phone first thing in the morning. ‘When you wake up, you have this gift of a blank brain. You could fill it with anything. But for most of us, we have this kind of panic. Instead of wondering what should I do, we wonder what did I miss. It’s almost like our unconsciousness is a kind of failure and we can’t believe we’ve been offline for eight hours,’ he says. It is habits like this that are insidious, not the internet itself. It is a personal thing.”
It’s not so much the ability of the internet to feed you continuous updates that’s so compelling, but the fact that these updates are about you – texts and emails from friends and work colleagues, matches on dating websites and ‘retweets’ and ‘likes’ of your own words and pictures.
This, in terms of personal human experience, is what has truly changed in the space of my lifetime. I grew up in a world in which when you were alone, with nothing to do, all you had were your own thoughts. Now, we live in a world in which, at every waking moment, this need never be the case – a world in which constant connection and constant distraction have become one and the same thing.