Anyone born before 1985 is lucky. They have experienced life before and after the Internet. They remember what happened when their ride didn’t show up, and when they had to kill three hours in an airport. Instead of idly reaching for a device, they waited. They read a good thriller, or watched airplanes take off, or did a crossword puzzle. Sometimes, they did nothing.
Today, apps track our exercise and sleep. I recently stayed in a hotel with iPads installed in the showers. Most airplanes have Wi-Fi. Bars, and even golf tournaments, have “charging stations.” There are few places where we have the opportunity to do nothing. Anyone born after 1985 may never know this sense of absence.
And it is an opportunity. In the last decade, researchers have confirmed that moments of insight arrive not when the mind is in a clenched state, but when the mind is at ease, when we’re aimlessly walking down the street, lost in thought. From Archimedes to Poincare, many intellectual breakthroughs occurred in the midst of a perfectly inane daydream. With constant connection, might we be depriving ourselves of these precious moments? How will we have those insights in the shower, on a run, or as we’re falling asleep if we’re plugged in?
The feeling of not knowing is the last step in the creative process. To erase that sense of uncertainty–to jump straight from not knowing to knowing–is to deprive intellectual life of its lifeblood: randomness, accidental discovery, serendipity.
No, I’m not a cantankerous Luddite. I’m just reflecting on Michael Harris’s The End of Absence, an excellent book I read in almost one sitting yesterday. “There’s a single difference that we feel most keenly; and it’s also the difference that future generations will find hardest to grasp,” Harris writes. “That is the end of absence–the loss of lack. The daydreaming silences in our lives are filled.” Harris, a gen Xer, isn’t taking sides–“I’m guilty in all this, as complicit, as the next guy”–but investigating how technology has influenced his life, and how technology is influencing digital natives. Far from an anti-technology rant, The End of Absence is a salute to solitude.
It’s also a warning. In On Bullshit, moral philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt writes that bullshit is often a circumstantial problem; it is ubiquitous not because there are more bullshitters but because the opportunity to bullshit is at an all-time high. We have unlimited opportunities to broadcast ourselves–our thoughts, our photos, our criticisms, our videos–and we do. Commentators bemoan the fact that the web is filled with trivial content. The larger concern, I think, is not that there are too many cat videos; it’s that we’re becoming bad listeners and learners. Harris imagines reading a copy of the New Yorker in a New York City café circa 1930. “What a lovely thing, to shut up and listen and not broadcast anything back. There’s a certain serenity in it and even a kind of light grace.”
I learned two things reading The End of Absence: embrace solitude and resist the temptation to broadcast. The problem, as always, isn’t the technology per se. It’s that instead of cherishing aloneness, we smuggle it out. “That’s what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there,” Louis CK joked on Conan last May. “That’s being a person.”