5 minutes

Generation X is the last generation who will remember what it was like to have a life without the internet, especially the oldest members of this group. Michael Harris has dedicated a book – and a month, August, without the internet – to understand exactly which this fact means, from his privileged position of one who remembers the before, and the after.

As Harris points out, future generations will be so immersed in their online lives that questions dealing with the purpose or meaning inherent to the Internet will be lost. Given Harris’ position, as a member of the last generation that will remember a time before the internet and as a scholar of this vantage point, in particular, he is the ideal person to, first hand, tell us, in detail, how the internet – amongst other things – has created an absence of “loss”, specifically of free time, in which we can be lost in our thoughts or, simply, be bored. His advice to take full advantage of an age that is so intensely connected? Leverage all the technological advantages, but stop to smell the proverbial roses, without posting a photo on Instagram.

Portrait of Michael Harris

Michael Harris

With two books under his belt, Canadian journalist Michael Harris is an expert on sociological affairs whose insightful articles on technology, media, civil liberties and arts are regularly published in renowned newspapers and magazines such as “The Washington Post”, “Wired” and “The Huffington Post”. Michael published his first book  – “The End of Absence” – in 2014 and earlier this year released his second work – “Solitude”

1. What inspired you to write this book? 

I worked at a magazine for years, and most of my life was spent staring at glowing rectangles – my laptop, my phone. There was just a breaking point one day where I realized I had to get to the bottom of this strange drugged feeling that kept coming over me – that feeling of not being in my own body, not being awake to the physical world. I felt an enormous compulsion to really understand our reality in terms of the history of technology – to see our world in that larger context.

2. What are the pros and cons of being the last generation that knows a time before the internet? 

I actually think there are more pluses than minuses. Being part of the last generation to know life before the Internet is a huge gift, isn’t is? We are the only translators of “before” and “after.” We’re the ones who get to know what the difference is. And that, in the history of human events, is going to turn out to be a very rare thing.

3. Could you explain the meanings of “Absence” and “Lack of Loss”?

Absence is a catchall term for solitude, reverie, daydreaming – all those quiet, interstitial moments in our lives that online things tend to crowd out. A moment of absence could be the minute you spend waiting in line at a grocery store, or the silence of drinking your morning coffee and looking out the window. But it could also be more abstract; it could be the fact that you can’t look something up to find an immediate answer; it could be the longing for a friend when they live far away or the time it takes for a handwritten letter to reach your parents.

4. Do smartphones prevent us from enjoying those special moments? Make it harder to avoid interruptions or distractions?

Certainly our awareness of a phone makes it harder to enjoy that break that a vacation can give you. My partner and I recently took our first real vacation in four years; we spent two weeks in Hawaii. And I can tell you: while our phones were of course fantastic for mapping our way around the islands, finding that hidden beach or shrimp truck, once we got there we were ditching our phones. So it’s about balance, of course. It’s about making real decisions about when to use our gadgets and when to run into the ocean without them.

5. What have you learnt from the experience? 

As part of my research I spent thirty days with no cellphone and no Internet. This was crushingly painful and lonely for the first week or so, and then, very slowly, my brain began to get used to it. It was a little like coming off an addictive drug – it only gets easier after some very hard days. I suppose what I learned in the end was two things: I learned how very addicted I’ve become and I also learned how beautiful it can be when I take back control of my life. A digital detox is like taking a vacation in your own childhood – suddenly there are all these extra hours in your day. Such a luxury of time and mental space.