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For those of us who are born before 1985, it is likely that we have seen two worlds; one, a world that wasn’t dependent on net and another, where our lives are dominated/controlled by the web and social media. The author says that that given this vantage point, we have a unique perspective of how things have changed. It is impossible to imagine a life without print. However before the 1450’s Guttenberg printing press invention, the knowledge access was primarily through oral tradition. Similarly may be a decade or two from now, our next generation would be hard-pressed to imagine a life without connectivity. There is a BIG difference between the Guttenberg’s revolution and Internet—the pace. Even though the printing press was invented around 1450’s, it was not until 19th century that enough people were literate, for the written word to influence the society. In contrast, we have seen both the offline and online world in less than one life time.

We are in a sense a straddle generation, with one foot in the digital pond and the other on the shore, and are experiencing a strange suffering as we acclimatize. In a single generation, we are the only people in the history experiencing massive level of change. The author is not critical about technology, after all technology is neither good nor bad. It is neutral. Firstly something about the word in  title—Absence. It is used as a catch-all term for any activity that does not involve internet, mobile, tablets, social media etc. Given this context, the author structures the content of the book in to two parts. The first part of the book explores certain aspects of our behavior that have dramatically changed and we can see the consequences of it all around us. The second part of the book is part reflection, part experimentation by the author to remain disconnected in this hyper connected world. In this post, I will summarize a few sections of the book.

Kids these days

Increasingly the kids are living in a world where the daydreaming silences in the lives are filled by social media notifications and burning solitudes are extinguished by constant yapping on the social networks/phones and playing video games. That said, what is role of a parent? The author argues that we have a responsibility of providing enough offline time to children.

How often have you seen a teenager staring outside a window and doing nothing but be silent? In all likelihood parents might think that there is something wrong with their kid—he had a fight over something with a sibling, something in the class upset him/her, someone has taunted their kid etc. If the kid is typing something on his mobile or talking over the phone texting, playing a video game, the standard reaction of a parent is – Kids these days—and leave it at that. Instead of actively creating an atmosphere where downtime becomes a recurring event, parents are shoving technology on to kids to escape the responsibility. How else can one justify this product (iPotty)?

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One digital critic says, “It not only reinforces unhealthy overuse of digital media, it’s aimed at toddlers. We should NOT be giving them the message that you shouldn’t even take your eyes off a screen long enough to pee.”

Many research studies have concluded that teenagers are more at ease with technologies than one another. The author argues that parents should be aware of subtle cues and create engineered absences for them to develop empathy for others via the real world interactions than avatars in the digital world.

Montaigne once wrote, “We must reserve a back shop, all our own, entirely free, in which to establish our real liberty and our principal retreat and solitude.” But where will tomorrow’s children set up such a shop, when the world seems to conspire against the absentee soul?

Confession

The author mentions the Amanda Todd incident—a teenager posts a YouTube video about her online bully and commits suicide. Online bullying is a wide spread phenomena but the social technologies offer a weak solution to the problem—flag this as inappropriate / block the user. Though the crowd sourced moderation may look like a sensible solution, in practice, it is not. The moderation team for most of the social media firms cannot handle the amount of flagging requests. The author mentions about big data tools being developed that take in all the flagging request streams and then decide the appropriate action. The reduction of our personal lives to mere data does run the risk of collapsing things into a Big Brother scenario, with algorithms scouring the Internet for “unfriendly” behavior and dishing out “correction” in one form or another. Do we want algorithms to abstract, monitor and quantify us? Well, if online bullying can be reduced by digital tools, so be it, even though it smells like a digit band-aid to cure problems in digital world. The author is however concerned with “broadcast” culture that has suddenly been thrust upon us.

When we make our confessions online, we abandon the powerful workshop of the lone mind, where we puzzle through the mysteries of our own existence without reference to the demands of an often ruthless public.

Our ideas wilt when exposed to scrutiny too early—and that includes our ideas about ourselves. But we almost never remember that. I know that in my own life, and in the lives of my friends, it often seems natural, now, to reach for a broadcasting tool when anything momentous wells up. Would the experience not be real until you had had shared it, confessed your “status”?

The idea that technology must always be a way of opening up the world to us, of making our lives richer and never poorer, is a catastrophic one. But the most insidious aspect of this trap is the way online technologies encourage confession while simultaneously alienating the confessor.

Authenticity

The author wonders about the “distance” that any new technology creates between a person and his/her “direct experience”. Maps made “information obtained by exploring a place” less useful and more time consuming, as an abstract version of the same was convenient. Mechanical clock regimented the leisurely time and eventually had more control on you than body’s own inclinations. So are MOOCS that take us away from directly experiencing a teacher’s lesson in flesh and blood. These are changes in our society and possibly irrevocable. The fact that “Selfie stick makes to the Time magazine’s list of 25 best inventions of 2014” says that there is some part of us that wants to share the moment, than actually experiencing it. Daniel Kahneman in one of his interviews talks about the riddle of experiencing self vs. remembering self.

Suppose you go on a vacation and, at the end, you get an amnesia drug. Of course, all your photographs are also destroyed. Would you take the same trip again? Or would you choose one that’s less challenging? Some people say they wouldn’t even bother to go on the vacation. In other words, they prefer to forsake the pleasure, which, of course, would remain completely unaffected by its being erased afterwards. So they are clearly not doing it for the experience; they are doing it entirely for the memory of it.

Every person I guess in today’s world is dependent on digital technologies. Does it take us away from having an authentic or more direct experience? Suppose your cell phone and your internet are taken away from you over the weekend, can you lead a relaxed / refreshing weekend? If the very thought of such a temporary 2 day absence gives you discomfort, then one must probably relook at the very idea of what it means to have an authentic experience. Can messaging a group on WhatsApp count as an authentic “being with a friend” experience? All our screen time, our digital indulgence, may well be wreaking havoc on our conception of the authentic. Paradoxically, it’s the impulse to hold more of the world in our arms that leaves us holding more of reality at arm’s length.

The author mentions about Carrington Event

On September 1, 1859, a storm on the surface of our usually benevolent sun released an enormous megaflare, a particle stream that hurtled our way at four million miles per hour. The Carrington Event (named for Richard Carrington, who saw the flare first) cast green and copper curtains of aurora borealis as far south as Cuba. By one report, the aurorae lit up so brightly in the Rocky Mountains that miners were woken from their sleep and, at one a.m., believed it was morning. The effect would be gorgeous, to be sure. But this single whip from the sun had devastating effects on the planet’s fledgling electrical systems. Some telegraph stations burst into flame.

and says such an event, according to experts, is 12% probable in the next decade and 95% probable in the next two centuries. What will happen when such an event happens?

Breaking Away

This chapter narrates author’s initial efforts to seek the absence. In a way, the phrase “seeking the absence” is itself ironical. If we don’t seek anything and be still, aren’t we in absence already? Not really if our mind is in a hyperactive state.

One can think of many things that demand a significant time investment, well may be, an uninterrupted time investment, to be precise. In my life, there are a couple of such activities – reading a book, understanding a concept in math/stat, writing a program, playing an instrument. One of the first difficulties in pursuing these tasks is, “How does one go about managing distractions, be it digital / analog distractions”? About the digital distractions- constantly checking emails/ whatsapp/twitter makes it tough to concentrate on a task that necessitates full immersion.

Why does our brain want to check emails/messages so often? What makes these tools addictive? It turns out the answer was given way back in 1937 by the psychologist, B.F Skinner who describes the behavior as “operant conditioning”. Studies show that constant, reliable rewards do not produce the most dogged behavior; rather, it’s sporadic and random rewards that keep us hooked. Animals, including humans, become obsessed with reward systems that only occasionally and randomly give up the goods. We continue the conditioned behavior for longer when the reward is taken away because surely, surely, the sugar cube is coming up next time. So, that one meaningful email once in a while keeps us hooked on “frequent email checking” activity.Does trading in the financial markets in search of alpha, an outcome of operant conditioning? The more I look at the traders who keep trading despite poor performance, the more certain I feel it is. The occasional reward makes them hooked to trading, despite having a subpar performance.

Try reading a book and catch yourself how many times you start thinking about – what else could I be doing now/ reading now?—Have we lost the ability to remain attentive to a given book or task without constantly multi-tasking. BTW research has proven beyond doubt that there is nothing called multitasking. All we do is mini-tasking. It definitely happens to me quite a number of times. When I am going through something that is really tough to understand in an ebook ( mostly these days, the books I end up reading are in ebook format as hardbound editions of the same are beyond my budget), I click on ALT+TAB –the attention killing combination on a keyboard that takes me from a situation where I have to actively focus on stuff for understanding TO a chrome/Firefox tab where I can passively consume content, where I can indulge in hyperlink hopping , wasting time and really not gaining anything. Over the years, I have figured out a few hacks that alerts me of this compulsive “ALT+TAB” behavior. I cannot say I have slayed ALT+TAB dragon for good at least I have managed to control it.

The author narrates his experience of trying to read the book, “War and Peace” , a thousand page book, amidst his hyper-connected world. He fails to get past in the initial attempts as he finds himself indulging in the automatic desires of the brain.

I’ve realized now that the subject of my distraction is far more likely to be something I need to look at than something I need to do. There have always been activities—dishes, gardening, sex, shopping—that derail whatever purpose we’ve assigned to ourselves on a given day. What’s different now is the addition of so much content that we passively consume.

Seeking help from Peter Brugman(18 minutes), he allots himself 100 pages of “War and Peace” each day with ONLY three email check-ins in a day. He also explores the idea of using a software that might help him in controlling distractions (Dr. Sidney D’Mello , a Notre Dame professors, is creating a software that tracks real-time attention of a person and sounds off an alarm) . In the end, the thing that helps the author complete “War and Peace” is the awareness of lack of absence which makes him find period of absence when he can immerse himself. I like the way he describes this aspect,

As I wore a deeper groove into the cushions of my sofa, so the book I was holding wore a groove into my (equally soft) mind.

There’s a religious certainty required in order to devote yourself to one thing while cutting off the rest of the world—and that I am short on. So much of our work is an act of faith, in the end. We don’t know that the in-box is emergency-free, we don’t know that the work we’re doing is the work we ought to be doing. But we can’t move forward in a sane way without having some faith in the moment we’ve committed to. “You need to decide that things don’t matter as much as you might think they matter,”

Does real thinking require retreat? The author thinks so and cites the example of John Milton who took a decade off to read, read, and read, at a time when his peers were DOING and ACCOMPLISHING stuff. Did he waste his time? Milton, after this retreat, wrote “Paradise Lost”, work, a totemic feat of concentration. Well this example could be a little too extreme for a normal person to take up. But I think we can actively seek mini retreats in a day/week/month/year. By becoming oblivious to thoughts like, “what others are doing?”, “what else should I be doing right now?”, “what could be the new notification on my mobile/desktop related to?” , I guess we will manage to steal mini-retreats in our daily lives.

Memory

The word memory evokes, at least amongst many of us, a single stationary cabinet that we file everything from whose retrieval is at best partial( for the trivia that goes on in our lives). This popular notion has been totally invalidated by many experiments in neuroscience. Brenda Milner’s study of Patient M is considered a landmark event in neuroscience as it established that our memory is not a single stationary cabinet that we file everything. Motor memory and Declarative memory reside in different parts of brain. Many subsequent experiments have established that human memory is a dynamic series of systems, with information constantly moving between. And changing.

Why does the author talk about memory in this book? The main reason is that we are relying more and more on Google, Wikipedia and digital tools for storing and looking up information. We have outsourced “transactive memory” to these services. In this context , the author mentions about timehop , a service that reminds you what you were doing a year ago after aggregating content from your online presence on Facebook, twitter, and blogs. You might think this is a cool thing where timehop keeps track of your life. However there is a subtle aspect that is going behind such services. We are tending to offload our memory to digital devices. Isn’t it good that I don’t have to remember all the trivia of life AND at the same time have it at the click of a button? Why do we need memory at all when whatever ALL we need is at a click of a button ? There is no harm in relying on these tools. The issue however, is that you cannot equate effective recall of information to “human memory”. Memorization is the act of making something “a property of yourself,” and this is in both senses: The memorized content is owned by the memorizer AND also becomes a component of that person’s makeup. If you have memorized something, the next time you try to access the memory, you have a new memory of it. Basically accessing memory changes memory. This is fundamentally different from “externalized memory”. In a world where we are increasingly finding whatever we need online, “having a good memory” or “memorization” skills might seem a useless skill. This chapter argues that it isn’t.

How to absent oneself?

This chapter is about author’s experience of staying away from digital world for one complete month—he fondly calls it “Analog August”. He dutifully records his thoughts each day. At the end of one full month of staying away, he doesn’t have an epiphany or something to that effect. Neither does he have some breakthrough in his work. When he resumes his life after the month long sabbatical, he realizes one thing—Every hour, Every day we choose and allow devices/services/technologies in to our lives. By prioritizing them and being aware of them is winning half the battle. By consciously stepping away from each of these connections on a daily basis is essential to get away from their spell.

imageTakeaway:

How does it feel to be the only people in the history to know life with and without internet ? Inevitably the internet is rewiring our brains. Internet does not merely enrich our experience, it is becoming our experience. By thinking about the various aspects that are changing, we might be able to answer two questions: 1) What will we carry forward as a straddle generation? 2) What worthy things might we thoughtlessly leave behind as technology dissolves in to the very atmosphere of our lives? . Michael Harris has tried answering these questions and in the process has written a very interesting book. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this book amidst complete silence. I guess every straddle generation reader will relate to many aspects mentioned in book.

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