What we have lost in the digital age, and how to get it back

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 May, 2015, 6:21am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 May, 2015, 6:11pm

Do you remember life before the internet? Before hashtags, websites and even email? Before information overload and the ever-shortening of attention spans? If you do, you're part of the last generation of humans to recall the predigital world. Do you miss it?

Such philosophical questions in these technology-dominated times are the subject of The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We've Lost in a World of Constant Connection. Its author, Canadian journalist Michael Harris, divides up the world's population into two distinctive communities; those who remember the world before the internet - the last ever to do so - and those that know nothing else.

By pitting "digital immigrants" against "digital natives", Harris is underlining a much-used phrase - "the information age" - but also charting how long it's been since that epoch begun.

"Soon enough nobody will remember life before the internet," he writes.

"Our online technologies will have become a kind of foundational myth - a story people are barely conscious of, something natural and, therefore, unnoticed."

It's a timely reminder that if you were born before about 1985, you now live in a world that didn't exist in your childhood, and you've spent the past 20 years adapting to a new set of rules. Ask a "digital native" born after that date to imagine life without social media, smartphones and instant access to online knowledge hubs such as Wikipedia, and they would struggle with the concept.

"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. "The daydreaming silences in our lives are filled; the burning solitudes are extinguished."

The symptoms of mass addiction to the internet - increasingly via a smartphone - are subtle, but obvious. That conversation with a friend that all too soon culminates in one of you reaching for their phone to check a fact or share an app or a video. How many of us plan to read a book before bed - as we used to - but instead find ourselves checking social media? Who doesn't walk down the street glancing at their phone to check their emails, then again seconds later to change a music track, or look up something on Google.

If you instinctively recognise, and look negatively upon, this behaviour and suspect technology is using you as much as the other way around, you're a classic digital immigrant. The younger generation doesn't have such thoughts.

It's important we question what the internet is for, and quickly, Harris argues, because, "future generations will be so immersed in the internet that questions about its basic purpose or meaning will have faded from notice".

He thinks now we have a "brief historical moment" to recall real life, to rein in the domination of the internet.

"For those of us who have lived both with and without the vast, crowded connectivity the internet provides, these are the few days when we can still notice the difference between before and after," Harris writes.

Those days will end soon. With the death of the digital immigrants, certainly, but probably long before that because the internet and the always-on society we live in is fundamentally changing us. Our attention spans are shorter, we are less focused, and we put less value on conversation, on creativity and, crucially, randomness.

The Google-isation of knowledge is taking the fun out of life, Harris argues.

The main problem, however, is the smartphone's central role in our lives. "There is no 'free time' when you carry a smartphone," writes Harris.

He's right; when were you last alone with your thoughts? There's no app for that.