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As I headed to the bathroom feeling on top of my advisory board game, Craig pulled me aside and said, “Listen, you’re doing great, but I want you to be super-successful here.”
“Many board members noticed that you were on your phone a lot,” he said. “If you can hold out on texting friends or checking your Twitter feed until the breaks, that would be great.”
Mission failed. Now I did feel like an idiot.
But I was also quite angry. The thing is, I hadn’t checked my Twitter feed for over two hours. I’d been taking notes.
…What really upset me at the meeting was the assumption that by pulling out my phone, I wasn’t paying attention. I’m a digital native. My friends and I have only known a world where phones are smart. My iPhone is a computer, and it’s natural to take notes on it.
I thought I was being diligent, yet they thought I was being rude. I even thought I was being efficient by quickly looking up something online and not missing a beat, and they thought I was playing video games. Clearly, my generation cannot assume the older generations know how we use technology.
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Michael Harris’s fascinating The End of Absence, which should be required reading for anyone born before 1985 (and anyone else interested in tech). Harris’s topic is us – “digital immigrants”. The last generation that will remember the world before the internet. He writes: “We have in this brief historical moment… a very rare opportunity… These are the few days when we can still notice the difference between Before and After… There’s a single difference that we feel most keenly; and it’s also the difference that future generations will find hardest to grasp. That is the end of absence – the loss of lack. The daydreaming silences in our lives are filled; the burning solitudes are extinguished.”
The book is a paean to the quiet pleasures (and productive frustration) created by absence – of noise, distraction, entertainment, other people…and the consequences of a partly digitised, constantly connected existence. It sets out to answer questions like: are we losing the ability to think deeply? To remember? How is “continuous partial attention” changing our culture and our brain chemistry? Our aptitude for distraction might have an evolutionary imperative (it’s how we notice the approach of predators, apparently), but in the context of the internet, is it damaging us as much as our disposition toward fat and sugar, which was equally useful to prehistoric man? The answers are more interesting and not so luddite as you might be imagining (though the actual Luddites get a few words of praise because of what they stood for – children’s and workers’ rights – rather than the technology they took against).