Michael Harris, 2014 Canada Council laureate – Governor General’s Literary Awards

Michael Harris, 2014 Canada Council laureate – Governor General’s Literary Awards


Two years ago,
I was working as an editor on a magazine, in Vancouver. Like a lot of people, I had
two monitors in front of me, I had a dozen windows open,
and I was just living in this state of constant
digital distraction. There was a text message
that came through. My friend Tyler texted me and
said, “Are you alive, or what?” He was sending that because
it had been five minutes since I had responded
to his last message and he was upset that
it took me that long. But in the moment of being
so harried in my workload, I looked down at the phone
and I read it literally: “Are you alive?” I remember
in that moment looking up at those glowing
rectangles that I spend most of my life staring
at, and thinking this isn’t really the life that I planned
for myself when I was a child. That really was an
impetus moment to try and figure out what was it that
had changed since the 1980s? What was it that went
so drastically off that highway that
I thought I was on? The book is more
‘description’ than it is ‘prescription’, I would say. I think the first step for
all of us has got to be learning a little bit of
the history of technology and figuring out
how we got here. That was really what pushed
me to write the book, was to try and put our lives in a much broader
historical context. I think if there’s
any prescription, it would be that we need
to get media studies and the history of technology
into our high schools and even elementary schools. The most difficult thing
about writing the book was definitely the research. There were just dozens
and dozens of interviews with people from all
different specialties all around the world. In each case, I was going
in as, really, an idiot; I didn’t know anything. They were the best attention
deficit disorder specialists in the world, and so
on every interview, there was this massive
amount of homework that I had to complete,
and then it would be on to the next stage,
or the next chapter and I was an idiot again. It really felt
like a crash course in a lot of different
disciplines. I think what surprised me
was just how consistent that thesis of, that idea
of the end of absence, how broadly it played
out in our lives, every part of our lives. From attention span,
to sex life, to memory, to the way we raise our
children, absence was this thing that we were missing
in this constantly connected world that we’ve got. While I was interviewing all
these different specialists, even though they all
had very different ways of talking about it,
there was a through line that they were all
talking, in the end, about the end of absence. They were all talking about
the ways that becoming a constantly connected
culture really destroyed something fundamental in
what it is to be human, which is that experience of
being without something, the experience of solitude,
or of daydreaming, or of just lacking the thing
that you immediately want.

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