A couple of years ago I read a superb book by Michael Harris called ‘The End of Absence’. The ‘absence’ he refers to in the title is the ability we used to have, in those old pre-Internet days, of being truly alone. Near the beginning of the book he tells this poignant story:
I remember that final blithe summer of 1999 when I – like so many others – embarked on the last trip I’d ever take without a cell phone. Hiking for months through England’s Lake District and island hopping across the Scottish Hebrides, I was oblivious to the fact that I would never experience such splendid isolation again. Never again would I be so completely cut off from work, from family, from friends. And yet, nineteen years old and living happily off apples and beer, I didn’t think it was the end of anything. So, I told myself, this is my life at last, the beginning of my real life.
Like Harris, I remember my last trip without a cell phone. I was living in Valleyview in northern Alberta at the time, and I drove seven hours to Fort McMurray to lead a weekend workshop. It was winter, and it snowed over the weekend, so the return drive was a rather interesting experience. I had been resisting buying a cell phone, but that trip convinced me; I didn’t want to be on a road like that again without the means to be in touch with potential help (of course, I didn’t know about the spotty cell coverage in northern Alberta at the time!).
Now, thirty years later, that seems like a different world. Like nearly all my contemporaries, I am reachable by cell phone almost all the time. My Facebook and Twitter feeds direct me to vital news stories twenty-four hours a day. Emails and texts come in, Wikipedia can be consulted, questions can be answered. The whole world is in my pocket.
But the problem is, it won’t go away.
In ‘The End of Absence’, Harris muses on the fact that our generation is the only one that will remember what it was like both before and after this great change. My grandchildren will never know an internet-less world. They will never be able to imagine not being able to talk instantly to people on the other side of the world, or find instant answers to their questions. They will never have to deal with boredom, when centuries-worth of entertainment and reading is waiting for them in their pockets. The thought of being without that will be terrifying to them.
And in a way, it’s terrifying to me, too. I certainly enjoy many aspects of it. I enjoy being able to discuss things with like-minded people and not be restrained by the bounds of geography. I’ve enjoyed catching up with old friends and seeing their family pictures. I like being able to see what people are up to, the gigs my friends are playing, the activities various churches are planning.
But I also have a certain nostalgia for the old days.
From 1988 to 1991 I lived in what is now Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories. I was the third most northerly Anglican minister in the world. I lived in a community of four hundred people on an island in the Arctic Ocean. There were no roads in; you had to travel by air (or, if you were brave, by snowmobile, two hundred miles by sea ice to Kugluktuk). I rarely saw my clergy colleagues. The Bishop came to visit once a year, and I might get out to another meeting once a year if I was lucky. We communicated by phone and letter – usually letter, as phone was expensive.
Not that I was ever really alone. A community of four hundred people, all related to each other, in a culture where doors were never locked and no one ever knocked before they came in, can be overwhelming at times. But still, I found solitude easy to find. If I took the dog for a walk I could be out of town in five minutes, and I had no cell phone in my pocket. Fifteen minutes by skidoo could take me to a landscape where I couldn’t see a single thing created by humans. I could turn off my skidoo engine, sit on a rock above a frozen lake, drink coffee from my thermos, and listen to the sounds of silence.
As I said, there are many things I enjoy about my present state of Facebook and Twitter connectedness. But I must admit that there are also times when I feel the tug of that older, quieter way of life. I love my friends, my family, my parishioners, but I also enjoy being absent from them from time to time. I like working things out for myself in my own head (or more likely, in my case, at the point of a pen). I like solitary walks where my thoughts can go wherever they want, without being interrupted by the buzz in my pocket.
Where am I going with this?
Over the past few years, from time to time I’ve taken Internet breaks – logged out of Facebook and Blogger for Lent, for instance. I have never regretted it, but I notice that with every passing year I’m more and more reluctant to do it. I’m an addict, and it’s the attention of others I’m addicted to. Write a blog post or a Facebook comment, and people know I’m still around. And whenever I announce an upcoming break, I’m greeted by a chorus from the other addicts: “No – we’ll miss you!” I’ve even being accused of thinking myself superior, or being pointlessly ascetic or ‘puritan’.
So why do I care what people think? Silly question for an Internet addict – of course we care what people think! The pleasure centres in our brains are stimulated by every ‘like’ we get, every comment, every engagement. By now the science of this should be familiar to all of us.
Still, I miss absence. I enjoy the freedom of being my own person. I know I can’t totally escape being influenced by others, but I find the influence of 550 Facebook friends hard to process sometimes. It was so much easier to be me when I didn’t have so many people’s expectations to live up to.
I’ve been realizing these last few weeks that this is getting overwhelming for me again. I need, very soon, another period of absence. I need to log out of Facebook and Twitter, leave the world of blogging behind, and restrict myself to the barest minimum of screen time demanded by my job. I need some long, unhurried reading – some quality time with the flesh and blood humans with whom I share geographical proximity – some time to pray without measuring my prayer life against the ways my friends pray.
Nicholas Carr wrote an outstanding book about the physical changes the Internet causes in our brains; the book is called ‘The Shallows’. The Bible, on the other hand, uses the phrase ‘deep calls to deep’. I think I hear that call. And I know, pretty soon, that I’ll respond to it.