Monday, February 9, 2015
Q&A: MICHAEL HARRIS
You take a seat behind your computer to hunker down. It could be that you’re formulating a non-profit proposal for increasing internet accessibility in rural Malaysia? Getting registered for your taxes on the Revenue Canada site? Finishing off a hopefully viral Soundcloud-via-Garageband hiphop remix of the latest big crooning husky clip on Vine? Potentially, you’re struggling to put together a succinct intro to the Q and A you did with this year’s Governor’s General Award Non-Fiction Michael Harris. More realistically, you’re sitting down to read said interview on the Bookshelf Blog with a fresh cup of coffee. You get to the word ‘hunker’ and wonder on its etymology. Should you search the OED? Wikitionary? Urban Dictionary? You accidentally type "bunker" into Google. You call up a host of definitions and images of well-stocked models of paranoia tinged disconnection. Before you can see what one is going for on Kijiji, there’s a drool inducing notification ding (is it a like?!) on your pre-coffee making Facebook joke comment in a stream about Stephen Harper’s band. You made some pun rebuttal not even worth repeating in your internal narrative. Your phone chuckles dismissively against your Brave New World mug. Your pal wants to have coffee or beer this aft and could you Dropbox that McLuhan audio doc and did you see Andrew’s Instagram, what’s w/ all the pics of sloppy guys eating fastfood, was he hacked or what?
You put your phone down. Presuming you are sort of right about what hunker means, how were you ever able to hunker down with all of these distractions? You close all extraneous desktop windows and decide to focus on this thing. You break into a scanning trot, sifting for the relevant info in this Q and A on ‘Michael Harris, celebrated Canadian journalist’.
Book title? The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection… Gist? "Soon nobody will remember the world before the internet"…"if you were born before 1985, you’re of the last generation who will"…"this is a monumental change in how we think and interact".. Verdict: "A funny well-researched meditation"… "weaving the author’s keen anecdotes with up-to-date studies and interviews about our current technological (ir)realities"…"explores how we reclaim the positive aspects of lack and absence in an increasingly present digital age"…"without moving into a bunker of preserves, bottled water, and War & Peace"…
The author of this intro is a bit run on, meta – disjointed - you think, but The End of Absence appears pertinent. Fighting a pun Facebook comment-thought about what Thomas Mulcair’s band would be called (RotoTom or Rockficial Rockostion..ugh), you hunker down to full sentences:
"I avoided internet-distraction just long enough to distract Michael Harris with some email questions about his timely book. He kindly and quickly got to work."
- Brad de Roo, who forgot to get you to bookmark this link to Mr. Harris’s event at Lakeside Hope House here in Guelph on Feb 25th @7pm: https://www.uoguelph.ca/arts/astra-cafe-philosophique-and-bookshelf-present-michael-harris-end-absence
Would you ever do a remote appearance for a book release using Skype or some later variation of it? Would you ever use Margret Atwood’s LongPen to sign a book or a book deal?
Sure. In fact, I’m doing a Skype Q&A session for a UBC class next week. Folk have this impression that I’m a Luddite but that’s a little like assuming a dietician doesn’t eat food. It’s really not about tech-good or tech-bad. It’s about recognizing that our technologies are both fantastic and dangerous, like your favourite carving knife.
How important was absence in writing this book? Is it essential to your writing process? Do you adopt different relationships to absence for various writing projects or tones? Does a journalistic essay approach absence in a different way from a book? Is absence an important theme or force in writers who move you?
You ask planet-sized questions, you know that? I’d say that solitude is essential to the creative process. My brain’s foundation was laid in a pre-Internet world so, for me, disconnection is the only way to figure out what I think about things. Connection is a necessary first ingredient, of course. You have to go out into the world and see what it’s talking about. But to create I have to take all those shiny ideas and make them my own. That part happens when I’m locked in my Fortress of Solitude.
That’s an interesting point you’re making about the difference between journalism and books, though. I haven’t thought about it too much, but you could argue that today’s bias toward conversational journalism, as opposed to a more objective reportage, is similar to older oral traditions of storytelling; and you could then argue that our newest communication technologies encourage that kind of thing. Meanwhile, book-writing is a product of an earlier mindset and a different technological climate; it seems to require a mental environment that does not come easily to us anymore. Certainly, when I’m working on a book, I have to build this very artificial environment of scarcity and solitude. I have to engineer absence whereas writers in the 19th century probably came by it more naturally.
My favourite fiction comes from all over the place, Jane Austen to Brian K. Vaughan, but what they all have in common is their ability to create hermetically sealed worlds. And I think you only get that kind of really coherent, inviolable storytelling from writers that are acquainted with solitude.
Does reading a book do something for you that the latest gadget does not or cannot do?
Yes. In fact, reading a book is pretty much the opposite of Twitter or Whisper or WhatsApp. It’s introversion versus extroversion, I guess. Allowing yourself to be absorbed by a narrative, in a massively empathetic way, as opposed to using text as a way to project yourself onto other people.
What is absence and when did it start to end? Has it had other ends? Does it have a long-standing history we can learn from?
Man, those are the sort of question a guy could spend a whole book trying to answer… For me, Absence is a catchall term, encompassing daydreaming, reverie, solitude—all those qualities of life that constant connectivity wipes away. Every advance in communication technology—from papyrus to the printing press to Pinterest—are going to wipe out some quality of absence, though. So this desire of ours, the desire to lasso bigger and bigger parts of the world, does have a very long history.
Your book explores some of the historical and philosophical origins of technology - especially media (the Printing Press, computers etc). Have you discerned trends in our reactions to technological revolutions throughout the ages? Are there particular thinkers who’ve informed your insights? Do you relate to a tradition or lineage of Canadian cultural studies?
McLuhan and Frye and Innis and Coupland, right? I did a talk in D.C. a couple months back and one of the questions was "Why are Canadians all over media studies?" I didn’t have a smart answer but it does seem to be something we do. Maybe it’s because we sleep next to the biggest media giant in the world; we have to think critically about media or else we’d get squished. That said, there are lots of American media critics I admire: Nicholas Carr, Neil Postman, Elizabeth Einstein, James Gleick, to name a few.
In the last chapter of The End of Absence you attempt to return to "the technological circumstances" of your childhood by taking a month away from your cellphone and the Internet (an "Analog August" as you call it). How has your re-integration into digital world been? Have you found new ways to introduce absence into your life? Has the writing of this book cleared a better space for nourishing instances of this state? Do temporary Waldens dot your days?
The problem with writing a book about absence is that, if everything goes well, you’ve screwed yourself: I have more demands on my time now, more requests for connection. And, at the same time, if I show up to a reading and check my phone people are disappointed. I’m the guy who wrote that book so I’m supposed to be hovering in some kind of Walden state. Some even go “a ha!” when they learn the book’s available on Amazon or Kobo, like they’ve uncovered my hypocrisy… But folk who read the book will find it isn’t arguing for abstinence at all. I think the real goal should be engineering a healthy media diet that includes connection and disconnection in a healthy ratio. And we each get to decide for ourselves what that ratio looks like. Otherwise, we’re zombies. Which is a valid life-choice, too.