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Digital distractions: Author explores what today's technology has replaced

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At any bus stop, you'll see girls texting. All over town, men are constantly proving they can talk on their cell phones and walk at the same time. Mothers quiet their kids with smartphones instead of soothers. Endless numbers of selfies are being sent off to Facebook.

Journalist Michael Harris, formerly of Vancouver and now based in Toronto, is as amazed as anyone by the way technology has so rapidly taken over our lives. He calls his book a meditation on what's happened and how it's affecting us. But what has our constant connectedness replaced? Something valuable to our well-being?

Harris does an excellent job of describing the impact technology has had on every sector -- business, personal relationships, parenting -- and makes a valiant attempt to show what we are suddenly missing. He falls short of delivering on the promise of the book's subtitle, though, being content to identify what we've lost rather than directing us on how to "reclaim" it.

Harris points out that people born before 1985 will be the last to know what life was like before the Internet. Whereas it took centuries for the invention of the printing press (in 1450) to be felt universally, today the pace of change has increased dramatically: Television took 13 years to be adopted by 50 million people; the World Wide Web took four years; Facebook 3.6 years; Twitter three; the iPad two. "Just one generation after the first cellphone call took place (in 1973), there are now 6.8 billion cellphone subscriptions world-wide."

The average teenager sends off more than 4,000 text messages per month. Such people are more at ease with technology than with other people, much preferring texting to voice-on-voice phone conversations. (This unease with personal interaction figured prominently in Donna Freitas's 2013 book The End of Sex, which showed that American college kids turn to drunken hookup parties because they have no idea how to approach someone they are attracted to.)

There is no fact-learning in schools anymore, since you can Google everything. Knowing where to find a fact has replaced memory. And mob opinion has replaced expert opinion; vested interests can change Wikipedia entries to suit their cause.

Amazon will tell you what books you will like on the basis of their profiles of people like you. You browse the movie selections Netflix has picked for you instead of seeking suggestions from trusted critics.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids spend no more than one or two hours a day on recreational screen time; more than that leads to attention-deficit problems. Yet do parents even care? They themselves are busy with their own screens.

Attention spans shrink as people flit from one electronic device to another. Some say they are multitasking, but Dr. Douglas Gentile of Iowa State University says there is no such thing -- the brain is only capable of "multiswitching." All that answering of texts and emails affects the ability to think out a problem or create something meaningful.

What is needed is time to reflect and contemplate -- what Harris calls "absence." Groucho Marx perhaps had the right idea: he "found television educational only because 'every time someone switches it on, I go into the other room and read a book.'"

Indeed, whether you head for a campsite that doesn't have WiFi or you take some quiet time for reading or simply reminiscing, you need some absence from the digital world.

Harris took what he calls a sabbatical -- a month away from technology -- and he admits to experiencing serious withdrawal symptoms. He might have tried reading authors like Steven Millhauser and Nicholson Baker, who have given us brilliant fiction that shows us the delights of noticing the everyday things that surround us.

Perhaps books are a necessity after all, to get us away from the frantic need to connect.


Dave Williamson is the Winnipeg author of ten books, including Changing People's Lives: An Illustrated History of Red River College.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 9, 2014 G8


Updated on Saturday, August 9, 2014 at 7:47 AM CDT: Formatting.

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