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Review: 'End of Absence,' a thoughtful assessment of what is lost in a cluttered digital age

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"The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We've Lost in a World of Constant Connection" (Current), by Michael Harris

I fall asleep to the glow of Netflix and, when I awake, begin the digital litany of my day: the relentless email and news, the Facebook and Twitter feeds, the blogs and mindless videos, and on and on. I remember somewhat vaguely when I used pay phones to dictate the story of the day, when an online life was limited to the screeching dial-up of AOL and, as a child, when even that was a foreign idea.

Michael Harris offers in his book "The End of Absence" a fascinating assessment of this moment we inhabit and, for those old enough to remember, highlights the rare opportunity we have to recall what it was like before we filled our day with unstoppable status updates, conversations interrupted by Wikipedia fact checks and the suffocating weight of thousands of emails.

It's all become so normal that it feels as if we knew all of Harris' observations before we read them, though they remain insightful and stunning and frightening. We are denizens of a world where facts are invented, true expertise is devalued, authenticity is at a premium and, more than anything else, distractions reign.

"As we embrace a technology's gifts, we usually fail to consider what they ask from us in return — the subtle, hardly noticeable payments we make in exchange for their marvelous service," he writes. "We don't notice, for example, that the gaps in our schedules have disappeared because we're too busy delighting in the amusements that fill them. We forget the games that childhood boredom forged because boredom itself has been outlawed. Why would we bother to register the end of solitude, of ignorance, of lack? Why would we care that an absence has disappeared?"

Though Harris doesn't totally answer those questions, he makes clear something has been lost, and it's hard not to agree. He may be most eloquent when he sounds an alarm on behalf of those with no memory of the world before, those young minds that have been rewired by our new normal: "I fear we are the last of the daydreamers. I fear our children will lose lack, lose absence and never comprehend its quiet, immeasurable value."

Chances are, you'll recognize yourself in Harris' writing and note that you, too, enjoyed a life without so much static. Toward the end of his concise work, he takes a monthlong sabbatical leave from the Internet and his cellphone and all their related trappings. He gains no epiphany, though, and offers no sweeping advice for readers. It is, he acknowledges, more meditation than prescription, but it is an illuminating, worthy reckoning of our disjointed, digital life.

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Follow Matt Sedensky on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sedensky

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