No doubt you have seen the coverage being devoted this weekend to a new book by Michael Harris, The End of Absence (Harper & Collins, 2014), about the endless distractions of the internet age and how they have affected our mindset. He thinks that we - those of us born before 1985, have the rare, never-to-be-repeated privilege of having experienced both worlds: BI- Before Internet and PI - Post Internet.
He relies on Thoreau as his mentor and guide to an inner life, if indeed an inner life is still possible. According to the review I read (I'm going to get the book), Harris wrote a chapter about a month he took off for an analog reprieve, something like that. Well, that's what retreats are all about, isn't it? More of that anon.
I acquired my first home computer in 1985, the first in my block. It was a Kaypro IV, a brand and model that most of the writers in Canada bought because they got a deal through the Writers' Union. It was writer-friendly, that is, if one could touch type. I had gone to Business College to learn to type the summer before I entered university, so I adapted pretty fast. I remember thinking, as I hesitated to make the purchase, that after all, I'd owned two Mix-Masters (the old brand name for an electric beater) and three blenders, so I would probably own more than one computer before I was through. Oh my, yes. Even now I own a Big Mac, a Little Mac (Air), and a Minnie (iPad Mini), plus an old Dell laptop and an older Toshiba laptop, both still functioning, both repositories of some LWP (Lotus Word Processor) scripts I might still need. I finally sold my portable typewriter that I wrote all my college essays and my Master's thesis on, and my old IBM Selectric that I wrote my first books on.
What has this got to do with the internet and the end of absence? Just that Harris is right: I've had the experience of both worlds. I used to do my research in the public library and borrowed books, interviewed people, and took copious notes. Now I google just about everything, always taking care to double-check my sources. One still must not trust all the shiny information handed to one in a gratuitous download. There's still no such thing as a free lunch. But it is a different world. Before computers and the net I couldn't have done everything I've done without at least one secretary - personal assistant - and several clones. (I still wish I had a clone.)
Michael Harris says that the kids today (anyone born after 1985) don't know much about the value of being alone. Solitude is a scarce commodity. I could have told him that, long before the electronic highway threatened to turn us all into roadkill. Wordsworth could have told him that. Remember "The world is too much with us,/Getting and spending..." So of course I had to look it up, with information at my fingertips. Here it is:
THE world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers: Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
Think about it. I will too. Tomorrow I'll talk about retreats.