An interview with Michael Harris, winner of the 2014 Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction
Hadani Ditmars: Tell me about the process of writing this book, The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection. How inspired were you by fellow Vancouver scribe Douglas Coupland, who wrote in his biography of McLuhan and in one of his novels about a future world where people speak in “text” language that eventually devolves into caveman-like gestural gibberish?
Michael Harris: I was certainly inspired by Coupland, McLuhan, Neil Postman, and Alberto Manguel, but also by Elizabeth Eisenstein. She came after McLuhan and cleaned everything up. He had the crazy ideas and she did the work. She was the one who wrote about the printing press as an agent of change.
The Walrus was actually part of the book’s genesis, via an assignment to write about gay hook-up culture. There is something fundamental that disappears when we have instant access. Eros demands distance: you cannot desire that which you have. This idea of solitude being dismantled by our technologies was eventually incorporated into the book.
The book was stupidly ambitious. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just kept on talking with geniuses trying to download their brains. The book works because it synthesizes smart people’s ideas by running them through my personal experience.
Hadani Ditmars: What was it like to go “off grid” with technology? You write about stimulus withdrawal factor and being excited by things like getting mail and cutting your toenails. Ultimately, was it a kind of luxury cleanse for the mind?
Michael Harris: Absence is what makes things matter. I became the best boyfriend in the world. You don’t love something unless you are denied it, so it made him matter more.
Digital detox is a luxury. Spending all day at home reading and writing. When I went back online, it was like an addict getting his high. I went back into it full throttle and it twinged all my ego-driven things. We had a fight that first night.
Taking a month off doesn’t cure you. The only thing that it does is remind you what the difference is, and then you can make conscious decisions each day.
Hadani Ditmars: How is your life now that you’re back “on grid”?
Michael Harris: I’m forced to have more control when I’m in public and people know that I wrote that book.
Hadani Ditmars: So in a way your book became a self-policing tool?
Michael Harris: Yes, in a way it did. But at the same time I have been more pressured to be connected than ever before because of all the media attention the book has garnered. I hope I showed how it’s not a technology problem but a human problem. Our obsession with connecting is very primal; in the same way McDonald’s capitalizes on our body’s desire to hoard sugar and fats.
Hadani Ditmars: How did it feel to win the GG?
Michael Harris: I was grateful and surprised. I got the phone call and it was almost cinematic. I dropped down on the floor and punched the air. I wanted to exult in the moment before I told my boyfriend. So I bought my favourite chocolate bar and went for a walk through High Park in Toronto.
Hadani Ditmars: What was it like to be honoured in Parliament?
Michael Harris: Although we were all staying at the same hotel [for the ceremony in Ottawa], the English and Francophone writers ended up hanging out with their own language groups—very “two solitudes.” But when we went on our tour of Parliament together, there was a feeling of solidarity. We walked into question period and the MPs were in the middle of arguing about the price of food in Nunavut. We GG winners and a group of Canadian soldiers were in the balcony above. Suddenly we were asked to stand up, and all the MPs stopped arguing and cheered us. It was a genuine moment in a normally cynical place.
Hadani Ditmars: What is your next project?
Michael Harris: I’m exploring a project on the relationship between solitude and creativity and how that plays out in a world that wages war against solitude. My other project is to take the ideas in my first book and try to fictionalize them, making them more Orwellian.