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Summary:

Events like Camp Grounded try to convince us that we will somehow become better people if we can just find a way to disconnect from the internet and our devices — but those things aren’t the real source of our problems.

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The more connected we get, the more we seem to hunger for disconnection. The more devices and services we use, the more we dream about how much better our lives could be — if only we could give up all of our devices and return to a simpler, less connected time. Those desires lead to efforts like Camp Grounded, an event put on in southern California last month by a group called Digital Detox, which offered attendees a peaceful environment without computers or phones, without the internet, without even the use of watches or real names.

As Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic noted in a recent post, these types of events cater to a certain anxiety that many feel about modern life — and a feeling that technology is to blame for our increasing restlessness, for our alleged lack of “real” or authentic relationships, for our inability to connect with others except via electronic means, etc. Hence the desire for someone who will force us to divest ourselves these barriers. As Madrigal puts it:

“There’s a move, cataloged in nearly every magazine, towards seeing the offline as authentic and the online as hollow, false, unreal. This may be a false distinction, digital dualism, as Nathan Jurgenson calls it, but it’s a widespread reaction to the technologies at hand. What was once an exciting new way to make friends now feels over-engineered.”

Returning to a Platonic ideal of our lives

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The offer made by places like Camp Grounded is that by removing all of these technological impediments, we can somehow return to a more natural state in which our “true” selves are revealed, and that will allow us to connect with others in a more honest way — an offer that Madrigal rightly compares to the “back-to-the-land” movement that was popular in the 1960s (a movement that didn’t work out so well for many of those involved).

“The dream, I would offer, is that by stripping away the trappings of modern life, we reach a place where humans naturally fall into deep and honest relationships with each other. The vision promises that if it weren’t for all the damn new stuff (like watches), we’d all be sitting around sharing the parts of ourselves that we’re ashamed of, supporting others in their most meaningful endeavors, and paying mind only to worthy causes and ideas.”

Madrigal’s descriptions of Camp Grounded — which he got from a number of mainstream media outlets, including the New York Times and the New Yorker — reminded me of a recent project that technology writer Paul Miller engaged in, where he gave up using the internet for a year. The Verge writer said he did this in an attempt to clear away the distractions of the modern world and find the time to do all the things he wasn’t able to otherwise.

The internet isn’t the source of our problems

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Unfortunately for Miller, his experiment turned out to be an abject failure: in a post written at the end of the project, he said that instead of spending all of his now-abundant free time reading the classic books of literature or deepening relationships and spending quality time with friends and family, he just found old-fashioned ways of wasting time — watching mindless television shows, playing video games, and so on.

What Miller realized is something I think we all understand on some deeper level: namely, that the internet and social networks and the web are not the source of our problems forming “real” relationships or making time to better ourselves in some way — and that most of the important flaws that prevent us from doing these things are internal, not external. In that sense, the online world is no more unreal or inauthentic than the offline world.

Is it good to disconnect from time to time? Of course it is. And there’s no question that the pace of modern life has accelerated over the past decade, with so many sources of real-time activity that we feel compelled to participate in, either because our friends and family are there or because our jobs require it. But disconnecting from all of those things isn’t going to magically transform us into better people somehow — all it will do is reveal us as we really are.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Serg Dibrova and Shutterstock Mikhail Menil

  1. Have you visited Camp Grounded’s site? Basically, the idea is to get away from your computer and have fun at a 1970s summer camp for a weekend. That sounds awesome, and not at all like they’re promising some panacea of non-technological enlightenment. If anything, it sounds healthy, like deciding to give up sweets for a week (or booze or cigarettes or whatever your deal is) so you get a sense of how much control it really has over you, and if you have the ability to consciously choose otherwise.

    It’s like with drinking: If you think you have a problem, you probably do. If you think you have a problem unplugging–if you’re attracted to something like Camp Grounded, to the idea of getting to take a break–you probably do have a problem with technology. That doesn’t mean ditching tech is going to solve all the problems in your life, just like quitting drinking won’t, but it doesn’t mean technology isn’t part of the problem, either. It means that tech is your particular weakness, or something you use to hide a weakness. Regardless of what Paul Miller discovered about himself (and I really enjoyed both his experiment and his thoughtful writeup), he’s a sample size of one, compared with a growing yearning felt by lots more people to at the very least have the option to get away from tech every now and then, from the rapidly increasing speed of life that’s been engendered by technology.

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    1. Deborah King Tuesday, July 16, 2013

      Regardless of whether it’s attractive or possible for most people to “unplug” from their devices likely does reveal your personality and your general disposition. I have no problem admitting that I’m an introvert in an extrovert-friendly environment, and use social media based on need rather than enjoyment. Last week I had the rare opportunity to visit my daughter and spend a whole week doing wholesome and practical things without needing to stop for paperwork, phone calls, work, “meaningful” connections and social outreach and communication. I may have checked facebook.com for all of two minutes the entire week, and did more quiet, patience-requiring activities than I have this past year. Talk about the introvert’s paradise.

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  2. I couldn’t agree with you any more on this topic! Social media and technology in general has taken a toll on our true selves, and has changed us completely. Users shouldn’t be fooled by the masks that are worn while posting. Thanks for sharing!

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  3. Shannon Coulter Friday, July 12, 2013

    The healthy effects of taking a break from everyday life is a practice that radically predates our modern era of tech overload, so Camp Grounded is just the latest variation on very old theme. Buddhists go on retreat to disengage from a whole range of earthly habits, from eating rich food to talking too much — in part to understand how illusory and fleeting these things are, but also to cultivate a more direct relationship to time and to experience the profound relief of transcending ego. The issue at hand, I think, is not really one of technology at all. It’s a much broader and more ancient human struggle to stop placating ourselves with baubles and distractions, to stop dwelling in fantasies of past and future, and to embrace the present — an achievement even Buddhist masters themselves can only occasionally pull off, but is worth cultivating nonetheless.

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  4. Yep. Fame, Fortune & the Internet does not change us, it unmasks us ;)

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  5. I understand the points made in this article, but it’s really hard to say unequivocally that the Internet does not change who we are. All those connections made and information gathered must have some effect on who we are and what we do. Declaring otherwise is like saying reading books or going to school doesn’t change who we are. In some basic ways it may be true, but in a lot of other ways, it simply isn’t.

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  6. Barbara Kerr Sunday, July 14, 2013

    My power went out last night, forcing me to abandon the internet and games and grab a torch and a book. Whether this was worthwhile or not depends on how you feel about Harry Potter.

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