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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
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
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.