Angela Natividad's Live & Uncensored!

28 March 2013

Digital Detox

“You are now entering a technology and device free zone. Please refrain from using your cellphone inside this space. The use of WMDs (wireless mobile devices) is not permitted.” Word about the Device Free Drinks party, billed as an occasion to “enjoy a few hours off the grid,” had spread through Facebook and other social media ... and drew about 250 participants. But asking people to surrender their digital tethers at the door still required some coaxing...
- Andy Isaacson, "Learning to Let Go: First, Turn Off the Phone",
The New York Times

Eight years ago a much older friend said, "One day, only the rich will be able to disconnect." Hipsters off Union Square are hardly the richest slice of the populace, but their little Digital Detox shindig captures the spirit of his idea: disconnecting has become some novelty thing you do in a club over drinks with other giddy friends eager to "experiment".

But what really got me was the party's structure: little activity stations encouraged you to type, draw and chat in "analog" ways that, in order to reassure (or be relatable), still bore traces of the digital world: you didn't just draw; you drew profile pictures. And what would you type at the typewriter station, if not a tweet? Finally, perhaps for the most adventurous, a jar labeled "Digital Detalks" included strips of paper with questions you could ask others in order to start a conversation.

I remembered a scene from Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. In the book, the US government is overthrown by a theocratic conservative extremist group, under which women lose most rights, including the right to read, and people's lives become tightly regimented. The country's name is changed to the Republic of Gilead. At some point the protagonist, a "handmaid" or concubine for a wealthier couple, finds herself at an underground party where people wear makeup, dance and dress the way they did before the Republic was established. There is something sad, desperate and deeply caricatural about the way people at the party interact, as they draw mainly from memories of how they used to behave -- memories that grow less unreliable and more cartoonish with time.

The purpose of a Digital Detox party is to remind us of the importance of establishing and maintaining real non-digital connections, but part of doing that is remembering how it's done. I guess that's why the activities, so heavily (if playfully) inspired by our digital lives, struck me as imaginative but sad: have we come so far that the only way we can be cajoled into drawing is by using the template of profile pictures? Or by pulling talking-points out of a jar...?

What'll a party like this look like 10 years from now, or even five? Maybe we'll only be able to paint if the utensils are arranged like Photoshop features: life's cheap imitation of digital. And I thought the iBook page-turner feature was sad.

I'm being glib. All this is to say don't let yourself get so disconnected from reality that you need a themed party to explore the concept. (I'm saying this for me, too: I'd be the first in line at a Digital Detox to turn my phone in ... then cry.) Digital will penetrate every aspect of our lives -- and our bodies -- soon enough. So soon, in fact, that once it's arrived we'll have no time to turn back and remember what the world was like before, much less ask ourselves what we've lost for this gain.

We're running out of time to relish in the freedom we really do still have. Why surrender it so readily?


fairuse said...

I can't do it.

Angela Natividad said...

@fairuse That's because you ARE the internet.

Jimmy Little said...

"One day, only the rich will be able to disconnect." -- oh, I like that quote :-).

I was invited to a similar-sounding digital disconnect party in uptown Oakland a few months ago, but I'd rather eat broken glass. A gallery full of people doing twee little exercises in irony (intentional and unintentional) and distancing, slumming it in some sort of hipster theme park...? Um, sorry, not for me.

Anyway, it's not necessarily how you connect -- digitally or physically -- that important, it's who you connect to. And whether or not you can meaningfully disconnect -- from your boss, your Big Brother, your endless commitments... Most of us don't have a hope in hell of that.