Contemplating Friday: The anti-tech bubble bubble

I’m still coming down — or is it up? — from an extraordinary weekend at something called Camp Grounded, which I wrote about a bit in a recent article for The New Yorker. Ostensibly it was a tech-free summer camp for grownups. But I’ve come to realize it was more than just a digital detox.

Our three days in the Northern California redwoods functioned as a kind of colloquium on the broader impact our digital devices are having. That impact extends beyond simple gadget addiction, and over my next couple of columns I intend to write about some of the surprising issues that arose. Two decades after the debut of the first primitive smartphone, it seems time for some substantive reflection on the constantly online life.

Around 250 of us had descended on this former Boy Scouts camp. We came from all over, a testament to how pervasive digital addiction has become. One mom flew in from the Yukon to get away from it all. I came to see us as an anti-tech-bubble bubble.

The long weekend began with an interesting loss of identity: Upon check-in, everyone traded his or her real name for a nom-de-camp  — a way of easing into the more central prohibition on hand: No gadgets whatsoever. Anything with a screen was checked, and a mass unplugging commenced. Feel like Instagramming? Draw it, we were advised.

“Only a decade ago being offline for three days would’ve just been normal,” we were told by Fidget Wigglesworth, the pseudonym of the young camp director. It was our first night, and he was speaking to the new arrivals. A sea of faces looked up him, startlingly unlit by phone-glow for the first time in ages.

“Our mission is to reevaluate our relationship with our digital technologies,” Wigglesworth continued, and the crowd whooped with the sheer relief of a patient whose symptoms had finally been acknowledged. The camp director stepped down and the rest of the weekend was silly. Silly chants, silly games. We’d come not just for liberation from all that doesn’t matter, but reconnection with what does.

Within hours the phantom pocket vibrations had ceased. Our urges — to post a status, to check for email, to document a moment and then thumb vaguely through that documentation — vanished remarkably quickly. But the Camp Grounded take on technology had a refreshing breadth to it, and saw digital fingerprints on other imbalances in our lives. Technology has sped up the general work pace, for instance, and work has in turn become more intertwined with ourselves than ever, thanks to our constant connectedness. So other stuff was banned, too: money, clocks, references to people’s ages, alcohol or drugs and, most challenging, work talk of any sort. The camper was broken down to his core, present, unmediated self.

(Also forbidden: dubstep and glowsticks. Gotta have standards.)

What was all this? Was Camp Grounded a real movement, or merely a nice gesture? Would the distraction industrial complex register a tremor, or were these just the exuberant death throes of population that will never really disconnect? In my next column I’ll talk about what ensued over the course of this experiment, and the prospects for a lasting change. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your experiences with digital overload and efforts to thwart it. Type in a — I know, I know — comment.

Chris Colin
Chris Colin is the author most recently of "Blindsight," named one of Amazon’s Best Books of 2011. He’s written about chimp filmmakers, Slovenian ethnic cleansing, George Bush’s pool boy, blind visual artists, solitary confinement, the Yelpification of the universe, mysterious scraps of paper and more for the NewYorker.com, The New York Times Magazine, Wired, Smithsonian, Mother Jones, the Atavist, Pop-Up Magazine, Afar magazine and more. Email him at [email protected]
Chris Colin
Chris Colin
Tags: Downtime,Gadgets & Devices,Tech Culture