"More than machinery, we need humanity."
Though most technology comes equipped with an off switch, many people seem to have forgotten this detail. As digital, Internet enabled, technology has moved from clunky desktop computer, to ever sleeker laptops, to smart phones, to tablets, to whatever shall come next (wearable technology like Google Glass?), it has enabled us to bring technology with us whether sitting in the office or laying in bed.
How to respond when all of this technology feels overwhelming? When the flow of tweets, Facebook updates, news feeds, e-mails, text messages, and so forth proves maddening, what is one to do? The media theorist Douglas Rushkoff coined an apt term for this, dubbing it “Present Shock” (in his book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now [a review of that book]). However, if Present Shock may be a useful name for the syndrome the suggested remedy (over-simplification) of “balance” in using technology seems rather unsatisfactory (and can prove to be so as Paul Miller discovered). Modern technology and it’s related services (from Google to Netflix to e-books) has put so much weight on one side of the scale that achieving a real balance seems as if it would be harder than completely swearing off technology.
At least swearing it off for a few days.
There is a true appeal to turning all of the switches to “off,” but as we live in an age where many would not feel comfortable just walking off into the woods for a weekend (or longer) there are groups ready to make a potentially frightening encounter with primal nature into a team-building exercise. Such is on display in Matt Haber’s recent New York Times article “A Trip to Camp to Break a Tech Addiction,” in which Haber recounts his weekend at Camp Grounded – a summer retreat for adults that bans technology and encourages people to reconnect with each other, themselves, and nature.
In Haber’s recounting the Camp forbid people’s real names along with technology, there was a tea yurt, dancing, skinny dipping, latrines, vegan cuisine, chaste “summer romance,” yoga, hand crafts, hugging…and all of the other accoutrements that make the experience sound vaguely out of cultural myths of the 60s, or maybe a movie, as Haber notes:
“Campers, who spent $300 for the weekend, were sent maps, instructions and a suggested packing list designed with a self-consciously retro style that wouldn’t be out of place in a Wes Anderson film.“
It is easy to imagine readers of Haber’s account dreaming of attending Camp Grounded themselves, alas it is just as easy to imagine somebody rolling their eyes, or snorting “[expletive deleted] hippies.” Indeed Camp Grounded appears less like it was born out of a liberal’s fantasy than out of a conservative’s rambling account of what those “deviant hippies” will make them do if they’re elected. Yet all of this risks hiding an important takeaway from Haber’s article: he attended the camp because he had felt overwhelmed and alienated by life in technological society, and he left feeling more grounded, more connected with himself. Heck, he even looked at the stars. Furthermore, it seems that Haber’s experience was not atypical of attendees at Camp Grounded – though simply attending such a camp is in and of itself a sort of admission that one finds value in it.
In writing about technology and nature the philosopher Langdon Winner (in his book The Whale and the Reactor) wisely notes:
“In our time, discussion about ecology and environment tell us a great deal more about the condition of society than about anything in nature as such.” (Winner, 135)
Those words could appear on a placard at Camp Grounded (they don’t), for despite the natural setting and despite the “away with technology, back to nature” aesthetic, the camp has less to do with ecological or environmental ideology than seeking an almost child-like refuge there. The article’s grousing about vegan food is an excellent example of the camp as a weekend trip not an ethical stance. Removed from a serious societal critique, Camp Grounded needs to be viewed as what it truly is: a weekend long summer camp, and afterwards you return home, promising your friends you’ll write, and promising yourself that you’ll keep whittling and playing acoustic guitar…but the Internet beckons.
Of course, Camp Grounded really is a “summer camp,” but the problem is trying to see in it something more. The tea yurt does not replace the Apple store that has been built in your brain. Camp Grounded is less a place for would be followers of General Ludd than a place for would be followers of Lord Byron – content to just fantasize and write poetry about Ludd before returning to a seat in the House of Lords.
The “condition of society” that gives rise to Camp Grounded is on display in Haber’s article (he describes what in society led him to the camp), but the best examples are seen on the website for the group Digital Detox (which runs Camp Grounded). If one had wondered if Haber’s twee descriptions were apt the site proves that he was even generous. Just consider Digital Detox’s description of Camp Grounded:
“here grown-ups go to unplug, getaway and be kids again. 200 lucky campers will take over this nostalgic 1970′s boy scouts camp to celebrate what it means to be alive…Together we’ll create a community where money is worth little… and individuality, self expression, friendship, freedom and memories are valued most.”
While technology may be banned and there may be seeming sign-posts of radical critique nestled within Camp Grounded these are displaced by telling terms like “nostalgic” and “kids again.” Or better yet just consider the following two lines (the first is the top line from the “About” section and the second is the top line for the “Mission/Philosophy” section):
“Disconnect from technology and reconnect with yourself. Recharge your mind, body and soul.”
“We love technology. We love nature. We love balance.”
What these lines reveal is that while there is a face of radical environmental ideology being presented it is really just a mask for the same old capitalism. The amount of sly ideology is stunning: they clearly suggest that there is something wrong with the world in which we live but gird the reaction in feel-good lingo that reinforces those very systems. Consider the usage of the word “recharge,” humans do not “recharge” that is something that batteries and other machines with an “electrical charge” do, and thus technological language is deployed to refer to people in the midst of saying we need to “disconnect” (and one could render “disconnect” and “reconnect” problematic too [the linguist George Lakoff has written extensively on the usage of such metaphorical language]). It is not that this turns people into machines, but in the midst of purporting an “escape” it comforts the wary phone discarder by subconsciously reminding them that they’ll get their phone back in three days. They (and it) just need to recharge.
Yet the “We love” line (which starts their Mission/Philosophy) is far more interesting, and not simply because of the repetitious mantra of “we love.” The three pieces are not mutually exclusive and yet they are further evidence of a dominant ideology of “everything is fine.” Many are the environmentalists who “love nature” who would recognize that truly “loving nature” frequently conflicts with “loving technology” which has a long history of despoiling nature; though what is mostly meant by “we love technology” is likely “we love our smart phones and Google, burnt out Silicon Valley people and their money are welcome here.” Or, to repeat the point, this is not really anti-technology it’s just play-acting at it for a weekend.
Most interesting, however, is “we love balance” which is all well and good, but rather absurd once seriously thought about in this context. Camp Grounded is a retreat in the woods with no technology. That is not balance, that is a retreat in the woods with no technology. Zero of something, even for a weekend, is not balance, it is saying that something is so toxic you need to completely get away from it. And spending a single weekend in the summer at this retreat is not balance, it is spending a weekend a year at a retreat in the woods and calling it balance. It would be like saying that you’re going on a diet, and then eating nothing for three days. Such actions do not even begin to “balance” the rest of the year. It is the illusion of balance.
There is nothing new in viewing a return to nature as a way to escape from technological society; however, what may be new is turning disgust into a feel-good one weekend a year trip, of stripping it of a complex philosophy and replacing it with “We love technology. We love nature. We love balance.” It takes a difficult and worrisome question (“what is technology doing to us?”) and answers it by asking another question (“wouldn’t you like to sit by a lake?”). Thus tough questions are displaced by a weekend of “toughing it.” While what is on offer promises to “engage” us, it is engaging us “with ourselves” instead of with a community acting to challenge a status quo that afflicts far more than “200 lucky campers.” This is not a confrontation with a force that is despoiling nature, it is a merry game, as Lewis Mumford writes of “The Return to Nature” (within his book Technics and Civilization):
“The advocates of these measures for returning to the primitive forget only one fact: what they are proposing is not an adventure but a bedraggled retreat, not a release but a confession of complete failure.” (Mumford, 299)
These weekends in the woods are not a sign of balance but proof that the “we love technology” has trumped “balance” and thus “we love nature” is being offered as a desperate attempt to ward off the conqueror. Yet it is not a true escape, a true change, just a break in a routine that will be returned to before long; it is hiding the desire to “retreat” and the degree of our “failure” to resist technology as a weekend “adventure.” Thus, while the motives behind a group like Digital Detox may be pure, such a retreat serves to strengthen the very system that necessitates such retreats. If a weekend in the woods remains as an option, one need not critically challenge the world being escaped; after all, if that world wasn’t there to be escaped how would this escape be special? Camp Grounded is not about vacating from dehumanizing systems, it’s just vacation.
Such “feel good” retreats in the woods or in a day (but just one) with no technology is barely even a distant cousin (twice removed) of deep ecological, environmental or critical ideologies. While there are those who hold to a moral philosophy and worldview that examines modern society and concludes from it that technology and industrial civilization mutilate humanity and the planet, a weekend at Camp Grounded provides simply the experience of play acting at primitivism with the safe knowledge that when the weekend is over you can have your phone back and go back to eating bacon.
Granted, as the Mumford quote indicates, a desire to get “back to nature” is nothing particularly new; in Mumford’s recounting those who have historically retreated to the woods have often served as the spear tip for the eventual colonization of those areas and the invasion of those spaces by the very forces that were being fled. Indeed, Camp Grounded could be seen as a latter day culprit of such a movement one that in the garb of “getting back to nature” opens the door for its further bulldozing. It yanks the teeth out of radical critique and makes them into a fashionable necklace to be worn whilst dancing in the tea yurt. Or, as critical theory might describe it, Camp Grounded and its organic ilk (think of Whole Foods) are just elements of the broader culture industry. It is true that this “return” has attracted numerous ideological strains in the past (many of them unpalatable), but in sanitizing this move what has occurred is that the subversive act of choosing a way of thinking and living that renounces technological society is brought well within the wheelhouse of the technological society. Digital Detox, after all, has a very nice and very non-confrontational website. It is as Langdon Winner wrote (quoting again from The Whale and the Reactor)
“the familiar quest to find moral guidance in natural phenomena is similar to that seen in earlier periods. At issue now is the present and future path of modern technological society.” (Winner, 123)
Life in technologically mediated times can be extremely alienating, and it is no surprise that this will push some to dream of the woods. Though with a (not insignificant) price tag and limited space Camp Grounded is at best a getaway for a chosen few; and broader programs like the “National Day of Unplugging” (a one day technological fast) have the same flaw of providing a single day of fasting instead of a real critique of technology. While these may appear as “good steps” they simply delay the moment when people (and we as a society) are forced to really confront technology.
An emphasis of these programs seems to be that getting away from technology will allow people to become more aware, but this awareness must start in our daily lives, and it must be an awareness that makes us note how much we are using technology and what effect it is having on us every day, not just on the occasional day or weekend when we do without. Perhaps we need to examine loving “technology…nature…balance” and ask if it is really appropriate to love “technology” in the same way as we love “nature” which – unlike technology – sustains us and all life. As alienation and frustration continue to build those who feel these bubbling sentiments must be wary lest their emotions get channeled back into strengthening the system. One day a year, one weekend a year, is actually worse than nothing if it allows us to feel that this has been enough.
Technophiles need not worry, Camp Grounded is not General Ludd come again with hammer in hand and fury in heart, it is just a general Luddaby, giving people technology free dreams so that they can have technologically nightmarish days whilst gazing out the window at the distant mountains.
Or more likely, just doing a web search for images of mountains.
Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Winner, Langdon. The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. University of Chicago Press, 1986.
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