“First we shape our buildings, then they shape us." --Winston Churchill
In 2009, the life of Levi Felix, a young Jew of 25 and a graduate of the University of Santa Barbara, looked quite glamorous. He was the vice president of Causecast, a startup that helps not-for-profit organizations gain exposure and organize activities, he earned a handsome salary, had a fine apartment and was looking forward to seemingly limitless possibilities of advancement.
“I was one of the first employees in Causecast, which began as a small startup and grew fast into a company with a few hundred employees,” Felix told me during an interview in San Francisco. “I was in charge of the website’s design and content. Like everyone else, I worked around the clock and was connected to the Web at all times.”
If this were a more conventional success story, it would have ended like this: The company exits, Felix rakes in millions, starts his own company and lives happily ever after. But that’s not what happened.
“In 2009, on the way to the SXSW technology conference, I felt like I was about to pass out,” Felix relates. “I was working so hard that I had already become used to my body collapsing occasionally. I would go to the ER, ask for an IV and carry on. But this time, when I got to the hospital the doctors found that I was suffering from serious internal bleeding of the esophagus. If it hadn’t been discovered in time, I would have been dead within days. No one could say what had brought it on, but a few doctors said it was related to tension, improper nutrition and sleep deprivation. It’s usually said that ‘work kills you,’ but in my case I killed myself by leading a completely insane way of life.”
Brooke Dean, 30, who was born in Montana and grew up in Colorado, became Felix’s partner shortly after his hospitalization. She persuaded him to accompany her to the Burning Man Festival later that year. The thousands of participants in the event, held every year in the Nevada desert, build temporary structures and create art without the use of electricity or technology.
“We attended the festival five months after I got out of the hospital,” Felix recalls. “It was the first time I had ever felt free. Brooke and I then decided to travel around the world, and because I am from a traditional Jewish home and my brother was doing a residency in Israel, we decided to start the trip there.”
It’s amusing to think that a future history of the Slow Tech movement − of which Felix and Dean are two unofficial representatives − might state that it had its genesis in the Holy Land.
Felix’s mother grew up in the Jewish community of Chicago. He says she “observes kashrut and Shabbat less for reasons of religion and faith, and more for cultural preservation.” He attended Jewish schools and visited Israel when he was 14. During his college years, he decided to attend the Jerusalem-based Aish HaTorah Yeshiva, and spent six weeks there. He later taught Hebrew in a primary school and volunteered in an organization that helped bring together young Jews from different communities in the United States.
“The time I spent with Brooke in Israel was very meaningful,” he notes. “For the first time we were away from the pressure cooker of work. We visited my brother, who worked in Tel Aviv, hung out in Hamarakia [a soup restaurant] in Jerusalem, worked as volunteers on a farm in the Negev and spent time at Kumkum 3, the most gorgeous beach in Sinai.”
Inspired by the relaxing time they spent in Israel, the couple spent the next two years traveling the world. They stayed for six months on an island in Cambodia with a population of fewer than 10, and ran the local guest house there. In Nicaragua they joined a group that lives above an inactive volcano and practices meditation regularly; they also studied meditation and yoga in Thailand, Costa Rica and Honduras. During their travels they met dozens of people who taught them how to live without technology and Western consumer culture, to grow vegetables and to meditate in pouring rain.
“When we were living on the island in Cambodia, a friend of mine, who used to be a senior executive on Myspace, came to visit equipped with every imaginable gadget, including a watch that showed the weather in all kinds of countries,” Felix recalls. “We snatched all the instruments from him, and the next day I wrote him a letter headed ‘Welcome to digital detox.’”
The rest, as they say, is history. Ultimately, Felix and Dean returned to the United States and in 2011 settled in Oakland, California.
“When we got back, we started to notice that all our friends were totally addicted to technology. It was simply unbearable,” Felix says. “If we made a comment about it, or asked them to turn off their mobiles at social events, they shot back, ‘You’re hippies, you’re nuts, you’re totally out of it.’ But then we read more and more studies that showed us that we were far from alone.
“Every week,” he continues, “a new study comes out of MIT, Stanford or another university, showing a direct connection between life in front of the screen and numberless physical and mental problems. At the same time, I also drew inspiration from the ideas of thinkers who did not live in the digital age, such as Henry David Thoreau, Malcolm X and Hermann Hesse.”
That traumatic encounter showed the two that the need for disengagement from technology − and, above all, from the Internet − was only becoming more urgent. After searching for a few months they discovered Orr Hot Springs, a beautiful spa in Ukiah, northern California, which is situated in the middle of a redwood forest that features some of the tallest trees in the world.
Felix: “Brooke and I founded our company, Digital Detox, at the end of 2011. We held our first workshop in June 2012. Since then we have held nine workshops, some for private individuals and others for companies such as Airbnb, an online service for renting and subletting rooms. There are 10 to 14 participants in each workshop. We keep the groups small and intimate, and everyone gets to know everyone else.”
Profound and enjoyable
Full disclosure: When I signed up for a Digital Detox retreat, I treated it as though it were part of a journalistic investigation and didn’t think I was addicted to the Internet. I was wrong. I thought I would encounter a group of bored high-techies from California with too much money to spend and too little spare time, who had somehow managed to persuade their company to extend the weekend so they could tell themselves and their friends that they were capable of disconnecting from the Internet whenever they wanted. Wrong again.
The four days I spent on the isolated Shambhala Ranch in northern California (an alternative site that was found after the spa which had hosted the previous retreats was flooded by torrential rains) turned out to be a surprisingly profound, challenging and enjoyable experience. I discovered that as soon as we turn off the incessant stimuli of the digital world, the senses and cognitive abilities are almost immediately honed. After just a few days without text messages, e-mail, Facebook, chat, Skype, Twitter, Google+, WhatsApp, movies, television and music, I was able, for the first time in years, to get through a 400-page book in two days. (Ironically, the book was the superb “Doing Nothing,” by Tom Lutz, subtitled “A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America.”)
Of course, it is very difficult to write about experiences like this without sounding like a true believer in a cult. It is even more difficult to write positively about them in a milieu that sanctifies the need to be connected every minute of the day, and dreams of the day when it will be possible to implant microscopic mobile devices in the human body and thus finally unite man and computer − or of the day when our obsessive virtual activity will confer “eternal life” upon us (as depicted in the TV series “Black Mirror”).
According to a survey published last November by Pew, an American research center, 87 percent of all Americans have at least one mobile device, and 67 percent of them check it regularly even when it doesn’t ring or signal the arrival of incoming messages or emails. Almost half (44 percent) of Americans sleep with their mobile device next to them. (Most explained this was due to the fear of “missing a call or email during the night”). Even though psychologists, sociologists and culture researchers started using the term Internet Addiction Disorder back in the 1990s, it is only now that the authors of the thick Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or DSM, which is updated every few years) are considering including IAD in the fifth edition, due out this May.
The question of whether Internet addiction meets clinical criteria is one of the hottest issues in current psychiatric discourse. When the New York-based psychiatrist Ivan Goldberg coined the term IAD in 1995, it was meant as a satirical hoax. Goldberg was trying to parody the DSM and the need to label every social phenomenon as a mental disorder. In the years that have gone by since then, the hoax was adopted by the media and became part of reality. Now the authors of the DMS will have to decide whether to grant it the final imprimatur.
One of the problems inherent in the attempt to define what constitutes Internet addiction is the fact that we are all addicted, to one degree or another. In a survey published in Time magazine last August, 84 percent of the 5,000 interviewees admitted that they “could not survive a whole day without their mobile phone”; 40 percent admitted to using that device in the toilet.
The ever-growing numbers have also given rise to a new terminology, which tries to characterize the new anxieties and obsessions that have seized control of our life. Nomophobia, for example, is defined as “fear of losing the mobile device,” “attwiction is the official word to describe “people addicted to the Twitter social network” and “crackberry” humorously refers to Blackberry users who have become hooked on their devices as though to drugs. To these we can add the never-ending “battery anxiety,” which is accompanied by the equally dispiriting “electric plug anxiety.” If once we were afraid of losing a wallet or purse, nowadays we are liable to suffer a minor heart attack every time the memory of our iPhone is erased or our Gmail account is hacked.
All of those phenomena illustrate one of the major problems of the digital age: Every idea, argument or thought is accompanied by statistics, data, surveys, examples and new jargon. We are inundated relentlessly with information. Worse, we are starting to treat other people (and ourselves) as ongoing channels to transmit information.
“We have become used to communicating with computers as though they are people, and at the same time we have begun to think of ourselves in terms that come from the world of programming, such as the relentless need to catalog and to choose between categories,” says Jaron Lanier, 52, who is considered one of the founding fathers of virtual reality and was chosen by Time as one of the world’s 100 most influential people.
Lanier’s book “You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto” (2010; Vintage paperback, 2011) turned him overnight into one of the leading representatives of the Slow Tech movement (though Lanier himself insists that he represents only himself, not any organization or movement). The success of the book, which has been translated into dozens of languages, is probably due to the fact that Lanier is considered one of those who “were present at the birth” − he’s a tiger who changed his stripes after decades in Silicon Valley and having friends like Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg.
Lanier likes to spark discussion by making provocative statements, such as via a frontal assault on Wikipedia (which uses “standardized language” and “provides search engines with a way to be lazy”), and by claiming that human individuality is being lost because of the worship of “the hive mind” of the Internet. And he is not alone. Harper Reed, who managed President Barack Obama’s digital campaign in the 2012 election, told the Huffington Post in an interview last December about his attempt to kick the Internet habit, which included “a week without technology.” He came away from the experience with the discovery that “nature is awesome” and “books are important.”
At the same time, the far-reaching consequences of the digital age on our lives have been examined in recent years in dozens of books and academic papers. Thus, in 2011, Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for its clear and disturbing analysis of the connection between the addiction to clicking incessantly on links and a diminishment of memory and the ability to concentrate. While Carr emphasizes the cognitive impact of the Web, Prof. Sherry Turkle from MIT focuses on the mental and social effects. Her widely discussed book, “Alone Together” (2012), based on 15 years of research and interviews with thousands of users, describes how the digital age is making us lonelier, more cut off and more depressed than ever before.
Lanier, Reed, Turkle, Carr and hundreds of other researchers and former techies are part of the Slow Tech movement. Its aim is to get us to stop for a minute and examine critically how technology is changing the body, the mind, social relations, politics and the economy.
The movement does not have a charismatic guru, rich donors or luxurious offices. Like Occupy Wall Street, the movement that sparked the wave of demonstrations in the United States and elsewhere that demanded a more just distribution of resources, Slow Tech is an umbrella for dozens of local organizations, initiatives and projects all over the world, which have a fairly broad common denominator: All are warning against the irreversible implications of the global addiction to technology, and all of them emphasize, in one way or another, the humanistic principles of communal life, unmediated communication between people and the need to find a physical and mental balance between work and leisure (on the assumption that it is still possible to differentiate between them).
One such initiative is the Sabbath Manifesto, written in 2010 by a group of Jewish artists, filmmakers and researchers inspired by the prohibition in Judaism against working on Shabbat. Their aim: to disconnect from technology at least one day a week. They recently initiated a “National Day of Unplugging,” scheduled for March 1, on which people are requested to disconnect from technology for 24 hours and allow ourselves “to unwind, unplug, relax, reflect, get outdoors and be with loved ones.”
Despite recent developments along these lines − the publication of quite a few excellent books on the subject, the fact that “device-free vacations” have become a trend in prestigious hotels and that many cafes in big cities now ask customers to leave their computers outside − the Slow Technology movement is still less of a movement than a collective gut feeling that something bad is happening in the Western world in the digital age, even if it is still difficult to put one’s finger on the exact implications of the threat.
Furthermore, as Silicon Valley devotees like to state, even if it can easily be proved that there exists a connection between sitting at the computer screen and health problems (in January, the Harvard Business Review’s blog network ran an article entitled “Sitting is the Smoking of Our Generation”) − only anti-technology hippies who want to turn back the wheel and live in caves can seriously argue that we can get along without emails, social networks and mobile technology.
And if the term “hippie” is not enough of an insult, opponents of Lanier, Turkle, Felix et al like to brand them “Luddites,” referring to English textile artisans in the 19th century who protested the changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution. In a desperate effort to preserve their livelihood, the Luddites rioted and wrecked wool and cotton machines until their protest was suppressed by the British Army. The Luddites, whose only crime was the pursuit of an honorable living, are today considered a caricature of egotistical, narrow-minded people who want to put a spoke in the wheels of progress, but are doomed to be crushed beneath those very wheels. In the meantime, though, progress seems to be crushing us all.
In an interview Lanier gave at the University of California, Berkeley, he explained that one of the reasons that make it hard to be critical of the use of technology is a phenomenon he terms “digital Maoism.” By this he means the transformation of belief in technology into a genuine religion which purports to give expression to innumerable voices and to solve most of humanity’s problems. In practice, however, it speaks with one bland voice and is largely responsible for the shrinkage of the middle class, a phenomenon to which Lanier devotes his new book, “Who Owns the Future?”
How, then, can people be induced to undergo a religious “conversion” in a culture of “digital Maoism”? To grasp the vast potential latent in the Slow Tech movement, it is worth recalling the origins of the Slow Food movement. It emerged in Italy in 1986 and sought to do battle against the fast-food industry. At first, the movement’s proponents were considered “obsessive” types, who wanted to live on herbs and seeds.
However, since the 1990s the Slow Food movement has become one of the most influential voices in the world in regard to proper nutrition and now has 800 branches globally. The result: The term “organic food,” which until a few years ago had been considered a passing fad, has become an integral part of the culinary scene in every big city. Even junk-food giants like McDonald’s and Burger King realized that if you can’t beat them you better join them, and began to add salads and more balanced alternatives to fried food to their menus.
As 1986 was a key year in the history of the food industry, will 2013 be remembered as the year in which the Slow Tech movement stopped being a mere curiosity and became a significant global phenomenon? After experiencing a Digital Detox workshop, it’s easy to convince oneself that the answer is yes.
“This is the start of something big,” Levi Felix tells me. “More and more people are having a hard time finding equilibrium, and are paying a high price. Technology is wonderful, and there is no reason to forgo it. But we have to understand that the universe will not implode if we unplug from the Internet occasionally.”
To allow as many people as possible, including students and other young people, to take part in the Digital Detox retreats, Felix and Dean have introduced a “pay as you can” system, based on transparency and mutual trust. People registering for a workshop can request a scholarship or partial subsidization of the full fee, which is $950 for four days (including organic vegetarian food, a luxurious private room, a guided tour of the redwood forests and all the activities).
Despite the couple’s sincere efforts to reach the broadest possible public, the overwhelming majority of the participants in the retreat that took place at the end of January were young, white, relatively affluent men and women in their twenties or thirties, most of whom live in Los Angeles or San Francisco. An e-mail that Felix sent to the participants the day before the retreat stated explicitly that there are only two rules: no talking about work and careers, and absolutely no use of any electronic or digital devices (including cell phones, computers, iPads, cameras, watches and music players).
In addition, as part of the attempt to “reboot” body and mind and detoxify the hyper-technological work environment, consciousness-altering substances, such as drugs or alcohol, are also banned, as are coffee and energy drinks.
“The prohibition on talking about work is meant to allow us to free ourselves from the things that define and limit us,” Felix explains to the group on the first night at the ranch − a lovely and inviting wooden structure that operates on green energy and solar panels situated on the verdant hills that surround the area.
“We are used to behaving in line with the expectations of society, boss or family,” he continues. “In that culture it is very easy to forget who you are and what you want. Therefore, we ask you all not to use the W word [work]. Instead of startup, the idea is to do a slowdown.” Surprisingly, the prohibition on talking about work proved to be no less difficult to obey − perhaps even more − than the ban on use of technological gadgets.
Alison Lewis, 39, from California, who came to the retreat with her partner, Peter Swearengen, 47, told me she had recently done a 10-week course at Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity University in Silicon Valley. Established in 2009, it is an academic institution that focuses on futuristic studies and singularity theory, according to which a day will come when the artificial intelligence of computers will outperform human intelligence. (Whether that is a utopia or a dystopia depends on who you ask.)
At the conclusion of an hour-long conversation about digital utopias and about the difference between human memory and algorithms, Lewis said, “I think I have guessed what you do: you are a computer programmer.” That incidental remark, uttered of course with a smile, showed how much we are a prisoner of our careers. Once you do something for enough years, it is very easy to forget that this is one career of many and that there are quite a few skills we have never tried to utilize or develop.
Indeed, the most interesting conversations at Digital Detox proved time and again that Jaron Lanier is right: There is something mysterious and elusive about people which is hard, probably impossible, to translate into a computer code.
‘I need to dance more’
As in other retreats with less trendy names, in the Digital Detox workshop, too, Felix and Dean worked nonstop to remind everyone that nothing is self-evident and that everything is amenable to change (even among “old dogs” in their twenties and thirties). To ease the gradual weaning from screens, coffee, sugar, sitting at the computer and interpersonal communication conducted mainly through Facebook and chats, the schedule was packed with activities.
There were no clocks around, and without mobiles there was no way to know the time (“Look at the sun and the moon − that will give you an idea,” Felix explained smilingly). We got up at the crack of dawn every morning to the sound of a bell, started the day with yoga, meditation and stretches, followed by breakfast, a walk in the magnificent redwood forests that surround the ranch, then lunch, reading and rest, a cooking or writing workshop, supper and conversations into the night by the fireplace.
In the remaining time, Felix and Dean encouraged participants to share their thoughts, and especially their difficulties. To break the ice on the first evening, a glass jar was placed on the dinner table containing scraps of paper with ideas for conversations under the rubric of “Digital Detalks.” Examples: “What is the oldest piece of clothing you still wear?” “Sing the first line of your favorite song.” “Which superhero would you like to be?” “What is the first line of your autobiography?”
In my interview with Felix in San Francisco after the retreat, he told me that the idea behind Digital Detox “is not just to take away people’s digital devices, but to confront them with what happens to them when there are no distractions or technological crutches available. When you take those away from people, things that have been repressed start to come out. Suddenly they start to think about what frightens them, about their hopes. And then different insights crop up: ‘I need to dance more,’ ‘I need to cook more and eat healthfully,’ ‘My job is making me miserable,’ and so on.”
In fact, the conversations during the retreat often touched on past traumas, on fears and apprehensions, on the desire to break out of the prison in the framework of which we are all trying to constantly guess what other people want from us. Like Felix, many of the participants talked about near-death experiences that radically transformed their view of the world.
Peter Swearengen, a father of three, admitted he spends an average of 17 hours a day at the computer. He said he had undergone brain surgery in 2003. During one of the dinners, he told us that, “There are many times when I feel that I am assuming so much responsibility for others that I have no time left to do anything for myself. It’s starting to wear me out.” In a conversation after the retreat, he related that in addition to raising his children he works in two startups. The first, in which he is a “senior developer,” belongs to Will Wright (creator of The Sims and SimCity, among the most popular computer games of all time), and the other specializes in green energy solutions and recycling.
In reply to a question, Felix says he is not surprised at the connection between physical trauma and the desire to kick the Internet habit. “It is hard for most of us to kick the habit or find the right balance, because we live in a society based on instant gratifications and on fear. We do things to get immediate gratification and we make decisions out of fear − and one of the major fears that drives us is the fear of death.
“Suddenly, along comes technology and says that maybe we can live forever, if only we create for ourselves a sufficiently rich and distinctive virtual identity. But if we can live forever, what makes our present meaningful? If we know that we can document everything all the time, even if there is no chance that we will ever go back to look at all the pictures we created, how are we supposed to enjoy the moment? It is important to remember that in the end we will all die, and therefore it is illogical to live with this constant fear. In the natural way of things, anyone who has coped with being close to death is aware of all these things far more deeply and is far more highly motivated to change them.”
Why are there so many activities? Wouldn’t it be better to let the participants truly cope with the absence of technology instead of keeping them constantly distracted?
“The idea is not to suffer. If people come to Digital Detox and suffer, they will immediately associate a disconnect from technology with negative experiences, and that is hardly the intention. The schedule is based on things we encountered during our travels. We met people who helped us and taught us numberless methods for reducing tension and not allowing incessant worries to dominate us, and now we are trying to help others apply those tools. It is important for us to emphasize that we did not invent anything. We are simply presenting the participants with a basket of tools − meditation, yoga, nature, silence − and each person can take whatever speaks to him.”
As is often the case in retreats, one of the main emphases in Digital Detox is on personal contact − a rare commodity in the computerized world, which has replaced the human face with pixels. On the first night we are asked to run in the yoga room. Afterward we are asked to lie down and hold the hand or ankle of whomever is next to us, in order to feel their pulse.
“When we touch each other, a hormone called oxytocin, known as the ‘love hormone,’ is released,” Felix explains. “That hormone is responsible for the contraction of the womb during childbirth and makes it possible for the mother to breast-feed. It heightens the sense of trust and security between people. One of the most effective ways to raise the production of oxytocin is to engage in a hug of at least 10 seconds.”
Contact is not the only sense that has undergone a transformation in the digital age. A study whose results were published in the January 2012 issue of the Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology found that the performance of dopamine − a neural conductor in the brain which is related to mood, the ability to concentrate and learn and many more functions − is significantly affected in the wake of lengthy surfing on the Internet. In addition, the study (which compared brain scans of people who were classified as suffering from Internet addiction, or IAD, and a control group) concluded that IAD possesses traits similar to drug addiction.
Felix: “We use touch screens and clicking all the time. We all behave like Pavlovian dogs. We have taught our brain to become accustomed to numberless immediate gratifications. We search Google and immediately get an answer, we sent a text message and immediately get a reply. The result is an endless loop of dopamine, which makes us crave more and more stimuli.”
Instagram of smells
In addition to touching, the four days we spent close to a beautiful nature setting revived two more lost senses: smell and taste. The digital culture is completely audiovisual in character. We live in never-ending noise (metaphorically and literally), and our eyes move away from the screen just a few seconds before we fall asleep.
At the same time, the need to ignore and repress physical desires and turn ourselves into machines that constantly maximize efficiency has created a sterile, industrial environment, which has little (if any) place for enjoying nonsynthetic aromas or the flavor of nonprocessed food. We get up in the morning, wash with soap, use deodorant and body lotion, spray on perfume and leave the house. But during the retreat, smells and flavors suddenly returned to life.
During a walk in the Montgomery Wood State Reserve in Mendocino Country, about five minutes by car from the ranch, a few of the participants got into a lively discussion about whether it would be possible to develop an Instagram of smells. As we stood on the moist earth next to one of the tallest trees in the world, breathing in the pure, refreshing air, Felix said, “It is very possible that in the not-so-distant future virtual reality will become so sophisticated that it will be possible to make people believe that they are hiking in the forest even without leaving the house. My fear is that most people will choose that option, and places like this forest will increasingly disappear.”
We were asked to walk back to the farm in silence, alone, so each of us could experience the forest at his own pace. As I crossed a lovely wooden bridge I noticed a black lizard with red feet and tail. I wanted to point it out to others, but there was no one around. I felt strange phantom pains, stemming from the fact that I searched my coat pocket agitatedly, only to remember a few seconds later that I did not have my mobile phone with me or the digital camera that I take everywhere.
I watched the lizard and wondered why it is that in the 21st century we are incapable of shedding the constant need to document everything and to endlessly flood the Internet − the largest archive in human history. If a tree falls in the forest and no one photographs it for Instagram, did it really fall?
Later, when I told Felix about the encounter with the lizard, he said that the ability to document everything is really just an illusion, “because what is most spectacular and truly deep is not amenable to representation.”
The Japanese word yugen embodies this principle, he continued: “Something so touching, sublime and transient that it cannot be ‘captured’ or represented. Those are moments we should take pleasure in, because in any event, a representation of them will be no more than partial.” It is easy to forget that verbal or visual representation has limits in a world that is composed wholly of an incessant flux of representations.
But if it is up to Felix and Dean, it is not yet too late to change the situation in which our brain is becoming accustomed to replace memories with pictures, human contact with touch screens, and the fragrance of flowers with engineered perfumes.
“This is only the beginning,” Felix told the participants on the last day of the retreat, before we were released back into the “real world” to start applying the principles we had learned. “And each of you can start his own ‘analog region.’”
When I met with Felix in a San Francisco cafe the day after the workshop ended, he agreed to tell me about his and Dean’s plans. “In April we will be doing for the first time a week-long retreat on the Cambodian island on which Brooke and I spent half a year,” he said. “We are also organizing a summer camp for 200 participants this June at a site in California that used to be a Scouts camp. We are doing consultation for more and more companies that want to apply some of our principles, and in the past month we started doing free activities around San Francisco, such as ‘device-free dinner,’ a board-games marathon and ‘analog zones’ in bars and cafes.”
Dean: “Our generation is actually the last one that still remembers the pre-digital age. We grew up without the Internet. But my niece, who is three, already knows how to use an iPhone and an iPad. We are talking with parents who are unable to communicate with their children, and with children and adolescents who don’t know how to occupy themselves for five minutes without a mobile phone. The only way to fight this is through education, and that is what we are trying to do.”
What is your vision for Digital Detox?
“Ironically,” Felix replies, smiling, “I think that if we really succeed we will no longer be needed. The basic idea is not to create a business, but to create increasing numbers of spaces that will make it possible for people to disconnect from technology a little. I look around me and see agitation below the surface. I think that in the near future a serious anti-technology movement will emerge. It will preach a total disconnect from devices. A schism will be created between those living in a digital world and those living in an analog world.
“I think it doesn’t have to come to that. The basic idea of Digital Detox is to find a balance. Brooke and I felt that there are many people, such as Lanier or Nicholas Carr, who are writing about Slow Technology, but that there are very few people who are allowing themselves and others to investigate how those principles can be applied. The basic idea is not to persuade people to take a break and come to the ranch for four days. The idea is for them to find the balance in their day-to-day life and to experiment with new things. Go outdoors, talk to your neighbors, ask your friends questions, surprise yourselves. The main thing is to turn off the computer once in a while.”
According to Levi Felix, the cofounder of Digital Detox, you don’t have to attend a detoxification workshop or retreat to find a new balance between work and leisure, or between your analog and digital lives.
Here are seven simple steps that can help you find some non-technology time:
1. Wake up without a telephone. Try waking up with an alarm clock rather than your mobile. You’ll probably sleep better without the need to check emails the moment you open your eyes.
2. Don’t take the mobile to the bathroom. According to statistics, 75 percent of Americans send text messages and talk on their phone in the bathroom. Take a small break and let your thoughts wander.
3. Go out for a walk. Take a 20-minute break in the park to improve your ability to concentrate. Are you suffering from writer’s block? Studies show that even if you stay in the room and look at pictures of nature your power of concentration will improve.
4. No telephones on the dining-room table. Treat meals as quality time that enables you to communicate with others, and devote time to preparing food and thinking about what you’re putting into your body.
5. Train your brain. Next time you feel like snapping a picture, try to draw it or write about it. Your brain will remember the moment that you’re trying to record far more clearly and for far longer than if you snap a picture and post it in seconds.
6. Hug somebody. Changes in dopamine and in the hormone oxytocin as a result of prolonged use of the Internet have caused scientists to determine that we are developing a genuine addiction to technology. (We’re starting to link positive emotions, such as the sense that we are loved, to our gadgets instead of the human beings with whom we communicate.) To get a generous dose of oxytocin and substantially lower your levels of tension and anxiety, try hugging someone for between nine and 20 seconds.
7. Make love, not text messages. A recent survey found that 25 percent of owners of mobile devices answer calls in the middle of sex. Try to be better lovers, and leave your mobile outside the bedroom. Your sex life will improve, as will your relationship with your partner.
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