'Camp Grounded,' 'Digital Detox,' and the Age of Techno-Anxiety

What to make of the new New Naturalism
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Kale, fresh from our garden, wrapped around an old iPhone (Alexis Madrigal).

On a weekend in the middle of June, a few hundred people gathered together at an event called Camp Grounded in northern California for a celebration of leaving technology behind. Organized by the group Digital Detox, the $350 experience appears to have been fun.

And exceptionally well attended by national media.

First, Chris Colin filed a dispatch for The New Yorker. Then, NPR and The New York Times got into the mix.

You know, just your average down-home weekend with the elite of the elite of the media elite. (No, really, Chris Colin is one of the very best writers around.)

I bring this up not to pick on the writers or stories themselves, but to point out that all three of these newsrooms thought the event would be of interest to their readers. Here's what happened on the retreat.

"The rules of Camp Grounded were simple: no phones, computers, tablets or watches; work talk, discussion of people's ages and use of real names were prohibited," the Times wrote.

"Campers at Camp Grounded participated in "playshops," featuring yoga, laughing contests and writing sessions," NPR wrote. "But for many of the participants, the most exciting activity was conversation."

Commenting on the pervasiveness of technology, one of Digital Detox's founders told the NPR reporter, "People are feeling like something's not right."

Indeed, tech anxiety abounds. And I take it seriously. Some people feel something is amiss in their relationships, and that technology is to blame. 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 overengineered, or -- more damningly in the current climate -- processed. 

Processed foods were once the time-saving, awe-inducing markers of an upwardly mobile household. (Check out this ad for dextrose.) Now, among the upper middle classes, they're a sure sign that someone does not have a firm grip on what the good life is. Processed food, Michael Pollan would tell you, is not even really food at all. And it tangles you up in huge economic webs that stretch across the globe. So while Farm Bill politics make larger-scale solutions impractical, the answer, mostly, is to eat local, organic food -- prepared like Grandma would. 

This logic has been extended to digital friendships. Processed relationships get scare quotes: Facebook "friends." Processed relationships can't be as genuine or authentic or honest as real life friendships. Processed relationships generate data for Facebook and Twitter and Google and the NSA. So the solution is to make local friends, hang out organically, and only communicate through means your Grandma would recognize. It's so conservative it's radical! 

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We planted this iPhone and it only grew one kale leaf (Alexis Madrigal).

I can't help but draw the parallel back to the 1960s back-to-the-landers, some of whom became what I call solar transcendentalists, people who thought changing their energy supply would change their souls. (A typical comment: "We grow more in awe of the tenuous hold our lives have on this small planet, more convinced that the sun renews us, in an almost religious way.") Their results varied. 

In the late 60s and early 70s, researcher Daniel Yankelovich started polling college students, and found that they'd turned away from the technologies that had helped create the enormously wealthy American society. The movement, though, was not political so much as social. Most wanted to change their own lives more than they wanted to change society. Yankelovich called this phenomenon "The New Naturalism." The packet of ideas, as summarized by political scientist Gabriel Almond, included: 

turning off toward the achievement ethic, competition, science, technology, and bureaucracy, and a turning on toward direct sensory experience, adapting to nature rather than seeking to master it, cultivating deep and honest relationships in small groups, and seeking self knowledge through introspection. 

Compare that summary to Colin's description of Camp Grounded:

The urge to check in, to check out, to Vine, to Snap, to Tumbl, faded with surprising ease. But the Camp Grounded vision of technology's toxic influence is more holistic: money, clocks, alcohol, drugs, and any talk of people's ages or work were all off-limits. Conversations could no longer begin with 'What do you do?'

Turn against achievement ethic? Check. Turn against technology? Check. Direct sensory experience? Check. Adapting to nature? Check. Cultivating deep and honest relationships in small groups? Check. 

As for introspection... The Times' article describes one 45-year-old CEO "carrying the Camp Grounded journal he was given in which he asked himself over and over 'Who am I?' before concluding that he is 'a man with an open heart.'" It ends with the author staring up at the sky, "looking for shooting stars, not reality ones. And for once, I was enjoying the silence."

Digital Detox's name even conjures up the same chemophobia that pervades the current whole foods movement. It says: technology is toxic and addictive, unnatural.

The list of banned items extended beyond phones to beer and *time* itself. According to the Times account, all meals were vegan and gluten-free. The men and women were also separated into different sleeping grounds, and there wasn't much free love. (It turns out that the hippie future is way less fun than the hippie past.)

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