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

What to make of the new New Naturalism

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! 

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.)

The dream, I would offer, is that by stripping away the trappings of modern life, we reach a place where humans naturally fall into deep and honest relationships with each other. The vision promises that if it weren't for all the damn new stuff (like watches), we'd all be sitting around sharing the parts of ourselves that we're ashamed of, supporting others in their most meaningful endeavors, and paying mind only to worthy causes and ideas. 

The whole concept has a baseline problem. This is not a strawman. Take a look at the media coverage: it's all in there. Camp Grounded is a pure distillation of post-modern technoanxiety. More concentrated than most, but fundamentally composed of the same stuff.

I can sympathize. Who doesn't want depth in their relationships? Or to be judged by the content of one's character, not the company on one's business card? Why won't life slow down and be still? Why can't I figure it all out? And also my phone is making noises while I'm trying to think. 

My own view is that life, itself, is the toxic and addictive bit. You cannot stop doing it and doing it and doing it until eventually you die from too much living. (Haruki Murakami touched on this in his book on running: "When we use writing to create a story, like it or not a kind of toxin that lies deep down in all humanity rises to the surface," he wrote. "All writers have come face-to-face with this toxin and, aware of the danger involved, discover a way to deal with it.")

These are trite observations that could have been made at any time in the last few centuries: you will be imperfect and you'll be distracted by petty nonsense and jealousy and celebrity gossip and football trades. You'll have too much to drink and parcel out time too stingily and judge people for the wrong reasons. You, too, will go to a party and make a snap judgment about continuing to talk with someone on the basis of their answer to the question, "What do you do?" Like the millions before you, you will be horribly uneven but probably pretty decent, all things considered. 

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the entire Judeo-Christian tradition is founded on duplicity; and early 19th century (i.e. pre-Industrial) literature is filled with the most shallow backstabbing and infighting imaginable. 

Digital Detox's project, then, is not a flight back to the natural: They are trying to strip away the gluten and electromagnetic waves and gossip to create new, artificial, better humans.

Techno-kale friends (Alexis Madrigal).

The whole rhetoric, though, requires a retreat from the frontlines of the battle to define tomorrow's systems. These technologies need real critiques. Our social networks and smartphones are not "neutral" tools. We may be able to manage our relationships with them, but we need to know what they are trying to do, technically, culturally, and financially.

And besides: Facebook is just the tip of the iceberg. Every single person out there on the land is deeply dependent on the digital-industrial infrastructure of our society. Long ago (Spring 1994), J. Baldwin wrote an essay in the Whole Earth Review on this very topic called, "Where Did You Get Your Axe?"

He begins in a despairing mode we're all familiar with.

We know where the blame lies: Big corporations and their political protectors, advertising and consumerism, and most of all, technology -- especially computers -- that gives them their power. Without the pervasive effects of technology run amok, we could exist as good earth citizens, doing honest work in harmony with the environment... We can forsake the hi-tech life that brings with it so much ruin of environment and human spirit. We should return to the simple life.

Baldwin goes on to describe a family that escaped the hi-tech life for a valley in Wyoming where they made many things by hand. They showed slides and talked about the salutary effects of DIY life. Everyone applauded.

But Baldwin asks, "Where did you get your axe? And the slide camera and the stove, the flour, the nails, the books, the garden seeds, and the window glass?" While it seemed that they'd gotten farther away from a technological life, "they'd merely lengthened the umbilical cord." And here's the key part of the criticism: "By moving to the bucolic boondocks, that happy family dodged the undesirable effects of the technology that was supporting them even as they sneered," he concludes.

There's nothing really wrong with escaping to the boonies. But individuals unplugging is not actually an answer to the biggest technological problems of our time just as any individual's local, organic dietary habits don't solve global agriculture's issues. These are collective problems that will require collective action based on serious critique. (Want a good model? Check out Pollan's sweeping Farm Bill criticisms *and* policy suggestions, which have been overshadowed by his eating advice.)

I refuse to accept that the only good response to an imperfect technology is to abandon it. We need more specific criticisms than the ever-present feeling that "'something's not right." What thing? Developing a political agenda to remake, improve, or forbid technologies requires some sort of rubric: how can I judge what I'm using? What are the deleterious impacts? How are they specific to these media and this time? Which effects are *caused by* the technologies and which are *enabled by* the technologies and which just happen to *occur through* the technologies? What are the ethics? What are the mechanics? What is the baseline?