“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.”
Henry David Thoreau
There is a burgeoning trend, which I am tempted to dub the Get a Life Movement, to reclaim our lives and our sense of place in the physical world around us. The Get a Life movement is the life buoy offered to those drowning in the virtual planes of social media, avatars in digital worlds, the internet, the augmentation of Google Glass, and the other wonders of technological connection.
The Get a Life movement’s aim is pithily expressed in the phrase “Disconnect to Reconnect,” the marketing tag line of Digital Detox, a technology-free destination experience in California. Digital Detox provides retreats in California and beyond, featuring a range of wholesome and wholehearted pursuits. Yet I can’t help think it is another way of packaging what might otherwise previously have been called summer camp.
What these retreats might not necessarily provide us, though, is a complete reframing of our relationship with technology and the virtual worlds we inhabit. The danger is that technology vacations will substitute for the uncomfortable, deliberate, yet necessary negotiation of the role of technology in our lives. In the same way that most traditional vacations end rapidly upon reentering our workplace, so will we likely resume numb submission to our digital alter egos.
We cannot even take a simple walk through the local park and around our neighborhoods without now regarding it as an exercise, as part of a health regime, complete with sports wear, distance trackers, iPods and other technology. Gone is the age of the flânuer, who demonstrated that certain philosophy of mind and life that might include curiosity, a casualness to time, lucid perception of the world around them and an enjoyment of beauty in life. Instead, we are too busy
uploading our calorie counters to the cloud.
Even when we are “away,” in the traditional vacation context, for us to dare take a vacation from work we have to concede remaining harnessed between our working and social lives through our technology. The new gondola in Vail, Colorado, features free Wi-Fi. This is Vail, in the Rocky Mountains, one of the most stunning vistas in America… if you cannot resist removing yourself from this sublime scene in favor of becoming a mere observer, a proxy of your virtual sharing self, no amount of digital detoxing will help you truly control your digital addiction.
That inability to detach from our technological working selves also manifests itself in genuinely meaningful social occasions. Supposedly called “unplugged weddings,” a new trend when tying the knot is for smartphones to be removed from guests at the marriage ceremony, such has their distracting ubiquity become.
A week or two away from our technology to rediscover ourselves may not seem like such a bad compromise for our otherwise technical immersion. What we are forsaking, though, may be the very essence of why we are alive. It is a Faustian compact to live life only superficially present to others around us, but temporarily and vacuously connected to those remotely attached to our digital selves. Jonathan Safran Foer expressed something of this in terms of human relationships, and our need for each other: “There is no better use of a life than to be attentive to [the needs of others]… We live in a world made up more of story than stuff. We are creatures of memory more than reminders, of love more than likes. Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be messy, and painful, and almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die.”