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Deconstructing the Digital Detox

News & Features | April 28, 2014

Freshman Daria Thames deactivated her Facebook account one month ago and has not logged on since. “I feel like I have more genuine connections with people even though it’s only been a month,”mused Thames. “I talk to the people I want to talk to, instead of just checking in on everyone.”Sophomore Daniel Welch also deactivated his Facebook account for over a year. “I overheard these freshmen talking about things that were happening on Facebook in the real world, and it was treated as a worthy of topic of conversation, as if something had actually happened. So I deleted my Facebook. It was brash but I appreciated my gumption in the morning.”

More and more people are signing offline because they feel, in some capacity, overwhelmed. It is as if they are being consumed and subsumed by the infinite sources of social and web media, and either are not getting as much work done as intended or feel that they are missing out on the genuine moments of reallife. Sherry Turkle, a psychologist at M.I.T. who recently published the book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other argues that we can never be satiated with the sorts of interactions afforded to us online. “We are tempted to think that our little ‘sips’ of online connection add up to a big gulp of real conversation,” explains Turkle. “But no matter how valuable, they do not substitute for conversation.” Turkle is a huge proponent of the digital detox—the idea that we as a society need to log off every now and then for a few days, or a week, or a year, in order to regain control of our lives.

The digital detox movement has gained incredible momentum as of late. Book deals  abound: Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, Lee Siegel’s Against the Machine, Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation, Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur, JaronLanier’s You Are Not a Gadget, and Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion all warn against the dark dangers of the Internet and extol the values of unplugging. Randi Zuckerberg, the older sister of the famous Facebook mogul who is involved with the corporation herself , has written two books—one autobiographical, one picture book—urging people to cut down on their time spent online. The older Zuckerberg doesn’t suggest signing off forever, but she does provide etiquette instructions about moderating one’s time. Others from the dot-com world are providing instructions on how to cut down: Arianna Huffington of The Huffington Post has created “GPS for the Soul,” an app to help people detach for a minute to find a sense of calm, and Eric Schmidt, Google’s chairman, has announced his pledge to make sure his family dinners are “gadget-free.”

For those who really need to detach, the group Digital Detox recently hosted Camp Grounded in northern California. The $350 trip for media and social elite  encouraged people to unplug and enjoy real experiences, like seeing the stars and having uninterrupted conversations. There was even a National Day of Unplugging from sundown on March 7th until sundown on March 8th created by the nonprofit Reboot “to help hyperconnected people of all backgrounds to embrace the ancient ritual of a day of rest.” Their argument is that there is such a thing as being too connected, and we can only benefit from cutting back our time online to indulge in our time offline. In their eyes, there is the real world and the Internet world, and the two oppose each other.

Popular social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson has written extensively about this idea that the real world and the Internet are entirely separate, which he calls the “fallacy of digital dualism.” Jurgenson explains that the idea of digital dualism is an “outdated perspective as Facebook is increasingly real and our physical world increasingly digital.” We are ourselves on the Internet just as much as we are ourselves offline––there is simply a different medium. Jurgenson argues that the two realms are one—that we live in a reality augmented by digitality.

And as many detoxers have discovered, disconnecting oneself from the digital world often equates to disconnecting oneself from the real world. The two are linked too closely to allow for anything else. Popular technology blogger Paul Miller spent a year without any Internet, wanting to focus on bettering his human relationships, getting more work done, and embracing serendipity. As he chronicled his year abroad in the analog world, Miller initially found some benefits: his attention span lengthened and he wrote more prolifically. But in his return post on The Verge one year later, Miller wrote, “I was wrong.” He explains that his problems with getting distracted or connecting with people were internal issues that simply manifested themselves digitally, and that in unplugging, he unplugged from much of humanity. He couldn’t’t keep up with friends far away; he couldn’t’t Skype with his nieces and nephews; he couldn’t’t collaborate with coworkers; and he couldn’t meet up with friends as easily. Everyone else stayed plugged in, so Miller simply felt left out.

Daria Thames also feels this difficulty of logging off when others have not: “I feel like I’m a little bit out of the loop. It’s a very strong part of how we connect with each other. Tufts groups often organize and talk through Facebook pages, so it can be a tad inconvenient.” Daniel Welch reactivated his Facebook after one year to connect with people more easily. “I didn’t have that many long distance friendships, so I could keep in contact with a few people over the phone without Facebook,” Welch explained. “But then I got mono and I was stuck in my house all day and I wanted to connect with people so I figured I would reactivate it just while I was sick to fill my time and communicate with friends.”

This is why, as Casey Cep wrote in a recent New Yorker piece, almost every digital detox—such as the National Day of Unplugging, or the use of apps such as SelfControl that help one limit time online—is accompanied by a triumphant digital return. For many of these detoxes, the goal is to return to digital technology with a renewed appreciation and approach. In this way a digital detox is much like a juice cleanse—the idea isn’t to convert to a juice-only diet forever, but rather to restart and approach food with a new perspective or with more self restraint. The idea of a digital detox is meant to introduce moderation and show that we can live without the Internet, but not necessarily suggest that we should.

Critics of the detox movement, such as Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic or Nathan Jurgenson, explain that it isn’t the idea of digitally detoxing that is inherently flawed. It is the fact that the discourse surrounding detoxing insinuates that technology is inherently unnatural and that unplugging solves every problem.  This idea that detoxing is the simple and entire  solution detracts from other more important and complex questions about our technologically integrated world : Is the disconnect that people feel when using Facebook a symptom of physical or emotional distance? What are the ethics of cutting down on technology? What are the privileges of our digital age? Why have humans been pushing back against supposedly “unnatural” technology since the invention of the wheel? Our digital world looks like it may be here to stay, and we can’t turn it off, but we can critique it.