I have the uttermost sympathy for those who choose to push (digital) technology aside in order to better focus on innate human values. But the group called ‘Camp Grounded’ in Alexis Madrigal’s piece in The Atlantic seems incapable of asking real questions about the power of today’s technology over our lives. In fact, their saturnalia in the woods of Northern California sounded so inane that those individuals who participated in it are probably living lives just as shallow and vapid as many tech-addicts. I think this is the central point Madrigal was trying to make. As long as the event was held in good, plain fun, then there really isn’t anything to jeer at (it’s still okay to have fun, right?). But as a serious attempt to reconnect to that part of ourselves which is lost to excessive technology use, Digital Detox and Camp Grounded seems to be misguided and confused.
There are a lot of movements that privilege nature and a return to the “simple life,” but they are neglected by Madrigal in this piece. He focuses primarily on Camp Grounded, but he also alludes to the sustainability movement, and remembers the New Naturalism movement (which isn’t so new anymore). However, Madrigal is keen enough to make the distinction between political movements and social ones. Indeed, in order to be political, a movement must have a formal system or channel of civic engagement, as well as some leverage when it comes to governmental decisions. At the end of the day, Camp Grounded is just a camp, and New Naturalism was just a social movement that dissipated like so much pot smoke. Other ideas aren’t even given consideration (i.e.: Deep Ecology, Neo-Tribalism, Anarcho-Primitivism), perhaps because they are too philosophically radical, and have really no chance of success.
The idea that a simple, more natural way of living would affect more spontaneous human interaction, leading to deeper, more meaningful relationships is questioned by Madrigal. Indeed, he argues that the whole concept “has a baseline problem.” He goes on to explain, giving several quick examples, that human nature itself is characterized by snap-judgments and fascination with petty baubles and worthless trinkets. Even in the woods, sans technology, there is an artificial way of being that hinders the whole concept of living a simple, authentic life. This would be a weak argument unless Madrigal conceded that there were problems with our current society which called for greater awareness of our technological lives. But he does just that. Madrigal writes, “individuals unplugging is not actually an answer to the biggest technological problems of our time.” This quote had the effect of sort of slapping me out of my political stupor, which I have been operating under of late. Reading Madrigal’s piece, I realize that merely unplugging is basically a form of posturing; a political position that carries no impetus for real positive change. Ironically, even being apathetic about politics is itself a political position. Being apathetic is tantamount to declaring that you are perfectly fine with your socioeconomic condition. Likewise, unplugging may be a strong personal choice, but it too suggests that you are okay with the collective insanity of our digital lifestyles. The real force behind Madrigal’s article, then, is the call to assess technology on a societal scale, which requires more than a simple, naive retreat into the woods.
Another organization, Reboot, has similar ideas about unplugging. But instead of hosting a summer camp, Reboot called for a “National Day of Unplugging.” In The Pointlessness of Unplugging, I was struck by Casey N. Cep’s poetic jab at those “vainglorious” individuals who unplug from technology for a while, as a matter of principle, only to return from their experience and blog about it. If it is a matter of principle, returning to technology after declaring a jettisoning of it does indeed smack of a certain hypocriticalness. But I don’t agree with Cep’s idea that experience is essentially the same whether we are using technology or not. Cep writes, “[u]nplugging from devices doesn’t stop us from experiencing our lives through their lenses, frames, and formats.” For someone writing about contradictions, this statement itself seems contradictory. While Cep may not be making an ontological claim, I read this statement as a declaration that our experience is the same whether we are watching a sunset through a high definition television screen, or “in real life,” with eyes unsullied by technology. I understand her viewpoint, though. For Cep, technology is such an integral part of our society that our lives will inevitably be filtered through lenses, frames, and formats. Still, this seems like a fatal acceptance of the way things are. Cep doesn’t seem to mind technology so much, and concludes that “we’d do better to reflect on how we can live [with technology] than to pretend we can live elsewhere.”
Pining for an “elsewhere” seems typical, but it is not such a new behavior, symptomatic of contemporary life. I don’t mean to make equal comparisons with the past and the present. My intention is not to placate the risks of immoderate technology use by suggesting that things aren’t so bad after all. I do feel that digital technology poses risks that will have to be dealt with in the future (growing narcissism, the interplay of texting and driving, etc.).
A final writer, Nathan Jurgenson, writes sarcastically about the issue of authenticity in The Disconnectionists. The questions here are, is the immoderate use of technology inauthentic, and is there a better way of living and being? These are questions that are central to critics of so much digital technology. Jurgenson writes, “the way the concern with digital connection has manifested itself in such profoundly heavy-handed ways suggests in the aggregate something more significant is happening, to make so many of us feel as though our integrity as humans has suddenly been placed at risk.” There are two main concerns that stand at equal distances from each other when it comes to talk about risk. These are the effect of technology on our natural world, and the affect that such effects have on ourselves. Dealing with the topic of the Self, Jurgenson writes with gusto on the subject of authenticity, and what it means to be human with so much technology diffusion changing our social landscape. For Jurgenson, his stance on authenticity is made obvious: “The most obvious problem with grasping at authenticity is that you’ll never catch it.” Steeped in language that is heavily post-structural, The Disconnectionists is an article that comes at new definitions. Ultimately, Jurgenson thinks that today’s digital technologies contain important connecting principles that can lead to important relationships and constructive discourse.
This is what all three of these writers have in common. They seem to implicitly accept technology, but they don’t banish it to the far reaches, in order to extol the virtues of mankinds’ authenticity. For Madrigal, Cep, and Jurgenson, digital technology is a tool to be harnessed for civil, moral, and practical purposes.