In the Bay Area, what starts out as counterculture eventually becomes a commodity. It's inevitable, and not a bad thing: indeed, the counterculture has always had an entrepreneurial dimension.* Journalist Jessica Yadegaran has a piece in the Mercury News about Digital Detox, an East Bay-based company that organizes device-free retreats in Ukiah and other places. So far as I can tell, it's the first company built around structured, guided unplugging:
Levi Felix started Digital Detox, a company in Oakland, as a way to help people disconnect from their gadgets in order to reconnect with themselves. A casualty of the tech industry, Felix had his own aha moment after 80-hour work weeks at a startup put him in the hospital with an esophageal tear and internal bleeding his doctors said were caused by stress and poor lifestyle.
After a two-year stint traveling the world, which included managing a retreat in Cambodia,
Felix and [Brooke] Dean returned home to create digital-free retreats where anyone, from stay-at-home moms to Google (GOOG) executives, could disconnect from technology and recharge through hiking, journaling, art and massage.
"There's no seat belt or smoking section for the digital world," Felix explains. "It's not that all of these digital technologies are bad. But humans have never lived in a situation like this, and we need help to reconnect in a more meaningful way."
In a way the Digital Detox events are a local version of the "detox tourism" that's sprung up in South Asia in the last few years, in which resorts and monasteries offer Western (and well-off Chinese) visitors the chance to break free of drug and device addictions.
Some participants rave about the retreats: Jon Mitchell called his "the highest-tech thing I’ve done in a long time:"
That's right — retreating to a natural hot spring tucked away in a valley with no computers is high tech, and the 12 of us who attended this long weekend are lucky early adopters. We downloaded new versions of ourselves. Now that I’m finished installing mine, I’m back online, but it’s going to be different now.
I'm intrigued by commercial events and retreats like this (though I also think we have a lot to learn from religious sabbaths), and I wonder whether alumni take up new daily practices, go on annual retreats, or what. It's easy to leave an extraordinary few days feeling changed and charged, but to have the real world intrude unhappily after a few weeks; knowing how people manage the transition from retreat to real world would be interesting.
Felix and Dean also started an evening-long "Device-Free Drinks events, where people trade in their cellphones for analog activities, like board games and playing on typewriters."
"Instead of staring at your phone or checking in online, you're meeting new people and having fun," Felix says. The bar events have drawn at least 200 people a night since launching last October.
The New York Times' Andy Isaacson talked about these events last month, at which people trade their devices for "board games, butcher paper and markers, colored threads for friendship bracelets." It may sound silly, but people need it:
Jana Kantor, who had volunteered to check in the devices, thought she had seen the unpretty face of addiction. “One woman told me, ‘My whole life is on this phone,’ so I said, ‘That’s something interesting for you to think about: is your whole life data, or is it your body?’ ”
“I actually saw withdrawal symptoms,” she said.
Since we live in an area dominated by an industry that believe that addiction is a feature, it should come as no surprise that people who work in that industry are among the most likely to need to unplug.
* Indeed, I'd argue that the entrepreneurial side of the counterculture has always been more robust and influential than the Jack Kerouac-hippie-drifer mode of rebellion against The Squares.