From The Oatmeal. A reminder that spending time offline is no longer just for people with bumper stickers on their Prius that say "This car stops for satori."
Contemplative computing may sound like an oxymoron, but it's really quite simple. It's about how to use information technologies and social media so they're not endlessly distracting and demanding, but instead help us be more mindful, focused and creative.
My book on contemplative computing, The Distraction Addiction, was published by Little, Brown and Co. in 2013, and is available in bookstores and online. This 2011 talk is a good introduction to the project and its big ideas.
“It was viewed as hostile. Or precious. 'Oh, look at us, trying to have mental health.’” So said one the people I interviewed about Digital Sabbaths for my book, The Distraction Addiction. I’ve been reminded of that lament by some recent critiques of the digital detox movement, most recently Casey Sep’s New Yorker piece, “The Pointlesness of Unplugging.” It joins a growing list of essays— Alexis Madrigal’s "'Camp Grounded,' 'Digital Detox,' and the Age of Techno-Anxiety,” Nathan Jurgenson’s “The Disconnectionists,” Evgeny Morozov’s “The Mindfulness Racket,” most notably— that criticize the concept and practice of digital detoxes, from several different angles.
The Real is Fake
One argument is that digital detoxes construct a false distinction between the digital and the “real,” enacting an outmoded and anachronistic belief that there is a gap between the world online and the world around us. For some, the functional distinction between bits and atoms has collapsed thanks to pervasive computers, smartphones and wearables, and the Internet of Things.
Alternately, you can argue that like the statement “Don’t think about elephants,” a digital detox is self-undermining. The very act of going offline means you’re thinking about being online, and you’re organizing your “real” life around your virtual life (if only by trying to get away from it). Thus your struggles to break free from it only tangle you more deeply in the Web.
Another line of criticism is that the digital detox movement is an exercise in what you might (playing off David Banks’ great phrase) call “notorious disconnection." People who take digital detoxes are advertising that they're super busy and plugged-in, but unlike the rest of you, are both enlightened enough to recognize that this isn’t good for you, and so indispensable they can step away, preferably to a converted monastery in the Italian countryside, a rustic inn in northwest Scotland, or an eco-friendly resort in Thailand, Columbia, Belize, or Sardinia, and still have a job when they get back.
This turns what should be an exercise in simplicity and modesty into an act of "conspicuous non-consumption" (as Laura Portwood-Stacer put it), and gives it an unpleasant moralistic and elitist gloss. Digital detoxes give everyone the chance to behave like a stereotype of Gwyneth Paltrow: organic, superior, maddeningly happy, decked out in fair trade but beautifully-tailored linen, and infuriating in their smug public perfection. And at Janet Kornblum put it, "Chastising folks for being too connected, too often, is a lot like scolding young women for being too obsessed about their looks."
Get Off My Lawn!
Finally, there’s the argument that this is just cultural froth: digital addiction, or being over-connected, or having the wrong kind of connection, is this year’s Thing To Be Judgmental About. "What sex was for the Puritans,” Sep says, "technology has become for us.” In a world of cultural relativism, we can still be technological absolutists. Not that everyone agrees, of course: as xkcd recently asked about the instinct to take pictures of everything, “why the f*** do you care how someone else enjoys a sunset?”
(In a lighter vein, this sense that digital detoxes are a fad is what inspires parodies like Vooza’s awesome piece about detoxing, the Parks and Recreation episode where Tom Haverford has to spend a week offline, or Modern Family’s "Long Amish Nightmare” episode.)
Some people who participated in the recent National Day of Unplugging, the essay notes,
submitted self-portraits to Reboot holding explanations of why they chose to unplug: 'to be more connected,' 'to reset,' 'to spend more time with my family,' 'so my eye will stop twitching,' 'to bring back the beauty of life,’ 'to be in the moment’. Not so long ago, those very reasons (except, maybe, for the eye-twitching) would have explained why many took to the devices that they were now unplugging.
Did something happen between “not so long ago” and now? I’d argue that a couple things have happened: smartphones, Facebook, Twitter, mobile social, location-based social media, and the workplace pressure to be always-on.
If you want a good overview of how enmeshed the Internet and mobile devices have become in our lives, check out this overview from Pew Research Internet Project on the “three technology revolutions” of the last decade: the rise of broadband Internet connectivity, mobile computing, and social media.
Or check out their various surveys about Internet and mobile device use. What you find is that in March 2000, when the first dot-com bubble burst, 40% of Americans used the Internet; that percentage has more than doubled, to 87% in January 2014. Today 73% of all Internet users are on social media, and 42% are on multiple platforms, while only 8% of Internet users were on social media in 2005. And today 87% of men and 86% of women have smartphones, up from almost zero in 2005.
So I’d say this isn’t just a function of cultural anxiety or another example of The Olds not getting young people with the fancy gadgets; there really are significant differences in how we interact with technology, how much time we spend interacting, and the expectations we have to be always-on and always-broadcasting.
Contradiction and Authenticity
Another issue the essay raises is that
Unplugging seems motivated by two contradictory concerns: efficiency and enlightenment. Those who seek efficiency rarely want to change their lives, only to live more productively… The enlightenment crowd, by contrast, abstains from technology in search of authenticity.
Let’s deal with the contradiction first, and then the question of authenticity.
Is there a contradiction between the search for efficiency and enlightenment? Living in Silicon Valley, I would say that there have always been two competing visions of the personal computer: as a productivity tool, and as a tool for enlightenment. You can see this in Ted Nelson’s Machine Dreams, or Michael Green’s Zen and the Art of Macintosh. You can read about how it affected Silicon Valley in John Markoff’s What the Dormouse Said and Theodore Roszak’s fabulous and under-appreciated From Satori to Silicon Valley. Or you can watch an old Apple Macintosh ad.
More generally, I think you can see the same tension or dualism play out in America’s love of yoga, which is appreciated in part because it’s seen as both deeply spiritual and awesome exercise. Or in the history of religion and business in America: think of the Prosperity Gospel.
If your tastes run to less ostentatious combinations of church and commerce, look at the Puritans and Quakers in early America. Their piety inspired them to emigrate to an unknown continent rather than compromise on their religious beliefs, but that didn’t stop them from getting really rich. (Their worries about the corrupting effects of wealth inspired some serious philanthropic activity, including founding the universities Sep and I attended.)
And from John Winthrop and William Penn it’s but a short step back to Weber and the whole Protestant ethic and spirit of capitalism argument.
So even if unplugging is “motivated by two contradictory concerns,” they’re concerns that have been joined together uneasily for centuries.
Now, regarding unplugging and the search for authenticity.
I went back to the notes from my interviews with digital Sabbatarians, and checked to see how often they used the term “authentic” to describe what they were looking for when they went offline.
The number of times they invoked it?
Likewise, I did a search on Twitter this afternoon for occurrences of the words “digital detox authenticity.” What did I get? Three links to the essay ”Into the Real: A Screen Addict’s Quest for Authenticity,”, which is a parody of both Into the Void and the rhetoric or authenticity, and a link to “The Disconnectionists.”*
In other words, I think it’s reasonable to argue— and I admit I’ve not spent days combing blogs and Twitter feeds looking for first-hand accounts of digital detoxing that invokes authenticity— that this is a bit of a straw man. The people who talk most about a link between digital detoxes and authenticity are the people who are critiquing the idea that life offline offers authenticity. People who doing it don’t seem to use the term.
The Problem With "Detox"
If it takes unplugging to learn how better to live plugged in, so be it. But let’s not mistake such experiments in asceticism for a sustainable way of life. For most of us, the modern world is full of gadgets and electronics, and we’d do better to reflect on how we can live there than to pretend we can live elsewhere.
It just so happens that there's a book that make exactly this argument. When I was writing the chapter on the digital sabbath movement, I chose the term “sabbath” rather than “detox” because I thought the term “detox” was problematic. It hadn’t yet made it into the Oxford English Dictionary (“a period of time during which a person refrains from using electronic devices such as smartphones or computers, regarded as an opportunity to reduce stress or focus on social interaction in the physical world”), but I thought that the term “digital sabbath” points us in a different, healthier direction than detox. And while it has gained ground (and is certain to become even more popular now that advertising agencies and designers have identified it as A Thing for 2014), I’m still hopeful that we can move past “detox" sooner rather than later.
Lauren Bacon makes an excellent case against the term “detox” in a recent piece:
If we adopt the belief that technology itself is a toxin–that the distraction, overwhelm, lack of focus, and disconnection from other people we experience is a direct result of using tech devices–then it follows that having a healthy mind depends on unplugging as much as possible.
I don’t buy this line of argument. It suggests that there’s no way to use technology to develop mindfulness (ahem, Buddhify and OmmWriter); that technology-mediated experiences are less real than face-to-face ones (or do we all think Skype is tearing families apart?); and a kind of ahistorical back-to-the-land ideal that seems to take it as a given that what we all really need is to put down those newfangled doohickeys and go back to how Things Used to Be….
[T]he fact we call it “detox” in the first place biases the entire argument towards blaming technology, rather than looking within ourselves to discern where distraction comes from. Our inability to find mindfulness in the technology does not mean that mindfulness does not exist there; rather, our lack of awareness of when we are becoming distracted and anxious is at the root of the problem we’re trying to escape through unplugging.
It’s not “technology” that we need to correct: it’s poorly-designed technology; technology that’s made to distract us; and our own tendencies to use it mindlessly that are the enemy.
When I was first working on the book, and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows came out: I read it as soon as it came out, and came away with the feeling that it was great as a diagnosis of our problems, nut not very useful as a guide for how to deal with them. I’m coming to feel the same ways about critiques of digital detoxes. They don’t offer much guidance in constructing an alternative. But nonetheless, they can serve a useful purpose in pointing out the limitations of the “detox” concept, and challenge us to refine and improve our thinking around how we use and live with technology.
* A Twitter search of “authentic” and “offline” yields lots of tweets about the need for people and marketers to be consistent in their online and offline messaging and self-presentation: authenticity, in this usage, doesn’t signify something pure that can exist in only one realm, but is more a synonym for “consistency” and “honesty.”
Last Monday was the third Family Day Unplugged in Alberta, Canada, a chance to "unplug from technology & electronics for the day, and spend time connecting with yourself, friends, family and your community on Family Day."
While the event sounds like a mix between Arianna Huffington and Leslie Knope, I genuinely love it.
It's one thing when Silicon Valley CEOs and globetrotting spiritual figures talk from a stage at Davos about how great it is to eat a meal without checking their iPhones; but it's something else when unplugged events become something that counties can organize-- or compete with one another over, as one local paper explained,
Twenty-two municipalities in the Capital Region are encouraging residents to unplug from technology and connect with family and friends on Family Day, February 17. Participating municipalities are competing to see which community accumulates the most time unplugged from technology.
It's also a measure of hust how pervasive the problems of-- or at least the anxiety over-- digital distraction have become. When you can hold a competition in towns that feature free "family puck 'n' stick shinny" events, an afternoon of "outdoor skating and fire pit" (sounds deadly), hay rides and kick sleds, or recommend that residents use their non-digital time to "See if the local hospital has a ‘read to the elderly’ program or similar" and "Shovel some sidewalks of people who need help," you know you've shot past the world of Google Bus protests and ironic videos about digital detoxes, and into the North American heartland.
This event-- and other non-Valley digital Sabbath events, like the Foresters Tech Timeout-- is another challenge to the idea that digital detoxes are the latest elite fad, or a way to redirect the blame for our digital woes back onto ourselves.
The results will be announced here. I don't want to play favorites, but it looks like Bellevue School will be hard to beat:
Way to go Bellevue families! We were unplugged for 7051 hours on Family Day. Thanks to all who took the time to log their unplugged hours.— Bellevue School (@Bellevue_School) February 19, 2014
Evgeny Morozov has a short critical piece in The New Republic about digital detoxes, mindfulness and technology. I think the swipe at mindfulness is on the shallow side, but his argument that the digital detox movement is problematic-- or rather, that it runs the risk of solving one problem by directing our attention away from a bigger problem-- is worth engaging.
Morozov sees two problems with the movement. First, digital detoxes aim to help people recharge their mental batteries so they'll have more energy to spend on social media-- in effect, it encourages people to live more interesting lives so they won't bore their friends on Facebook, not to rethink how they live.
Second, and more important, the movement makes the individual responsible for overconnection, and implicitly absolves companies of trying to commoditize and resell their user's attention.
In this formulation, the problem with digital distraction is that you spend too much time on it, you allow yourself to be distracted-- not that Facebook and Twitter and Netflix spend enormous amounts of money and energy testing design tweaks to get you to spend more time on their services, so they have more of your attention and information about you. As Morozov says:
our debate about distraction has hinged on the assumption that the feelings of anxiety and personal insecurity that we experience when interacting with social media are the natural price we pay for living in what some technology pundits call “the attention economy.”
But what if this economy is not as autonomous and self-regulating as we are lead [sic] to believe? Twitter, for instance, nudges us to check how many people have interacted with our tweets. That nagging temptation to trace the destiny of our every tweet, in perpetuity and with the most comprehensive analytics, is anything but self-evident....
In reality, he concludes, "With social media—much like with gambling machines or fast food—our addiction is manufactured, not natural."
If this seems a little abstract, let me give an example. Recently I loaded Facebook Messenger, a stand-alone app that gives you access to Facebook's instant messaging service, onto my iPhone. Every time I open the app, I get this screen:
Messenger really really wants me and my friends to "see messages instantly on your phones." Why? Because they know that many users look at Messenger more often if we have notifications turned on (if only to stop the damn thing from ringing), and that this is their best shot at competing with ordinary SMS. It's not a very subtle nudge.
You might argue that this kind of thing is harmless, and besides that technologies are neutral. But both those arguments are wrong. Built into Messenger's "Turn on Notifications" screen is an assumption that instantaneous communication is always best; that you should always be willing to direct your attention to messages and Messenger; and that when talking to people, speed trumps things like deliberation or thoughtfulness. It reflects the desires of its makers to commoditize our attention, to gather information about where we are and what we're doing, both to do ostensibly good things (improve the service) and not so great things (sharpen locative advertising).
This is a perfect little example of what users face today: a near-constant exposure to efforts to shape their behavior in ways that might serve them (at some times), but definitely serve the interests of companies and advertisers.
Ironically, critics who see the digital detox movement as one that fetishizes analog authenticity enable this (or as it were, distract us from the real issue):
in their efforts to reveal the upper-class biases of the "digital detox" crowd—by arguing, for example, that the act of unplugging falls somewhere between wearing vintage clothes and consuming artisanal cheese—critics like [Alexis] Madrigal risk absolving the very exploitative strategies of Twitter and Facebook.
I think Morozov is exactly right that there's a danger that practices like a digital detox or digital Sabbath can be shallow, and that we can miss the opportunity they offer us to rethink how we use our information technologies. But any good thing can be practiced in a shallow way (this is why we have the words humility and sanctimony), and any good opportunity can be wasted.
But it's not inevitable that they're shallow. It's important to note that there are people for whom digital detoxes actually work the way Morozov advocates. When I wrote The Distraction Addiction, I made a point to talk about people for whom disconnection isn't a fad or a quick fix. The people who get the most out of it are the people who practice it regularly. They often discover that they don't need to be frantically connected, and they become a little more aware of how companies try to capture their attention. And they realize that the challenge isn't to disconnect completely or get back to "real life," but to lead a richer life. They're still going IRL, but going for a different "R."
It's easy to treat digital detoxes as a one-time solution, or to apply the vitamin theory of interaction to them. We often talk about technologies as having a clear, linear impact on us (e.g, more video games = BAD), but they don't work on us that way. Likewise, detoxes and sabbaths don't operate (or fail) in straightforward ways.
I understand why Morozov wants us to be aware of how companies try to capture and commodify our attention, and I think it's a valuable thing; but I'm skeptical that social media companies will change their strategy. The idea that users are lizard-brained consumers who can be nudged to play or watch or like a little longer is just too appealing. This is why I aimed my book at ordinary users: I can't change Facebook or Google, but I can help people change themselves. The challenge is to encourage users without excusing the strategy.
Author and education researcher Julianne Wurm writes about what she learned from giving up her phone during a 6-week trip in Asia. She had her laptop and iPad (both? really?), checked in a couple times a day, but had long stretches (up to a week) of being intentionally and happily offline.
My biggest lesson? People will wait. I used to check my email right when I came out of a yoga class or the second I stepped out of the subway—trying to walk down 7th Avenue and answer messages right away....
[Second,] there are few things in life that are truly urgent. We get caught up in the belief that everything needs to happen asap—the immediacy of our connected world. The reality is, if there is no blood, it can likely wait.
Her story is very consistent with what I found listening to digital sabbatarians for my book (shown with a cat taking a digital sabbath):
People who take successful digital sabbaths don't eliminate absolutely everything with a screen, but give some thought to what they need to get away from (no one unplugs the microwave, even though it has a screen).
They all report how amazing it is that they don't miss critical messages, that their lives don't proceed with the urgency that Vodafone or Samsung or their bosses encourage them to think it does.
They all talk about discovering a richer sense of time, and a repaired sense of attention and presence.
And most of them find it unnecessary to reconnect the firehose when they return: that they can stay in touch and on top of everything without being always-on.
Faraday Zones... will become a ubiquity in 2014. From these dodgy origins, they will find mainstream acceptance on trains, planes, and automobiles, as well as certain public spaces such as libraries and cinemas. Back-to-nature resorts and vacation spots will pile on, offering the opportunity to be "beyond reach."
We're definitely seeing the last, and let's hope that we see more Faraday Zones.
Hugh Macleod writes about the rise of an "Antidote Economy" in response to the "*brave* new world of stimulus oversupply.... It’s an increasingly huge cultural phenomenon, simply because we need more and more antidotes to balance out our increasingly expensive yet frazzled quality of life."
I can only hope. What are some examples?
Bed & breakfast weekends in Vermont, Zen meditation retreats in New Mexico, farmer’s markets, specialist coffee and tea shops, Shaker furniture, yoga classed, art galleries in Laguna Beach, artisanal pickles, hand made scented candles, and of course, Brooklyn.
Sounds great. Is there a downside?
To make a living in The Antidote Economy, you also need a fairly large, affluent chunk of the population to still remain on the outside looking in. You need enough stressed out, overprogrammed yuppy-scumbag types in boring, 80-hour-week office jobs that they hate, to ensure that there’s enough disposable income swishing around to fund your alternative, post-capitalist lifestyle experiment.
Brooklyn is only possible because Manhattan is never very far away. Authentic living needs lots of fake people in order to pay for it.
Well, it's still good news for my book sales.
Update. Okay, so I think I get where the piece is coming from: it's a bit like the "there's no longer any such thing as offline any more because even when you're walking on the beach you're thinking about what Instagram filter would rock the view" argument. The more serious point is that the Antidote Economy is fed by profitable discontent: just as cars need long-dead dinosaurs, so too do purveyors of authenticity need people to spend 80-hour weeks to make themselves, well-heeled customers.
Recently I've stumbled across several digital Sabbath projects. The Foresters Tech Timeout, which I wrote about recently, is one; Mother London's No Internet Week is another. An older one, which I confess I just discovered, is analog Sunday, which "no email, no blog reading, no surfing the web, actually, no internet, no typing, in fact, no computer at all and no tv.
Most recently, I recently came across the Hibernate project (it's where I found the service that my book's Web site is now hosted on). It's trying to get 10,000 people to sign up for its e-fast pledge, a 24-hour break from email.
And as a result of the weariness of the journey to inbox zero and the distraction trap…I find it difficult to differentiate between binging on online content like a never-ending conveyer belt of fast-food that just looks and smells so good that I just don’t know what might come out of the kitchen next, so I’ll hang around a little longer AND surfing the wonderful web and discovering some of my favorite things in the world.
I’ve tried plugins like Momentum and it helps, but only a little. I want to be more focused and have as healthy a tech diet as I do with the food I eat.
While he's rather more the adventurer than some of the people I interviewed in the book, otherwise Keene is pretty typical of people who decide to start a practice like this: technical, busy, and looking for a way not to unplug completely but to restore some balance in their lives.
While it's possible to practice a digital Sabbath in a way that turns it into "conspicuous non-consumption" and a badge of moral superiority or elitism (as Laura Portwood-Stacer put it), any beneficial or noble or altruistic practice-- yoga, parenting, going to church, saving money, dieting, running marathons, meditating, being super-busy at work-- can become an performance of moral superiority. Arguing that digital Sabbaths, or hibernation, or analog Sundays,or other practices are mainly declarations of one's authenticity or superiority misses the point, and warps the intentions of the practitioners.
Mother London, one of those branding / marketing / design / media consultancies that's so hip it's impossible to tell what they actually do (but they have offices in London, New York and Buenos Aires, so they must do it well) recently pulled the plug on five people for a week. Or more specifically, they got give people to go offline for a week and record the experience. As the Web site explains,
[I]t's the annual occurrence of Internet Week that made us think– have we become addicted to the internet? And if we have, what would happen if 5 digital natives were forced to go cold turkey for a week? Would it be reminiscent of a scene from Trainspotting? Or would they regress to some kind of IRL utopia?
The result is this documentary.
I like the fact that their definition of "digital natives" was not the simple anyone-under-X-years, but rather various people who because of work or social life spend a lot of time online. Too often commentators will assume that there's an unbridgeable demographic chasm in digital life. The notion that anyone over 40 (or 50 or 60) can't possibly get Web 2.0, and that anyone under 20 can't communicate except through screens, is lazy and incorrect: it doesn't allow for the fact that, say, Steve Jobs came up with the iPhone and iPad is 50s, that Doug Engelbart was still working on augmenting human intelligence in his 80s, and that younger Baby Boomers like me have spent most of our lives around computers.
And as an American, I appreciate the tasting menu of accents presented by the five subjects in the video, too. I know that's shallow, but there it is.
Foresters, a Canadian life insurance company (can one think of an institution that sounds more stable and grounded?) just released a "Tech Timeout" survey looking at household Internet use in the United States. A couple things they found:
One feature of this is that it's not just aimed at individuals, like many digital detoxes or tech sabbath projects; rather, it "encourages families to take a daily break from technology." It would be interesting to know if this group approach works better, or appeals to people who wouldn't go it alone.
(Thanks to Jesse Fox for pointing it out to me.)
As a public service announcement, I link to this video about the dangers of unplugging and going on a digital detox:
"It just makes me want to light candles and do my laundry in a river..." I hope I'm not the only one who finds it screamingly funny.
But seriously, if the digital detox can be the subject of a parody, then it must be a thing now. The point of a joke like this is to make fun of something people know about.
Of course, any office where this happens needs a digital detox.
I've been thinking a lot about vacations and leisure recently. Not because I feel I don't have enough of either: I'm lucky enough to have an employer who has a generous (if perfectly normal) vacation plan, and I don't really feel like I'm pinched for time. Rather, I've been thinking about how people take vacations, and the relationship they believe vacations have to work.
On one hand, vacations are seen (rightly) as a major perk, yet they're underused. Surveys reveal that more than half of American workers don't use all their vacation days, forfeiting up to two weeks in an effort to stay in their bosses' good graces, because they fear being seen out of the office too much, or because they like work.
Is this a bad thing though? Maybe in today's world of blurred lines between work and play, it would be natural for the vacation to go the way of the rotary phone or newspaper? Is this once-beloved and familiar institution being rendered obsolete by globalization, the Internet, and the 24/7 pace of business?
I'm not ready to give up on the vacation, though. In the social sciences, we have something called "natural experiments" where two groups are very similar, save for one key variable-- access to resources, for example. Such experiments help us better understand how humans work, and can make clear that what we think is natural or inevitable is actually changeable. I'd like to propose something like a natural experiment about our attitudes to connectivity, speed, work, and leisure.
I've found a group that has to deal with global problems and fantastic rates of technological change; who are notoriously, almost supernaturally, productive; whose scientific advances, literary achievements, and architectural monuments enlarge our view of the world and invite. While this sounds like our world, they differ from us in one critical respect: every year, they disappear into the mountains, sea-side resorts, or rural retreats for weeks at a time. They see leisure and contemplation as a necessary part of life; get more out of their vacations because they're longer and more strenuous than ours; and enjoy broad agreement on the importance of breaks, disconnection and reflection.
Who are they? The Victorians.
Forget the stereotype of Victorians as prudish, sexually repressed, dour and dull. I've studied them for years, and two things still impress me about them.
The first is how much their world was like ours. The Victorians explored and mapped the world, conquered it, then wrapped it in telegraph cable and railroad track. They globalized world trade, urbanized and industrialized the West, and invented entire scientific disciplines. The telegraph, as Tom Standage put it, was "the Victorian Internet," a technology that had dramatically quickened the pace of long-distance communication.
All this led to regular debates about whether people were overly focused on commercial life and material goods, whether transportation and communication networks had eroded a sense of place, whether the pace of life had become unhealthy. (Even the era's critics sound modern: today's worries about unequal income distribution, growing economic uncertainty, poverty and disenfranchisement were anticipated by Victorians as different as Charles Dickens and Karl Marx.)
The second thing is how hard they worked, and how much they got done. Charles Darwin could move from incredibly detailed studies of barnacles and worms to grand theorizing about the mechanisms of evolution, wrote a multi-volume account of his voyage on the HMS Beagle before he was thirty, and published another eighteen books.
Many of Darwin's contemporaries weren't just accomplished in one field; they could heave their mark on many. Politician Benjamin Disraeli was a novelist; novelist Charles Dickens was also a social reformer. The great scientist James Clerk Maxwell made a reputation studying electricity and magnetism and a fortune advising telegraph companies.
Countless other figures known only to historians combined careers as lawyers, civil servants, printers, or military officers with second lives as authors, composers, inventors, scientists, athletes, and explorers.
So the Victorians created and lived in a world that felt much like ours-- hyperconnected, fast-paced, globalizing, furiously reinventing itself-- and maintained lives of admirable productivity and accomplishment. Yet the choices they made about leisure and vacations were dramatically different from ours.
Month-long escapes from the office were not at all unusual, and six- or eight week-long vacations were not out of the question. The great critic John Ruskin commented on how the peace in Europe allowed thousands of his fellow Englishmen to visit "on the average, each two or three months." Of course, these tended to be better-off professionals-- "the noblest born, the best taught, the richest in time and money, having more leisure, knowledge, and power than any other portion of the nature," as Ruskin put it-- but with the rise of the railroads and inexpensive vacation destinations, the middle classes took weeks off as well.
It wasn't just the British who took their vacations more seriously. For city dwellers in the United States, escaping the summer heat (not to mention the smells and cholera outbreaks) was essential: in Washington DC, even clerks had a month off, and many headed for the mountains or shore.
Nor did the ideal of the long vacation pass when Queen Victoria died in 1901. In 1910, President William Howard Taft and a number of other "men of affairs" told the New York Times that the ideal vacation lasted two or three months. Railroad executive Frank Headley thought that "men who work under a mental strain" required a few weeks, while "the man whose work is merely physical effort" was restored by the weekend. Taft himself spent three months at a golf resort in Hot Springs, Virginia between his nomination to the Republican presidential ticket and his election in 1908.
What was their secret? Hardworking as they were, Victorians recognized the need to get away from the chattering of the telegraph and noise of the market. Vacations were an opportunity to challenge themselves physically, to immerse themselves in the quiet of the country or seaside, to occupy the mind with invention rather than legislation, or astronomy rather than accounting.
The politician William Gladstone recovered from his battles with Disraeli by conquering volcanoes and mountains. The organic chemist Edward Frankland took punishingly ambitious six week-long "rambles" in the mountains of Cumbria and the Swiss Alps, often with fellow scientist and climber John Tyndall. (Both found the mountain air encouraged deep thinking.) Thomas Edison's 1878 summer vacation to the Rocky Mountains included a side-trip to observe a total solar eclipse.
Some learned to vacation like this in school: Oxford students would organize weeks-long "reading parties" to rustic lodges or mountain chalets where they would spend mornings reading and afternoons outdoors.
For many scientists and scholars, studious mornings and exhausting hikes balanced each other nicely: physical activity left them little energy for frivolity.
Not everybody approved of this new kind of leisure, though. George Eliot complained that "even idleness is eager now-- eager for amusement; prone to excursion-trains, art museums, periodical literature, and exciting novels; prone even to scientific theorizing, and cursory peeps through microscopes."
For high-minded, driven people, the vacation was an opportunity for restoration, for "leisure" in the ancient sense of the word: a time to live to the very fullest. Modern science suggests that they were onto something. Psychologist Stephen Kaplan argues that immersing ourselves in challenging activities is a surer cure for overwork than just lounging by the pool.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and happiness psychologists find that people who seek out difficult but rewarding activities have more satisfying lives than people who pursue sybaritic pleasures. A week partying on a tropical island will give you a hangover and some embarrassing pictures on Facebook; a week that includes climbing the volcano that created the island will leave you readier to face work.
We've largely forgotten that the Victorians combined hard work and play so effectively; even biographers usually race past the long weekends and months their subjects spent abroad, and don't connect leisure time to their subject's amazing productivity.
But even worse, we've forgotten how valuable good vacations can be for ambitious, productive people. Sometimes we love our jobs and don't really want to get away, or hate the idea of having a thousand unread messages waiting in our in-box. Or we believe that the world is too fast-paced and uncertain to get away: in an era when clients expect an immediate callback, colleagues want instant answers to their questions, bosses quick analysis of their options, you can either be on 24/7, or be replaced. Executives may believe in their own indispensability, subordinates fret about their job security, but nobody can afford to disconnect. And some of us become so accustomed to being constantly online that the idea of going offline makes us nervous.
It doesn't have to be this way. People who take digital Sabbaths report that you can keep your vacation in-box from blowing up if you give colleagues plenty of advance notice that you're going to be offline. Leaving your devices behind, or if that's intolerable at the bottom of your bag, when you go away, is also essential. The first couple days will be strange, even nerve-wracking, but pretty soon you'll feel your mind shifting into a new gear.
A more active vacation will also give your mind something completely new to think about: it's hard to fret about office politics when you're learning to kayak or hiking a steep trail.
So long as we wear stress like a badge of honor, and consider overwork a sign of virtue rather than a warning that we're burning out, we won't accomplish what we want on the job, or in life. The lives of the Victorians challenge our assumption that eternal busyness is a natural route to higher productivity and more ideas. The world doesn't need us so badly that we can't disconnect from it. We'll live more fulfulling lives, even hyper-networked lives, if we unplug from time to time.
This 2012 presentation on digital detoxes, Zenware, and other efforts to buy escapes from distraction by Kasi Bruno, Director of Strategy and Cultural Insight at Young & Rubicam could be an advertisement for the book:
In an interview with Boost Agents, she explains what's going on:
Boost: In one of your recent speeches at Ignite you mentioned people are frustrated by being over connected, and are looking for moments with less digital distractions. With this in mind how should this inform how brands interact with consumers in the future, and how should they respond to this movement of wanting to unplug?
Kasi: I think what we’re seeing is people almost revolting against themselves, against their own compulsions. People are frustrated with themselves for being so dependent on technology, for not being comfortable being still or alone.
While there’s a huge fear of missing out on something if we aren’t hyper plugged in, we’re starting to see people realize that they’re actually missing out on what’s happening right in front of them because they’re too distracted by devices.
There’s a balance and leveling off that’s starting to happen. People want to regain focus and time for uninterrupted deep thought, so we‘re seeing real life, lo-fi, unplugged experiences becoming a luxury of sorts. Luxury is a function of scarcity and what’s scarce nowadays is exactly that- an unplugged moment of stillness, thought and a feeling of being truly present.
I think brands that understand this can help people find the balance. Sure, some will continue to exploit the consumer tick to be connected, but many can start to add value by nurturing the need for real presence that’s starting to bubble up. I think we’re going to see more of that. It isn’t a rejection of technology and connectedness, but a reclaiming of control over it. Brands can help people with that.
The media spotlight has often been too harsh for Peter Higgs, the Edinburgh physicist, who disappeared off on holiday without a mobile phone this week to escape the inevitable rush of journalists that bears down on every winner of a Nobel prize.
The move was carefully calculated and profoundly successful. The Royal Swedish Academy made calls to the scientist's phone but failed to make contact before – or after – announcing the winners of the 2013 prize in physics on Tuesday morning.
The Huffington Post reports that a "recent report from consumer research company SDL" that interviews 4000 people from the US, UK and Australia about their travel habits reveals that lots of them now try to work in a digital detox when they go on vacation. The two things that jumped out at me:
The second is particularly striking to me, as the temptation to post Instagram photos of your margarita is especially easy to give in to.
Occasionally you run across a phrase that strikes you as well-constructed or elegant; then every rare once in a while you find one that you think, "I gotta steal that." Recently I linked to Mónica Guzmán's Seattle Times piece about taking a week-long digital Sabbath while on vacation in Colorado. In an earlier article, she talks about why her earlier tech breaks have been valuable:
Disconnection is a rest, of course, with all the relief that brings. But more usefully, it’s a performance review of my interconnected life. New technologies breed new attitudes and habits so fast, sometimes, they hide. It’s like a tide receding: The longer I let the water drain, the more of those hidden habits I see.
This idea of "hidden habits" that we need to surface and examine is really useful. New devices come at us quickly, we get absorbed by the intellectual challenge or frustration of learning how they work, and we compare their performance to earlier devices we owned. It's a bit like what Daniel Kahneman calls "type 1 thinking," the quick, familiar-rules thinking that we rely on most of the time.
All that diverts us from noticing what new habits we've developed with them, what unintended effects they have, or how they may make one kind of task easier and another harder. This requires more reflection, an ability to question our more basic assumptions about our uses of technology, and an ability to see those assumptions in the first place.
Studying history of science gave me a bit of a leg up on this kind of thinking, because it's a lot of what I did in graduate school. However, if you don't want to give up five years of your life (and earning power, and long-term career trajectory), a week away from your devices could help you see things that you didn't even know you were doing, and question whether you need to do them.
It’s a culture shock, disconnection, if you’re as tied to your devices as I am. It slows time, amplifies your senses and actually changes how the world feels. If that sounds dramatic, try it, if you still can. I was surprised, too. Last week’s disconnection is the closest I’ve come to living in another dimension. When I came back, I knew I’d have to make some changes.
The more I talk to people about this-- and one of the good things about doing lots of book signings and readings is that you meet a lot of people interested in these issues-- I'm more convinced than ever that vacations should be a complete break from your normal routine, including your e-mail and other gadgets.
Unless you leave your mail behind, you're not really away: part of the monkey mind, or the multitasking office mind, is still there, making cognitive noise and distracting you from whatever you're doing right now.
Taking a screen-free vacation is good for two other reasons. First, it's a time when it's genuinely okay to go offline: the obligation of digital connection is more than balanced by the virtue of being with your family (or not wasting the money and time you've spent). Second, it's an introduction to something you can do at home, on weekends, or even one evening a week. It's a lot easier to power down your electronics than it is to get to the beach or campground, and in its own way can be just as rewarding.
Somehow I managed to not see this episode of Parks and Rec when it was out last year. Genius.
Gizmodo contributor Leslie Horn writes about her recent tech-free vacation in "The Right Way to Disconnect from Technology on Your Next Vacation:"
a vacation isn't a vacation unless you really really get away from the minutiae of your everyday existence. Question is, how do you do that without also stripping out the conveniences of technology?
I spent the first 10 days of August off the internet in the Rocky Mountains with my family and at a music festival with some friends. It was lovely and wonderful to spend time with people who are normally dispersed in different cities across the country, but the destination really could have been anywhere. For me, the key was relaxing by making the trip a perfect tech-free oasis.
See, there are those of us who have let the internet seep inside of their very souls, and take control of every pore of their existence. You know who you are—and this guide is for you.
So does the "right way" involve a very specific set of things, or steps? Not so much. Horn talks about what worked for her-- leaving the laptop at home, disabling work email on her phone, turning off social media notifications, for example-- but she adds
Whatever you decide is a-okay, make it a firm plan from the beginning, and don't flake on it....
There are varying levels of what this means for different people. I, for one, have little to no self-control... [and t]hat's exactly why I opted for a near total internet deportation.
Not everyone needs that kind of hard line, and tech isn't necessarily bad. It's more about deciding what you can and can't handle—and what you need to do to make yourself spend a few days chilling out. Digital decompression is good for everyone occasionally.
This is very consistent with what I heard when interviewing people who take regular digital Sabbaths: figuring out what you need to get away from (and what parts of your mind you want to restore), making a plan, and sticking to it, are keys to getting the most out of the experience.
I write about people, technology, and the worlds they make.
My book on contemplative computing, The Distraction Addiction, was published by Little, Brown and Company in 2013. (It's been translated into Dutch (as Verslaafd aan afleiding) and Russian (as Ukroschenie tsifrovoy obezyany); Spanish, Chinese and Korean translations are in the works.)
I'm a senior consultant at Strategic Business Insights, a Menlo Park, CA consulting and research firm. I also have two academic appointments: I'm a visitor at the Peace Innovation Lab at Stanford University, and an Associate Fellow at Oxford University's Saïd Business School.
The Distraction Addiction
My latest book, and the first book from the contemplative computing project. The Distraction Addiction is published by Little, Brown and Co.. It's been widely reviewed and garnered lots of good press. You can find your own copy at your local bookstore, or order it through Barnes & Noble, Amazon (check B&N first, as it's usually cheaper there), or IndieBound.
The Spanish edition
The Dutch edition
Empire and the Sun
My first book, Empire and the Sun: Victorian Solar Eclipse Expeditions, was published with Stanford University Press in 2002 (order via Amazon).
PUBLISHED IN 2012
PUBLISHED IN 2011
PUBLISHED IN 2010
PUBLISHED IN 2009