‘Something’s not quite right’ in the debate about digital well-being

We planted this iPhone and it only grew one kale leaf (Alexis Madrigal).
We planted this iPhone and it only grew one kale leaf (Alexis Madrigal).

While I have been faffing around trying to decide how to write about the Camp Grounded event which took place from June 14-17th 2013 in Navarro, California, Atlantic Senior Editor Alexis Madrigal has written a great piece about the journalism that went on around it afterwards.  And he illustrates his story The New New Naturalism in the Era of ‘Processed’ Relationships with some hilarious pictures of his own attempts to green up his iPhone, such as the one pictured here.


Camp Grounded was a summer camp for adults focussed around leaving your technology at the door: ‘Trade in your computer, cell phone, Instagrams, clocks, schedules and work-jargon for an off-the-grid weekend of pure unadulterated fun.’ I didn’t go, but I gather they had a great time. Activities included Yoga, Stargazing, Hiking, Bare-Feet,Baking, Meditation, Campfires, Friendship Bracelets, Sing-Alongs, Swimming in the River, Roasted Marshmallows and so on. It was organised by Digital Detox, a company which provides opportunities to ‘disconnect from technology and reconnect with yourself. Recharge your mind, body and soul’.

Alexis Madrigal is a little cynical about the idea. The problem is, do such activities actually solve any problems? He writes: “There’s nothing really wrong with escaping to the boonies. But individuals unplugging is not actually an answer to the biggest technological problems of our time just as any individual’s local, organic dietary habits don’t solve global agriculture’s issues. These are collective problems that will require collective action based on serious critique.”

Furthermore, he refuses to accept that the only good response to an imperfect technology is to abandon it. He refers to a quote from Digital Detox co-founder Levi Felix, who Raphaella Baek of NPR reports as remarking that the high demand for tech-free retreats comes from a growing awareness of the pervasiveness of technology in our everyday lives. ‘”People are feeling like something’s not right here,” he says,’ reports Baek.  But, says Madrigal, “We need more specific criticisms than the ever-present feeling that “‘something’s not right.” What thing? Developing a political agenda to remake, improve, or forbid technologies requires some sort of rubric: how can I judge what I’m using? What are the deleterious impacts? How are they specific to these media and this time? Which effects are *caused by* the technologies and which are *enabled by* the technologies and which just happen to *occur through* the technologies? What are the ethics? What are the mechanics? What is the baseline?”

Sadly, Madrigal’s measured approach seems to be quite rare in the mainstream press. Editors prefer scary knee-jerk stories about how technology might be damaging us. There was a typical example of this in The Guardian recently when it featured a pointless five-minute video ‘debate’ between  David Babbs of the campaign site 38 Degrees and the ever-annoying Baroness Susan Greenfield on the subject of Is the internet bringing out the best in us? Greenfield’s lack of expertise in this area is well-known (see Dean Burnett’s hilarious ‘The only Susan Greenfield article you’ll ever need‘), whilst Babbs knows what he’s talking about but is generally too mild and nice to be able to combat her professionalised style of argument. The result, once again, is that we are no closer to practically addressing the feeling that ‘something’s not quite right’ in the debate about digital well-being. Pointers to more sensible conversations will be gratefully received.

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