Just two weeks ago, in this very space, I remarked about the cyber-connections many of us have to just about anything you could name, how that’s supposed to be some kind of 21st-century bonus, and why I tend to see things like this as the beginning of the end. And yes, I can be dramatic. And possibly too wrapped up in my own worldview to be entirely objective.
But then on Sunday, what do I read? The New York Times features a story titled “Coming Clean at Camp.” In this happy little tale, we learn about tortured, helpless adults who just can’t seem to escape the technology they’ve embraced as enthusiastically as Eve did her apple, only to find themselves slowly being poisoned by it. Aha! It’s not just me.
Then again, maybe it is. I’m at least seven lifetimes away from paying $400 a night to go to a camp to take classes with titles like “Interpersonal Wizardry,” so I may not be the ideal target for this kind of techno-detox. Options range from $300 to $400 a night for three or four nights of self-discovery (self-discovery is very, very big at these places), “one-to-one connections,” and all manner of totally unwired awesomeness just waiting to be discovered by excited, device-free campers.
Most of the camps seem to originate from one person’s enlightenment and subsequent desire to share it. For example, the founder of one such camp, Digital Detox, quit a dot-com company and “evaluated his priorities.” (Unfortunately, this is where I started to sense shades of Eat, Pray, Love. Don’t get me started.) His evaluation process took him on a two-and-a-half year journey to several corners of the world. He called it a “hero’s journey” and his “escape.” Lovely. Wonderful.
When he returned, his newfound “cause was to show people how to connect, how to shed those rules and unwritten codes we bought into.” People who, presumably, couldn’t embark on their own two-year-plus journey around the globe to evaluate their own priorities. People who were still following those rules but could benefit from what he learned along the way. Wisdom that goes something like this, perhaps: Seeing an event unfold on screen is not the same as seeing it unfold before your eyes. So put away your phone and open them.
At this point, it might be worth pausing to acknowledge the wisdom of two men who apparently understood a great deal about human nature. An Wang, a Harvard PhD physicist and founder of Wang Laboratories, holds a patent for a device that became essential for computer memory and a critical element to developing digital information. He had this to say: “My theme for philanthropy is the same approach I used with technology: to find a need and fill it.” Camp Grown-ups certainly seems to fill a technological need, albeit a specious one, if you ask me. It’s kind of ironic that camps exist to undo the antisocial behavior that seemingly resulted from Wang’s life’s work.
On the other hand, we have P.T. Barnum, who held no degrees and not one patent as far as I know. He may or may not have actually said this in his lifetime, but regardless, it makes a point: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
Here’s the thing, I’m not entirely averse to technology and progress. (Wouldn’t have this platform available or be writing here if I were.) I’m not averse to contemplation, fresh thinking, a new environment to invigorate your spirit, or exiting your comfort zone in search of some wisdom or a new perspective. All of it valid; all of it probably productive and worthwhile.
I am, however, averse to hearing from smarter-than-everyone-else gurus of enlightenment who are popping up like, well, like pop-up ads and seizing the opportunity to define a new social malady that—surprise!—would benefit from their careful evaluation and treatment. They want us to be “mindful” when we use technology. Or rethink our attachment to it. Or understand how smartphones have incorporated a “distancing” lens into our lives.
As I said a few weeks ago in this very space, I don’t have the answers. And yes, some people may benefit from a weekend of camper hijinks or a six-week immersive program to “work out a plan for how to responsibly use technology” ($18,500 at Restart Recovery Center). But maybe there’s another way.
Renee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and also wrote an award-winning op-ed column for The Morning Call, the Allentown, PA, newspaper, for almost 10 years. Her essays were included in the humor anthology,101 Damnations’: A Humorists’ Tour of Personal Hells(Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. Her blog, It’s Not Me, It’s You, addresses topics that mystify her on a regular basis.