While government policy papers, pop science articles and advertising campaigns recurrently extol the virtues of digital connectivity, proclaiming ‘ Life’s Better Connected’, the last few years have seen the emergence of a rising tide of digital discontent. With the creeping ubiquity of wireless, contactless and mobile connectivity, and the proliferating array of ‘smart’ things, apps and ‘all you can eat’ data plans that encourage continuous, exhaustive connection, a mounting sense of unease has surfaced around the security, privacy and health risks endemic to this ontological regime of constant connectivity.
Fears about sleep deprivation, dwindling attention spans and the biological effects of long-term exposure to electromagnetic radiation have mushroomed, leading growing numbers of schools to remove WiFi and ban smartphones. In the post-Snowden security landscape, increased awareness of routine and warrantless dataveillance has led to intensifying public and policy debates over digital privacy, resulting in many users abandoning social media platforms. Moral panics about social media and smartphone addiction have given rise to multiple ‘national days of unplugging’ and pledges to #GoGadgetFree. A market has even emerged for designer dumb phones (with Nokia re-releasing their old 3310 model in 2017). Growing numbers of cafés, restaurants and public houses are establishing smartphone-free and WiFi-free (‘NoFi’) zones with the hope of rekindling a romanticised form of vanishing pre-digital sociality (and to stop laptop table-hoggers). Device-free dinners and teambuilding events, behaviour-correcting practices like phone stacking, and the emergence of Internet- blocking apps (with names like ‘Freedom’, ‘Cold Turkey’ and ‘Anti Social’), all aim to help struggling users cultivate mindful connectivity.
Amidst this growing discontent, a new culture hero has emerged: the blogger who bravely heads out into the Great Offline. Going offline has, somewhat paradoxically, gone viral. A simple Google search reveals hundreds of inspirational tales from bloggers, journalists and vloggers returning from their week, month or even year-long ‘digital sabbatical’ to narrate their cathartic offline odyssey. For some, the experience positively transforms their lives, while for others, it reconfirms and renews their faith in the Internet. For all, it is a revelatory experience that teaches them something meaningful about themselves, their relationships with others and their social worlds. Quitting social media has been found to add significant brand value to celebrities’ public images. Ed Sheeran, Adele, Kanye West and Zayn Malik are just some of the famous faces to have digitally disappeared.
As the popularity of offlinism grows, a nascent industry of digital detox retreats and Internet-free holiday packages has emerged to capitalise on this increasingly widespread cultural trend. Camp Grounded in the Northern California redwoods is a summer camp ‘where grown-ups go to unplug’ and requires campers to surrender their devices upon arrival. Time To Log Off and Unplugged Weekend similarly provide a variety of camps, workshops and retreats to nondigital destinations, that aim to help burnt-out users restore their tech-life balance. Needless to say these unplugged experience packages come with a hefty price tag. Ontologically reconfigured as ‘the offline’, forests, mountains and tropical islands have triumphantly re-emerged as alluring and lucrative frontiers to be (re)colonised, (re)commodified and (re)consumed. The great outdoors repackaged for public consumption as the great offline.
If disconnection ever appeared as a mode of resisting the compulsory connectivity of the control society, it is increasingly being incorporated into it through these unplugging practices as a form of permissible release. Often branded as ‘disconnect to reconnect’, the digital detox is figured as a restorative and rejuvenating – but momentary – break from the digital noise of endless status updates, Facebook feeds, Netflix binges and compulsive email checking. Providing users with a space of permitted freedom from the frenzied techno-anxieties of the connected world, this strain of offlinism ultimately preserves and strengthens the technopolitical hegemony of connectivity.
As sacred spaces to turn off, shut down, and log out (to update Timothy Leary’s famous phrase for the Digital Age), those increasingly rare regions that still somehow exist beyond the ever-increasing reach of digital connectivity are fast becoming endangered sites in need of protection. In opposition to the corporate push to ‘bridge the connectivity gap’ in the name of digital expansionism, might we soon find activists from the unplugging movement campaigning for these sites to be left as signal-free dead zones, to be preserved and cherished for future generations?
Department of Social Anthropology
University of Cambridge