It was in about the 10th hour of my 14.5 hour flight from Los Angeles to Melbourne that it dawned on me: it is this flight and long flights like this only that provide me with such sustained abstinence from the internet. And then, in the same 10th hour, and as a result of that very internet abstinence, I reached forward and began flicking through an organised binding of glossy paper – the ‘Virgin Australia Voyeur Magazine’. The first article in what is largely a travel magazine that caught my attention was one titled ‘Digital Detox’. Below the title it read: “Take time off from Twitter, fight the urge to Facebook and instigate an Instagram shutdown – the technology revolution has arrived. ” The accompanying photograph on the same page was of many people sitting around long communal dining tables out in the wilderness. The caption below explained that these “face to face connections” are happening at ‘Camp Grounded’.
Reading on, I discovered that as a result of internet and technology overload, hotels, resorts, ranches, camps and getaways across the globe are gearing their packages towards digital detoxing. In other words – people are paying big bucks for supervised internet downtime. The Westin Dublin, for instance, offers a city-based taste of the disconnected life. Upon arrival, each guest is given a ‘Detox Survival Kit’ which consists of paper walking maps, board games, aromatic candles and an in-room massage which focuses on the muscles commonly strained from hunching over at a computer. Many of these retreats encourage the hand-over of digital devices including mobile phones. If guests are caught using their tech appliances at InterContinental Fiji, for example, the itokani (at your side) butler will assign ‘pampering penalties’. Many of these health focused retreats, like the Great Bear Lodge in Canada which hangs out over the water with just eight rooms and is wind and solar powered, have no phone or internet reception.
The very idea of these digital detox retreats really astounded me. Have we gone so far down the virtual rabbit hole that we now need to pay and go to great cleansing lengths to get a mere taste of what we once (not so long ago) took for granted? The truth is, yes, many of us have. Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD), (also referred to as Problematic Addiction Use (PAU) or Compulsive Internet Use (CIU)) is real. While IAD is not yet classified as a mental illness in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, progressively, hospitals around the world are recognizing and treating the condition (Pennsylvania’s Bradford Regional Medical Centre was the first inpatient treatment program for Internet addiction in the US which opened this year). And while in most parts of the world, statistics reveal that only 5% – 20% of people in any one country have IAD, when I read some of the common questionnaires used to diagnose the disorder, I realized that myself and many of my friends are only a few mouse clicks and Instagram posts away from being addicts as well.
I remember the first time I was taught how to search for something on Google. I was a drama school student and a tech-wiz boy from my class found me floundering at a computer in the university library. Back then though, internet search engines where in their infancy so their subsequent information outcomes seemed relatively useless to me. Consequently, I would find myself back in the ancient isles of the library scouring through musty dusty books. Back in the old days, eh?
I also remember the first time my friend started a Hotmail account for me. I was in high school and the whole Hotmail endeavor was nothing more than a frivolous sleep-over activity. Back then I may have checked my email once every week or two, and my education, for the most part, played out in texts books and on chalk boards – that was only a surprising 12 years or so ago.
My girlfriends from school and I have all kept shoe-boxes that are like treasure chests filled to the brim with handwritten letters from one another. Yes, for most of my high-school days, we also didn’t have mobile phones. So to communicate via the written word, we’d tear out a corner from a page of a text book and scribble little notes, or, more impressively, hand-write elaborate letters to one another on pretty note paper (decorative girly note paper was a common birthday gift when I was young so most of us had a pad or two lying around on the desks in our bedrooms). We’d embellish those letters with flowers and love-hearts and little figurines drawn in coloured pencils – perhaps a preface for the now fashionable text emoticons.
Needless to say, this was also the medium via which we’d communicate the depths of our teen hearts to our high-school crushes. In my shoe-box, (which is currently stashed away with barbie dolls and teddy-bears in a large box in my parent’s garage), countless, sweet letters of devotion from teenage boys are also folded away like childhood lullabies. There was something so thoughtful and romantic about these written exchanges. We didn’t have the luxury of the immediacy of a quick text, a tweet, a Facebook message or an email. Instead, we’d sit up late at night on our beds and carefully craft our prose. Then at school the next day, we’d hand over the folded letter to the recipients’ best friend, who’d then hand it on to the appropriate suitor.
It’s almost shocking to digest that just 10 to 15 years later we’d all be hard pressed to identify one another’s hand-writing, yet all of us know each other’s Twitter handles, Facebook names and emails!
It’s undeniable that the information technology revolution has advanced and serviced our civilization in many amazing ways: immediate access to information anywhere, anytime; immediate, global connectedness (both personally and professionally) and the sharing of ideas, discoveries and trends. Just 2 days ago, as a result of social media, I met an old friend from university for a beer. We worked out that we hadn’t seen each other since 2004, but whilst living on opposite ends of the globe, had reconnected at a distance in the last year on Facebook and Instagram. Finally back in Melbourne, we sat talking for hours and then as we kissed and hugged goodbye, we thanked Facebook for our happy reunion.
But on the downside, the internet can serve as a bottomless pit of human regression and even suffering. After all, what more are social media platforms than egoic projections of oneself? And can a certain number of posts and ‘likes’ ever truly bring one happiness? Moreover, how can the quality of connection on these platforms be compared to real-life connections? Human contact. The truth is, the internet will never replace real, human, experiential happiness, and so when one becomes attached to his or her online identity or relationships, they are surely destined for disappointment, emptiness and even loneliness. In her book ‘You Say Tomato’, written in the early days of Facebook’s conception, Katie Wall insightfully describes Facebook as – looking into a window at a party you’re not invited to. I think she hit the nail on the head. We keep wanting to be included, to be a part of it, but we never really are. Why? Cos there’s no real party.
My understanding is that behavioural addictions like Internet Addiction Disorder and Gambling Disorder, work in a very similar way to substance addictions. An addict by nature seeks a rush of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that is associated with feelings of reward and pleasure. An internet addict craves the hit of accessing certain internet applications, games, social media notifications and connections. Then, as time goes by, the internet addict needs longer periods of internet access to reach that hit and so the spiral goes…
Ironically, I’m writing this essay from the sanctuary of my family beach house – far away from civilization and with shady internet and phone reception at the best of times – a reality many of my friends find disturbing. So ‘disconnected’ that when I was searching for another word for ‘decorative’, without access to my usual go-to online thesaurus, I called out to my mom, “what’s another word for decorative?” Perhaps I should consider myself fortunate that I don’t have to pay to a attend a digital detox retreat to achieve such serenity and that I have access to folk who ‘know’ the meanings and application of words because that was the lingua franca they grew up with.
Grateful as I am for the many wonders the internet offers my life daily (like the platform for expression this online publication provides), I am even more grateful that I managed to make it into the last generation who lived a substantial part of our lives internet-free. Instead of online video games, iphone apps and Facebook accounts, my childhood was spent rolling around in cow-paddocks, making cubby-houses, playing cowboys and indians on deck-chairs and building societies with lego blocks. An introduction into this life that was physical, right here right now, that called apon memory and invention and that engaged what is perhaps my most prized of all possessions – my imagination.