“Computers make excellent and efficient servants, but I have no wish to serve under them.” — Mr. Spock
It’s Saturday morning and I have no idea what time it is. I look through the blinds at the sun but I’m not a Viking explorer, so this tells me nothing. My boyfriend is asleep so I can’t consult him and because I’m a millennial, I don’t own an actual clock. Normally I would just roll over in bed and look at the phone, but I can’t, because I’ve pledged to power it down and tuck it in a drawer until 11 p.m. Sunday.
I am willfully participating in an at-home digital-detox protocol created by Seattle therapist Christina Malecka meant to help people alleviate an utterly modern ailment — addiction to technology. Malecka’s program involves first choosing a period of time to surrender your devices (a weekend, in my case, for both phone and laptop) and then taking a series of steps intended to reconnect digital addicts with their physical world and create mindfulness around behaviors like social-media usage. I am not a heavy social-media poster (my rare posts are mostly funny cat memes) so this is not a hardship for me. On Friday night, I was fairly confident the weekend would be a breeze.
My phone-free morning continues with bumps, though — I dither getting dressed because there’s no way to know what the weather will be since I don’t get a newspaper. The phone is also my calendar, my exercise coach, my menstrual tracker, even my meditation timer. Without technology I cannot even listen to music as Malecka’s program suggests. It is around breakfast, when I need the recipe for crepe batter and can’t look it up, that I realize my life is ruled by my phone.
A growing body of research suggests that people’s constant phone-gazing is an actual addiction, and that feeding it leaves us feeling as drained as an overused battery. To break this cycle, some turn to programs like Malecka’s — routines/retreats meant to help us break the codependent relationship we have with the tiny supercomputers we carry around and tend to like fussy babies. The concept of a “digital detox” has made it into the zeitgeist already. But even in this city that suckles at the silicon teat of the tech industry, individuals suffering from pixel-generated jitters don’t have to go far afield to find relief. While it’s very Seattle to self-regulate with a hike and an IPA, those needing more structure can take a weekend off with a company like Rec Retreats, which replaces playing with devices with actual playtime.
Seattle-based Rec Retreats is run by Kjerstin Secord, whose digital-detox program completely removes individuals from the context of their lives by inviting participants to her renovated family home on Lummi Island, where 8 to 10 people commune together in the shared goal of getting off the digital sauce, filling their free time with activities like art and yoga, and their loneliness with each other.
“I used to call them technology timeouts,” said Secord, a former teacher. “Detox is more of a buzzword people can recognize. It’s not a therapeutic program. It’s more a recreation-oriented event, play-centered, and it’s meant to kind of distract people from their dependency on their digital devices.”
Participants surrender their phones with a little ritual of purpose, and not always easily.
“A lot of the time (participants’) Friday night feelings are anxious, agitated, uncomfortable,” she said. For Secord, the remote location is a big part of the appeal, helping people step out of their lives to break the connection with the matrix.
“It’s like going back in time,” Secord said. “We don’t have a gas station, stop lights, grocery store. The speed limit is 25 miles an hour. It helps set the stage for forgetting that we have these modern conveniences.”
There are different degrees of “digital detox.” While Secord’s version nixes all screens, Malecka also runs a sleepaway camp-like program called “Digital Mindfulness Retreats” that allows things like e-readers as long as people pledge not to use them to go online. Malecka is a practicing therapist and her program takes place in idyllic locations like Whidbey Island, with sessions of group discussion in which participants actively reconsider their relationships to their phones in an effort to change their future behavior.
“A couple of years ago I took myself on a weeklong tech-free retreat on the Oregon Coast,” said Malecka. “And it was harder than I expected. The first few days were super detoxing. Then I moved into a place I hadn’t been to in a long time in terms of self-awareness, being clear on my values, spending time in different ways rather than scrolling on my phone.” This rings true; I have lately noted some troubling behaviors in myself, like compulsively opening Instagram only to scroll through it like a rosary without really looking at any of the pictures.
But probably the most anxiety-inducing relationship with the phone comes not from the phone itself but what the phone represents — my near-constant availability to other people. This problem is not always our fault. Many jobs make unreasonable demands on our off-work time, and anyone raising children is expected to be on-call 24/7 for at least 18 years. Malecka and Secord’s retreats (including the at-home version I’m doing) require that participants inform their jobs and loved ones that they will be unreachable except in case of emergency, in which case they may call Malecka or Secord. Since I’m running my own detox, Malecka’s program enjoins me to come up with an “emergency contact plan” (my boyfriend in my case, or a roommate, or one’s neighbors if one lives alone.)
This part was a revelation, informing people not to freak out or take it personally if emails went unanswered and memes un-LOLed. I was surprised at how obliged I felt to jump at the ding of a bell, making it clear who is the servant (me) and who is the master (everybody else). This has implications for the very notion of personal space. Reaching me is not a privilege, but rather, a default, and my decision not to respond is tantamount to rebellion.
And that is the most potent lesson of the digital retreat, whether at-home or out in the wilderness: we do not need to be connected all the time for those connections to exist. Yes, if we disappear for too long, our friends may forget us and our relatives fret about us. Also, I, like so many others in this city, am a recent transplant, and many of the friends and family I rely on for sanity live far afield. But still, I get to decide what that interval is, and whether I want to leave that work email for Monday or answer my mother’s text later in the afternoon.
And in the interim, we don’t have to fire off angry birds or hate-like our friend’s vacation pictures to get our serotonin fix. We can sit and look out at the world that we scroll through on Instagram, and perhaps at night, our phones can go to sleep when we do (Secord even sends participants home with little “cellphone sleeping bags”). Such programs also offer tips for maintaining behavioral changes, like changing the phone display to gray scale, or pledging to keep it out of the room at bedtimes and mealtimes.
Both Malecka and Secord’s programs run roughly $600 for a weekend, which is reasonable for an all-expenses-included experience but still exorbitant for those who pay rent in this city.
Doing it at home felt a bit like punishment without the blissful veneer of a vacation. Still firmly entrenched in my regular life, I could not check my bank account (I do this online), do my regular workout (which I do with an app), do yoga (again, I use an app, which I now realize is a tad depressing). I couldn’t call or text or IM a friend to complain, or walk around and take photos because my phone is my camera. I couldn’t even do The New York Times Sunday puzzle to relax, because I do it on the paper’s dedicated app. I won’t even discuss how I felt realizing I would have to spend two days without podcasts. I did not try to go anywhere other than the grocery store, because, as a recent transplant, I cannot find anything in this city without the aid of Google Maps. I had no choice but to spend my time in analog.
And that, I realized, was not such a bad thing in some ways. I have shelves of books that collect dust because I now spend my waiting-room, line-standing and before-bed time tapping on a phone screen in ways that might feel edifying but are probably just time wasters — like rearranging my Amazon wish list. I also found myself repeatedly and automatically reaching for a phone that wasn’t there, with no real notion of what I had meant to do with it. The phone had trained me to check in with it like a parent. Or a keeper. Or a boss. It wasn’t there, so I had to do without knowing what the latest Trump-related headline was, or whether my “package was on its way.” And because I couldn’t know at that moment, I found that instead of chewing my fingers off in frustration, I didn’t really care.
Returning to my phone on Sunday night, the screen blinks on brightly like a virtual eye as I press the power button. As my litany of favorite apps appears, I register a sudden stab of contempt, like Neo suddenly realizing he can manipulate the Matrix, and I resolved that, in this case, the tail will no longer wag the dog. I feel the phone tremble in my hand, as if it knows the tables have turned, and the sense of relief I get when I realize I am once again my own master is, I think, akin to what I would have gotten from an actual retreat. Right before bed, I add insult to injury with the most paradoxical act of all: I log into Amazon Prime and order myself an alarm clock.