Surf, Sand, and Digital Sabbaticals

Digital sabbaticals are big right now, and I know a whole lot of people who have taken then and enjoyed the time spent away from their various devices.

I take them involuntary all the time — one of the benefits/downsides of traveling so frequently — and I enjoy them to a certain extent, but I want to take a stab at changing the metaphor usually associated with the digital sabbatical, and how technology is viewed as a whole.

Generally when someone decides to take time away from their various gadgets (sometimes just one, like a phone, and sometimes the whole of the Internet, or anything that needs electricity to function). This is often seen as a Walden experience: like Thoreau and his pond and his own extraction from modern civilization, with associated introspections.

I like that metaphor, and I want to keep that aspect of it, but I would like to add an origin: instead of starting out in some vague, non-cabin-in-the-woods modern day lifestyle, you’re coming from a futuristic, robot-operated home perched above an ocean.

This mechanical seaside home of yours is usually great, and you enjoy the myriad benefits of living in a clean, enclosed, safe space. The robotic furniture and appliances are real time-savers, and while they are cooking your food and serving up entertainment, you’re free to sit and let the slow, surging sounds of the tide wash over you.

Sometimes, though, you want to cook your own food and choose your own TV shows and ebooks to imbibe. Sometimes you just want to get away from the unrelenting convenience and experience a little hardship; put some callouses on your hands and live in an environment that’s not climate-controlled or shielded from the elements.

Due to the lack of such things in our ordinary, beach-front housing, we start to romanticize just how great it is. Chopping wood! Ants in my shoes! Hell yes!

Of course, it’s great to experience that non-convenient world, and quite the novelty for people who live in the First World, but there is a reason such things are sabbaticals, not lifestyles. Few people chuck their phone in a drawer and then never take it out again; they keep it in there a week and then it’s back to the beach house. Back to the constant noise of waves and automation.

Why is this? Are we inherently flawed? Unable to appreciate the simpler things in life? Has modern technology removed our innocence? Our desire to truly be human?

No. None of those things. And those questions (which are invariably a part of the conversation when digital sabbaticals are brought up) are why I wanted to propose this new metaphor: we are not bad for wanting convenience and background noise. There’s no shame in enjoying having that iPhone in your pocket and loving the rush of checking your email or Facebook messages.

Like anything, having an unbalanced life because of digital distractions is not ideal, but you know what? So is not having a life because you’re too busy in the woods chopping wood and eating what you hope are not poisonous berries. One is not inherently noble and the other inherently wrong. There is no virtue in living ‘simpler,’ in the Walden way. There is no virtue in living ‘simpler,’ in the minimalism-inspired-gadget way. Both are equally valuable and awesome at different points in a person’s life, as long as both are enjoyed in moderation, along with at least a small portion of the other as a side dish.

It’s easier to demonize (this goes both ways, by the way), but down that path there’s nothing but unmeetable demands and undesirable lifestyle choices. Why must we always fall to one side or the other of a fence that was built only to create such a division? When you can walk the line between one way of living and another, why opt for an extreme instead?

Simplicity, mostly. Ideas are simpler and more contagious when they’re extreme. It’s also the extreme version of a story that’s retold: the man who lives on bear meat and who is thinking about forgoing his only possession — a loincloth — in pursuit of greater minimalist freedom makes the news, while the man who led a balanced life of cabin-living fisherman and city-dwelling web developer doesn’t even make page 6.

I think, in some way, it’s also the desire to be part of a group. To have a title. Someone who eats mostly raw foods but will eat the occasional cooked dish or meat is not welcomed into the ‘raw food’ clan. Achieving a title like that requires one to be all or nothing, or to create one’s own group (I humbly propose ‘Rawish’ for the aforementioned group-less soul), which is a whole lot harder than adopting the garb and rituals of an existing one.

(By the way, I’m not trying to pick on any groups — like raw food eaters — here, just making a point about why groups are a desirable aspect of community living, and therefore we’re far more likely to opt-in if there’s an existing rulebook, rather than writing our own).

So if you want to undertake a digital sabbatical, enjoy it, but do it your way, and don’t feel bad when you are called back to the beach house and its myriad allures — even the noise of the waves unrelentingly slapping up against the shore. You can take a beach-dweller away from the ocean, but demonizing anyone who misses the sound, the surfing, and the convenience that come tandem with such a living situation is tantamount to telling someone that heading into the woods is unnatural or wrong: it’s one side of a coin that needs two sides to be worth anything.

11 comments

  1. Great post, this is a topic that not many people stop to think about. I agree with your view that we shouldn’t sensationalize or romanticize digital sabbaticals and living life without technology; both ‘offline’ and ‘online’ lifestyles should be viewed as an integrated part of out lives in the 21st century.

  2. I took an involuntary 2-week break from the internet when I first moved out to the Moscow countryside in June. As soon as I had the chance, I bought a wireless modem that allowed me to re-connect. However, those two weeks away made me rethink the way I spend my time on the web and I’m now more productive because of that break.

  3. Kind of like that whole beard-bard motif in music over the last few years (Bon Iver in the woods, et al). Even the choice for the digital sabbatical–or any sabbatical–is a luxury problem for 80% of the world (roughly). 
     
    Reminds me of “Grizzly Man,” by Wernor Herzog. In suburbia and urbia, we tend to think of nature as bucolic and calm and refreshing. And it can be. It can also be horrific. In the end, the bear–however cuddly–will eat the man. 

  4. I think you’re missing something big here: focus. That’s why most, I believe, take sabbaticals of any kind. One of the cost of modern life is an existence so full of signal and noise that it’s impossible to separate them anymore. The distractions of text messages, Facebook, Twitter, email, and such a momentary pauses on our attention; instead we focus for smaller and smaller chunks. The problem? These are all largely passive activities–on any of mediums it’s unlikely you’re actually creating something. They’re inherently draining and they slice our attention into ever smaller bits, making us less mindful for what matters (ahem, put the phone away at dinner, dude) and making it ever harder to focus on what’s happening in front of us, or in the future.
     
    Doing hard work is important too– chopping wood, gardening, and cooking when you don’t have to (if you live in a city) is a nice reminder that this is indeed optional, and it’s good to have what you value re-calibrated every so often. Additionally…all good types of activities to focus on one thing, right in front of you, in the present.

  5. I think you’re missing something big here: focus. That’s why most, I believe, take sabbaticals of any kind. One of the cost of modern life is an existence so full of signal and noise that it’s impossible to separate them anymore. The distractions of text messages, Facebook, Twitter, email, and such are momentary pauses on long-term attention; instead we focus for smaller and smaller chunks. And these are all largely passive activities–on any of mediums above it’s unlikely you’re actually creating something. They’re inherently draining and they slice our attention into ever smaller bits, making us less mindful for what matters (ahem, put the phone away at dinner, dude) and making it ever harder to focus on what’s happening in front of us, or in the future.
     
    Doing manual work is important too– chopping wood, gardening, and cooking when you don’t have to (if you live in a city) is a nice reminder that this is indeed optional, and it’s good to have what you value re-calibrated every so often. Additionally…all good types of activities that help focus on one thing, right in front of you, in the present.
     

    •  @smk You’re absolutely right that focus is a key benefit of ‘Waldening’ in whatever way one chooses to do it, but the point that I was making is not that it’s wrong to do that, but that to hold just focusing as some kind of monumental, all-encompassing goal, is leaving out the benefits that are inherent within that noise.
       
      A friend of mine put it really well once, when she explained to me that Iceland is a great place to sit and write, but a terrible place to have experiences worth writing about (I tend to disagree on that point, having written about Iceland a lot, but the metaphor stands). I would argue that the world at large, technology and all, are great places to have experiences and soak up noise, and then removing yourself from it every once in a while (or even more than every once in a while) is a solid idea, so that you can process what just happened. If you just sit and process all day, however, you’ll run out of raw materials to work with. Similarly, if you never take a break from the noise, you’ll have trouble filtering and finding the gold dust in all that mud.

  6. Great article Colin!
     
    I have also thought about this quite a bit. I think a big problem of spending too much time on Facebook and twitter is that it creates no lasting value. Most of the time it’s just a online explosion of meaningless thoughts. Technology has us so tied down that everyone has to know where you are and what you’re thinking at every moment of the day.
     
    I think as long as you’re creating long term value for yourself and for others, you can do whatever you want  in your spare time. 

  7. > There is no virtue in living ‘simpler,’ in the Walden way.
    I think there is: so that others (including future generations) my simply live. I’m not that ethical a person, and I’ve only once (a few years ago) lived simply , but I absolutely see the difference between that way of living and the damage my current life style does.

    • I understand what you mean, but an inherent virtue in living one way over another? As someone who thinks that the most happiness for the most people is vital to an ideal world, I can’t accept that. Sure, it’s one way to approach the issue, but to say that’s the only way to make it so, I feel, is a little disingenuous.

      Sure, it makes me feel better to live simply, too, and I think it would have that same benefit for many (if not most) people, but to say that going into the woods and living off the land is the path to success simply doesn’t scale, and it doesn’t allow for people whose happiness relies in, say, developing solar panels with increased efficiency and lower cost. Such ‘maximalists’ who desire more technology in their lives are not lacking in virtue, they’re simply tacking the problem from a different standpoint and with different priorities.

  8. Great article!  Balance is very key and I agree that to much one way or the other on the spectrum can be detrimental.  Breaking it down to it’s purest form in this example:  I enjoy coffee (a lot).  On a day to day basis I do not always have time to break out my old school espresso maker (when I do I usually enjoy the experience more) but I often resort to the fast paced set the timer drop the pod method.  Is this wrong?  I don’t think so.  However I try to make a strong effort to break out the espresso maker 2-3 times a week just to slow me down, give me balance in my fast paced world, and help let me enjoy some of the finer/simpler things in life.  Just my take on the whole thing and as always thanks for sharing your thoughts Colin.

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