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Surf, Sand, and Digital Sabbaticals

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

I take them involuntarily all the time — one of the benefits/downsides of traveling 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 gadgets (sometimes just one, like a phone, and sometimes the whole of the Internet, or anything that requires electricity to function), this is seen as a Walden experience: like Thoreau and his pond and his own extraction from modern society, with all the associated introspections.

I like that metaphor, and I want to keep that aspect of it, but I would like to change the 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 inconvenient world, and quite a novelty for people who live in the Developed 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, for different purposes, as long as both are enjoyed in moderation with at least a small portion of the other as a side dish.

It’s easy to demonize (this goes both ways, by the way), but down that path there’s nothing but untenable 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 divisions? 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 six.

I think, in some way, it’s also a result of 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 having to write 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 many 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.

Update: February 19, 2017

I think the metaphor here takes away from the point I wanted to make, rather than clarifying it.

A more concise explanation would be:

Extremes are easy, but balance is difficult. Digital sabbaticals, and extreme diets, and anything else that requires a set of absolutes, are attractive to us because they represent the opposite approach to something we’re doing, but we’re more likely to find both fulfillment and consistency toeing the line, somewhere in that gray area between the two.

This isn’t to say that some people won’t be most fulfilled by, for instance, completely stepping away from technology, or never eating cooked food again. But for most of us, the attraction to these extremes is the result of a sales pitch and dissatisfaction with where we are, and we’d be bettered served with a more moderate shift.