Digital detox holidays – How The Network Society Just Got Smaller

By Sean Carey

“I hope you have a good rest,” I said to a friend, who works as an administrator at London University, a few days before her departure for a week’s holiday in Portugal last summer. She had been working hard on a project using an online survey to monitor the health and welfare of undergraduate students.

“So do I,” she replied. “But I’ll do bit of work while I’m at the hotel as the project needs to be finished on time.” She paused and added: “I’m taking my laptop.”

I was horrified on two counts. First, I could see that my friend was not going to get the peace and quiet she so obviously needed. Secondly, she was contributing to the steady erosion of the concept of “taking a holiday.” Put simply, an electronic form of communication – the Internet — was infiltrating and squeezing the life out of a traditional and highly valued leisure form.

Most social scientists agree that the post-industrial world is significantly different from anything that has gone before it. The big questions are: how different, and in what ways? Spanish sociologist and urbanist Manuel Castells, for example, thinks that the move towards information processing – economic activity based on the manipulation of signs, symbols, metaphors and metonyms in the service sector – is in many ways equivalent to the jump from an agrarian mode of production to the industrial one in 18th and 19th century Europe and North America. 

Castells refers to the type of economic activity on display in the advanced economies as the “informational mode of production.” Unlike some of his colleagues, however, he prefers the term “Network Society” to “Information Society” or “Post-industrial Society.”

Why? Well, Castells reckons that the concept of Network Society captures the reality of the way the modern world is increasingly organised around “electronically processed information networks,” where individuals are connected to one another in novel and innovative ways. He thinks (and recommends) that citizens now have the capacity to challenge the power of the state as well as the inequalities generated by global capitalism.

Whatever label you choose, it is clear that electronic communications are changing the way people perceive and experience time – and not always for the better. As Oslo-based social anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen  pointed out in his 2001 book Tyranny of the Moment:

“The last couple of decades have witnessed a formidable growth of various time-saving technologies, ranging from advanced multi-level time managers to e-mail, voice mail, mobile telephones and word processors; and yet millions of us have never had so little time to spare as now. It may seem as if we are unwittingly being enslaved by the very technology that promised liberation.”

Even though the Network Society continues to inexorably spread its tentacles  transforming and sometimes revolutionizing methods of production and social relationships around  the globe, a fight back is going on — at least in some  high-end cultural spaces.

I read one example of such resistance in a brilliant article ‘The Joy of Quiet’ written in 2011 by essayist and travel writer Pico Iyer for the New York Times. He observed that visitors were prepared to pay  $2285 a night to stay in a cliff-top room at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, California and not have a TV.  Iyer concluded that the future of travel “lies in ‘black-hole resorts,’ which charge high prices because you can’t get online in their rooms.”

He continued in a way that echoes Eriksen’s analysis:

“In barely one generation we’ve moved from exulting in the time-saving devices that have so expanded our lives to trying to get away from them — often in order to make more time. The more ways we have to connect, the more many of us seem desperate to unplug. Like teenagers, we appear to have gone from knowing nothing about the world to knowing too much all but overnight.”

The concept of black-hole holiday resorts is gaining momentum. Many travellers, including  members of the digital creative elite, are  desperate to find peace and quiet.

Even the hyperactive Danah Boyd, a new media expert at Microsoft and assistant professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, suggests that many people need an “e-mail sabbatical”. The reason? “Cuz the interface is designed to put you on a hamster wheel, rarely ever succeeding at letting you reach empty. You feel accomplished when you get to inbox zero,” she says. “And then you sleep and it’s all back to haunt you.”

The travel industry is “only just waking up to the technology backlash,” according to Jonathan Brown writing in The Independent. Nevertheless, some of late capitalism’s marketers have been quick out of the blocks and a few black-hole resorts are already servicing members of the world’s geographically diverse economically privileged groups.

For example, in the previously unpopulated island of Kunfunadhoo in the Maldives, no phones or televisions are allowed. Holidaymakers enthusiastically fill the time by indulging in pre-digital age activities like swimming, tennis, and water-skiing.

St. Vincent and Grenadines Tourism Authority further ratcheted up the profile of the black-hole segment of its visitor economy by launching the world’s first branded “digital detox” holiday with the tagline “The Ultimate Guide to Switching Off.” The accompanying online brochure spells it out:

“A de-tech is like a health detox but for your mind… It means unplugging the world, turning of all the distracting devices that battle for your attention in our modern world and living in the here and now… in a chain of unspoilt islands set within the beguiling blues of the Caribbean Sea…”

The irony is that this marketing information is only available electronically. We use the Internet to escape the Internet, in other words. A price worth paying?

That’s a tricky one to answer. But I must tell my friend.

Dr Sean Carey is visiting lecturer in the Business School, University of Roehampton

A version of this article has also appeared at anthropologyworks

* Published in print edition on 2 March 2012

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