As cultural anthropologists, TTC studies emerging behavioral patterns and their social implications, setting aside several days annually to exclusively focus on one trend. Recently, we wrote about the growing omnipresence of the digital detox, in which people purposely separate from electronic devices. Finding vast implications for our personal and professional lives, we departed for a dude ranch in the mountains of Mexico to observe how it might impact us.
Our weekend detox demanded the conscious uncoupling of human and device, and by extension, of human and social, professional and familial circles. The toughest part of that, for some of us, was simply giving ourselves permission to do so.
“The challenge was in allowing myself to be unavailable,” said Pamela Thomas, president of The Thomas Collective. “The advantages to being present and disconnected are clear, but can become hindrances if you don’t give yourself the space to be unreachable.” The concept behind the digital detox relies on an individual’s recognition that a purposeful break is even necessary, given their increased reliance on their devices.
For most of us, a digital detox was easier said than done. Smart phones are so much more than telephones. One of the most frequently used capabilities is the camera, which has allowed the world to document their lives on social media.
“I’m a photography lover, so I did use my phone on airplane mode to take photos,” admitted Deanna Brigandi, account coordinator. “But that made me think, ‘Who am I taking these photos for?’ Do I take photos to look back on later in life, or do I take them knowing I will eventually post them to social media? I think it’s a little bit of both.”
Brigandi’s quandary was shared by all on the trip. Does the focus on documenting an experience take away from the experience itself? The compulsion to take a photo seems to be in part driven by the desire to preserve a moment, as Brigandi mentioned. But studies actually show that when people take photos, their memories of those moments will fade more than those who did not.1 So then, by refraining from taking photos, we are actually making stronger memories.
Nearly everyone in the group articulated a level of discomfort when first separating from their devices, but some eventually found that taking a step away from their social orbits wasn’t necessarily a negative.
“It was a challenge to break out of the routines associated with my device, but once I actually did it, I was surprised by how much easier it was to be out of contact with people than I expected,” said Doug Burger, senior account coordinator. Smart phones have led us to assume a default setting of interconnection, but once that option is no longer available, we’re reminded that constant contact simply isn’t necessary.
Our takeaway in the brief time we spent away? A deeper understanding of how strong our relationships had become to our devices. Self-insight is always the first step in breaking a habit, and the next is deciding to change. But we live in a world that expects immediate responses, and demands—in both work and play—availability and participation. Until we are ready to limit professional and social participation, the digital detox will just be a reminder of that.