This is a detox: Hand over your cellphone

Parties and retreats treat technology dependence

New York TimesDecember 23, 2012 

The hand-painted sign, posted on a recent Thursday evening at the entrance to Jones, a lounge near San Francisco’s Union Square, stated the deal: “You are now entering a technology and device-free zone. Please refrain from using your cellphone inside this space. The use of WMDs (wireless mobile devices) is not permitted.”

Patrons knew the conditions. Word about the Device-Free Drinks party, billed as an occasion to “enjoy a few hours off the grid,” had spread through Facebook and other social media (postal mail would have been too much) and drew about 250 participants.

But asking people to surrender their digital tethers at the door still required some coaxing. “Are you ready?” the hostess asked. “I can’t let go of it for 30 seconds,” said Katie Kimball, 28, a legal services manager visiting from Brooklyn.

Kimball and her friend were encouraged to fish a few strips of paper from a Mason jar labeled “Digital Detalks,” which contained one-line icebreakers like, “What’s the best sound effect you can make?” and “What does your grandmother smell like?” Inside, various analog distractions were offered to ward off withdrawal: board games, butcher paper and markers, colored threads for friendship bracelets. Next to four Smith Corona typewriters, a young woman wore a hand-scrawled sign around her neck: “Ask me typewriter questions! I may answer them … maybe.”

Caitlin Keller, 28, who works in customer service at a tech startup, was mustering all of her manual dexterity to type out, “Why did they take my phone?” on one of the primitive devices. It seemed to scratch her digital itch.

“The first 20 minutes is difficult,” she said. “I want to check what my friends are doing, see if anyone’s contacted me – just have it next to me. But then you feel free.”

Device-Free Drinks could have taken place in any American city – according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted last spring, 67 percent of cellphone owners find themselves checking their device even when it’s not ringing or vibrating. But among Bay Area technology professionals, for whom the devices are an appendage, that hankering is perhaps especially acute.

The party was the brainchild of Levi Felix, an earnest 28-year-old and self-identified recovering techie. Four years ago, Felix was living in Los Angeles, pulling 70-hour weeks for a tech startup. His lifestyle had become a high-tech cliché: laundry, late-night Thai food and Ping-Pong at the office. He even slept with his laptop tucked under his pillow.

His over-caffeinated vision of “changing the world” was taking a toll. In 2009, before the South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, Felix checked in at a hospital, en route to the airport, for an IV. He said doctors found that his blood level was 70 percent below normal. “The doctor said, ‘You’re killing yourself. You need to take a break,’ ” Felix said.

Becoming unplugged

So he did. For the next two years, Felix and his girlfriend, Brooke Dean, traveled abroad. They lived on farms, volunteered at nonprofits, surfed and fished. “We wanted to go off the grid and see what made people happy and how communities were living,” he said. They stumbled on a secluded guesthouse on a Cambodian island, and the owner eventually let them run it for six months. Watching how device-free living affected their guests inspired the couple. Last summer, the couple began four-day weekend retreats called the Digital Detox, held in various locations in Northern California. Participants surrender all their devices and are taught yoga, meditation and healthy cooking. “We give them the space to re-evaluate their relationship with technology and question the patterns in their lives,” he said. Many participants leave feeling transformed. Jonathan Lally, 28, who attended a Digital Detox retreat in June after leaving his job at Google, said he no longer brings his smartphone into the bedroom at night. “I use an old-school alarm clock that you need to wind up,” he said. “If people want to reach me after 9, they have to call me twice within two minutes – that’s the only way the phone lets them through.”

The retreat also made Lally more attentive in person. “If you were talking to me six months ago,” he said, “I probably would have pulled my phone out 30 times during this conversation.”

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