Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, March 20, 2014

what "detox" does and doesn't mean

A good many people in my Twitter feed really like this reflection on unplugging by Casey Cep, whose writing I too usually enjoy a lot. But this piece is making me scratch my head. Let me go through the end of the piece and I’ll see if I can explain my confusion:

This is why it’s strange to think of these unplugging events as anything like detox: the goal isn’t really abstinence but a return to these technologies with a renewed appreciation of how to use them.

Cep seems to think that the word “detox” has one meaning, the one associated with drug addiction: drug addicts visit a clinic to detoxify their system, with the determination not to return to their bad old habits. But we also use the word in other ways: think about the “detox spa,” which people visit for a period during which they avoid foods they usually eat and drinks they usually drink — but with every expectation of resuming their familiar practices, more or less, when they return to ordinary life. If people are thinking of “digital detox” in that sense, which is, it seems to me, far more common than the drug-addiction sense, then Cep’s critique simply doesn’t apply.

Few who unplug really want to surrender their citizenship in the land of technology; they simply want to travel outside it on temporary visas. Those who truly leave the land of technology are rarely heard from again, partly because such a way of living is so incommensurable. The cloistered often surrender the ability to speak to those of us who rely so heavily on technology. I was mindful of this earlier this month when I reviewed a book about a community of Poor Clares in Rockford, Illinois. The nuns live largely without phones or the Internet; they rarely leave their monastery. Their oral histories are available only because a scholar spent six years interviewing them, organizing their testimonies so that outsiders might have access. The very terms of their leaving the plugged-in world mean that their lives and wisdom aren’t readily accessible to those of us outside their cloister.

Is this meant as a criticism of the nuns? That their alternative way of life isn’t “accessible” to others? If not, then I don't know what the point of the anecdote is. If so, then I don't agree. No one is obliged to make his or her experience accessible to anyone else.

That is why, I think, the Day of Unplugging is such a strange thing. Those who unplug have every intention of plugging back in.

As noted above: exactly.

This sort of stunt presents an experiment, with its results determined beforehand; one finds exactly what one expects to find: never more, often less.

Wait, do we know that? I’d be quite surprised if no one who has unplugged has been surprised by the resulting experience.

It’s one of the reasons that the unplugging movement has attracted such vocal criticism from the likes of Nathan Jurgenson, Alexis Madrigal, and Evgeny Morozov. If it takes unplugging to learn how better to live plugged in, so be it.

Isn’t that often just the point? I know that when I take a vacation from Twitter, which I do sometimes, I do it in hopes that when I return I’ll enjoy it more and get more from it.

But let’s not mistake such experiments in asceticism for a sustainable way of life. For most of us, the modern world is full of gadgets and electronics, and we’d do better to reflect on how we can live there than to pretend we can live elsewhere.

I guess I just haven’t seen anybody detoxing who is thinking of it as “a sustainable way of life.” I think we can take it as axiomatic that anyone who announces his or her detox on social media isn’t undertaking severe ascesis. So as far as I can tell, Cep’s post doesn't hold up as a substantive critique.

But she’s surely right about one thing: detoxers can be obnoxiously self-congratulatory about their highly temporary withdrawals from our digital worlds.