Introduction to the Digital Sabbath

Something is afoot in the ether of the internet.

A wave of campaigns are sweeping through cyberspace, and not without irony, championing the idea of a ‘digital Sabbath’: a rest period from time/money/sociability/sanity-consuming technology, where participants ‘detox’ from apparently destructive usage patterns.

As the Sabbath Manifesto declares,

A small group of artists, writers, filmmakers and media professionals who, while not particularly religious, felt a collective need to fight back against our increasingly fast-paced way of living. The idea is to take time off, deadlines and paperwork be damned.
In the Manifesto, we’ve adapted our ancestors’ rituals by carving out one day per week to unwind, unplug, relax, reflect, get outdoors, and get with loved ones.

It’s been big in the US. The American social activist machine Adbusters – magazine, advertiser, global network and blogger – have popularised en-masse switch-offs with their Digital Detox Week campaign, now on an annual rotation.

Source: Adbusters / Arbol

Likewise, the Jewish non-profit think tank, Rebooters, pulled off their third National Day of Unplugging initiative in March earlier this year. The Huffington Post promotes their Unplug and Recharge Challenge for the same purpose.

A UK digital detox website is underway, and assistive apps under construction. One particular app for Android forewarns its users that this is no joke. “Starting a Digital Detox session is a commitment. Once you start, it can’t be cancelled – your phone will be unusable except for the emergency dialer (which only allows emergency calls) until the session is complete.” Sounds drastic.

Source: Digital Detox: Take Over Your Headspace

Others are less extreme. StayFocusd allows internet users to outsource their self control by blocking the sites they nominate as most distracting at particular times during the day. Co-author of this feature, Lucy Mowat, gave it a try – to little avail. “While it provides a suggested list of sites to add, proving my patterns of procrastination to be embarrassingly typical, and even a ‘nuclear’ option to block the entire internet for a set length of time, my new-found productivity was short-lived”, she says. “I found myself downloading a different browser just so I could check my Facebook.”

And The New York Times, finger ever to the zeitgeist’s pulse, joined the debate with insights from those most connected: Silicon Valley natives. Switching off has become the latest trend, picked up like the latest version of the iPad and with all the technological frustrations. It’s advocated as a health benefit, an unavoidable, necessary step on the evolution of technology, and it’s started interesting discussions about the responsibility of software designers in creating ‘addictive’ products. There’s even a conference, Wisdom 2.0, where the high rollers of Facebook, Google, eBay and PayPal learn meditation and yoga techniques to ‘balance’ their lives.

Where is Australia’s Digital Sabbath, or National Day of Unplugging? Slowly the trend has been picked up by Australian travel and wellness media, but we’re yet to see widespread campaigns for or discussion of technology respite.

Surely the Australian experience of digital media and devices is not far off from that of our US counterparts?

Data from the World Bank indicates that 79 percent of the population use the internet (2011). The US sits just below at around 78 percent. According to research from Our Mobile Planet, smartphone penetration in Australia has reached 52 percent, while the US is again below us at 44 percent.

Source: Our Mobile Planet

If anything, such data would suggest Australians are more susceptible to the perils of digital technology being touted by the digital detox / Sabbath campaigns.

The New York Times has begun a forum to explore the underlying issues of our apparently fraught relationship with technology. It showcases opinion pieces from a variety of industry, academic and medical professionals on the perils of multitasking and (in)ability to disconnect from the digital world. Timothy B. Lee, a scholar at Princeton University, acknowledges in the forum the disruptive effect the internet can have on some people’s ability to empathise with others, backing up the findings of a similar study by the University of Michigan.  Yet Lee legitimately counters that “for most people the reality is just the opposite: the Internet broadens and strengthens our social ties and greatly enhances our ability to engage with one another.”

Such is the complexity of the debate about being online and offline. On the one hand, technology is demonised as the creator of bad habits (for example, multitasking), making us more prone to depression and in the case of the Internet, even rewiring our brains. On the other, there are equal risks to going cold turkey, professional scepticism about reports of ‘internet addictions’, and as we found out (link to one of our pages?), less concern about uncontrollable use of digital technology than has been reported.

Still, dwindling self-control remains one of the main themes of overseas campaigns. So much so, the travel industry has begun offering digital retreats in exotic locations. Phones and computers are physically removed from guests at resorts in the Caribbean, American wilderness, and Mexico and Costa Rica. The Westin Hotel in Dublin and others around America offer Digital Detox packages, with the Westin including a Digital Detox Survival Kit. Korea’s trade is in internet rescue camps.

Source: The Daily Mail (online)

Yet there are no such opportunities in Australia or surrounding holiday regions. The closest we found were religious or wellness retreats which excluded the use of technology only by virtue of their strict routines of meditation and silence.

Why is Australia behind the times on (temporarily) divorcing their digital devices? Is there a need for an Australia-wide campaign to unplug?

We sent our reporters to investigate. Read about their experiences →