Making new connections in a disconnected world
In his classic novel The Tin Drum, the Nobel prize-winning author Gunter Grass, described how the new popularity of wristwatches impacted European society in the 1930s, concluding that: “Humankind no sooner comes with a great invention than we become completely enslaved by it.”
You could say the same for the ubiquity of smartphones and other devices during the digital age of today, when people check their emails every few minutes, keep in touch through personal messaging services, share their personal lives and photos on social media, and even use their phones as clocks, flashlights, and fitness trackers.
Our dependence on these devices is so new that psychiatrists and social scientists have not yet been able to coin a term for this disorder, or conduct any long-term studies that show the effects it is having on human consciousness and relationships. Whether it’s a kind of obsessive-compulsive order, or more like an addiction to alcohol, gambling, or sex, is irrelevant, because the side effects are easy to see.
In a major departure for the travel world, the new company Digital Detox Asia is the first such firm in Southeast Asia to offer device-free weekend retreats in a bucolic setting near Khao Yai National Park. At the helm of the firm are Nathaniel Simha and John Bailey (popularly known in Bangkok as musician John Will Sail), who take turns leading the different activities, as well as Atthawut Rungrojkitiyos, the owner of the White Knot Farm Stay, where the retreat is held.
Through the different creative activities and teambuilding exercises, combined with yoga and meditation classes, the threesome have come up with a two-fold plan to reconnect people with themselves and each other—all in a natural setting where healthy vegetarian food provides a respite for city-stressed participants used to wolfing down processed meals on the run.
At a Starbucks outside Bangkok we handed over our phones, which were then placed in plastic bags and labeled with our names. John and Nathaniel are realists not Luddites, and they are not trying to demonize technology or suggest that people should do away with their gadgets altogether. As John told the group, “This weekend is about managing your devices instead of having them manage you.”
After arriving at our destination, the first ‘Creative Session’ was in an open-air pavilion with the tree-picketed mountains of Khao Yai National Park in the distance. During that session John—an experienced school teacher in his own right—gave each of us a single word written on a piece of paper. Using the coloured markers, glue, string, glitter, and other materials, we were supposed to illustrate our interpretations of what that particular word meant to us. As we started working on them, I overheard one woman saying, “I haven’t done anything like this since I was 12 years old. I feel like a kid again.”
Yet the idea underlining this endeavor was not child’s play. As Nathaniel explained, “We consume digital media in a passive way instead of actively creating something.”
My word was “strength”. Possessing the artistic abilities of a six-year-old I had to draw on the grand tradition of minimalism as evinced by artists like Jasper Johns (leaving your devices behind is one thing, but abandoning your egocentric pretensions would be a different kind of detox). When John asked us to gather in a circle, hold up our artworks and explain a little about why we’d chosen to represent that word in this particular way, I said that my rudimentary drawing could be seen as a pillar, or a tree trunk, or a spinal cord, which depicted the nature of inner strength not the usual body-building antics or macho histrionics of action movies. As a student of Buddhist thought, I mentioned the famous sermon in which the Buddha held up a lotus blossom and said nothing, as if life’s beauty and fragility could be glimpsed in a single such image.
Many of the group members possessed some astonishing artistic abilities. One guy, whose word was “empathy”, put together a mixed-media piece showing a group of interconnected people that really should be hanging in an art gallery. During his presentation, he talked about trying to portray this quality by showing people looking upon each other with compassion but without judgment.
The session did double duty as an icebreaker. Afterwards I walked over to compliment him on his piece and we ended up having a long, friendly chat.
The group dynamic came into play in some of the other creative sessions, where we acted out different scenes from movies that the other groups had to guess, and banded together to improvise some new lyrics for the Oasis hit “Wonderwall”, then sang them to the group as John played acoustic guitar. This was not a karaoke-style or “reality show” kind of show-off competition. All the groups cheered each other on and everyone one applauded everybody else’s efforts.
In a way, these were team-building exercises, which could appeal to corporate clients, but in a different way they proved that people have more latent skills than they may imagine, and could use them to pursue other hobbies or passions. Erin Orsini, a young Canadian woman studying in Thailand, said, “I’m quite a shy person but I had to show a more extroverted side of my character during the activities.” In her future career in marketing this newfound skill will serve her well or at least be a confidence-booster.
Nathaniel, who has led yoga retreats before, designed the morning and afternoon classes in this popular discipline—as well as the meditation sessions—with both dilettantes and devotees in mind. Sitting in silence in the open-air pavilion, only broken by birdsong, we sat meditating, rather than frantically checking our email and social media accounts—which marks the starting line of many people’s workday or weekend, thus putting the whole digital detox experience into sharp relief.
One of the main questions posed by such an experience is whether or not anyone missed their gadgets and gizmos all that much? A few people said they worried about missing business emails, and they would have liked to shoot some photos with their smartphone cameras, but those were two of the few complaints I heard.
Some of the things that John and Nathaniel told me—like how they do their morning yoga practice and meditation sessions before even checking their phones for messages—really sank in. Since that weekend I’ve tried to write for a few hours every morning without the distraction of deleting spam or clicking on Facebook notifications about ‘friends’ I’ve never met posting in groups I can’t even remember joining.
For me that was one of the main takeaways from the weekend. But I also recalled the line from The Tin Drum that opens this story. Contemplating the author’s remark about how the timepiece began enslaving people in the 1930s, shouldn’t we ask ourselves whether technology exists to serve people instead of turning us into its servants?
Deprived of our devices, the long breakfasts, lunches, and dinners became sounding boards for in-depth conversations. Because the retreat revolved around inner journeys of soul-searching through the yoga and meditation, as much as the outward pursuits that also tapped into some creative reservoirs, many of the conversations took on a deeply personal tone. As with other healthy retreats I’ve done, like a weeklong colonics detox programme, the experience of facing the same challenges is fertile ground for friendships and conversations to flourish.
That communal vibe resonated throughout the resort’s design. Many of the bungalows at the resort—designed with Spartan elegance, heavy on wood and concrete floors—encircle a small pond embellished with flowers and foliage. Each bungalow is equipped with a hammock. In-between the scheduled activities (voluntary not mandatory) there was plenty of time for relaxing siestas and basking in the natural ambience.
After reclaiming our phones in the Starbucks on a Sunday night, all of us began checking our emails and social media accounts. An Australian guy on the trip mentioned how the whole focus of the group narrowed from the wide-angle openness of the human interactions during the retreat to the tunnel vision of those tiny screens.
The shift was palpable but short-lived. In front of the coffee shop, John and Nat got everyone together for a final chat and group photo. I was stunned by the intensity of the bonds formed between people who had been complete strangers only two days before that, and who were now going around hugging and thanking each other and promising to keep in touch—ironically enough, through Facebook.
On the last leg of the journey back to Bangkok, I sat beside Chris, a chatty young Italian guy who spoke as much with his hands as with his mouth. He and I compared travel experiences in Spain and Morocco, and debated the Rohingya refugee crisis and the state of politics in Myanmar. He recommended his favourite Italian restaurants in Bangkok. I told him about a couple of books on Thai culture and history I thought he would find interesting.
Wary of disrupting the natural ebb and flow of the conversation, or betraying the weekend’s theme of disconnecting from our devices to re-engage with other people and ourselves, during that engrossing half-hour chat neither of us glanced at our phones even once.
NOTE: The next two Digital Detox retreats are scheduled for February 9-11, and March 30-April 1. Three accommodation options are available—B7,500 for a twin share, B10,000 for a private room, and B20,000 for a suite that can accommodate three or four people. The prices include a two-night stay, transport, vegetarian meals, and all activities. Pick-up and drop-off point for return transport is the Mercure Hotel, Rama 9 Rd. To make a reservation email: email@example.com.
By Jim Algie