by Julius WiedemannJul 20, 2021
Many times, we want to be anonymous. We want to be off the grid, and we want to be unreachable. And we want all these things for many reasons. One of them is to escape from the tensions of the big cities and from the constant connectivity that keeps us busy and linked to work and the world. But other times we want to test if we would be traceable. It so happens that sometimes when we are away, we also want to know where we are in relation to the world. Even if that requires only some sort of connection, even if just a GPS positioning in a map that was downloaded before. The point here is that very often we need to understand where we are in relation to others and other experiences.
My family and I did this experiment last week. We went to a place with no connection, and I downloaded the Google Maps before we went to that place so that I could understand our location. It was in the middle of Amazon Forest in the state of Pará in Brazil. The region we went to is full of effluents from the Amazon River, some almost as large as parts of the Amazon itself. The Tapajós river for instance has a distance of about 20 km from margin to margin. With the GPS working, it was easy to pin down exactly where we were before and understand how far we were from the rest of the world, so to speak.
At the end, what seems plausible and also a desire, is for us to exercise a certain omnipresence offered by the digital means. Not a God-like presence, but the ability to be in many places at the same time, whilst allowing ourselves to shut down completely and disappear from the world. To be able to exercise normal functions connected to places and the people we love or need to, when also being able to escape anytime we want, is a privilege. We frequently need a detox from the overwhelming amount of information we are subjected to everyday. The contact with nature is a way of doing it. And the further you go, the disconnected you will probably be. The longer you stay, you will understand that it moves without you. And here I mean a very healthy disconnection. It is definitely a good exercise.
Sue Thomas, a visiting fellow at The Media School at Bournemouth University, offers an interesting point of view in her article Nothing wrong with a digital detox but wired nature is better, published on the portal The Conversation. Thomas reports that she “came across a number of influential and widely cited experiments, which demonstrated the positive effects of nature on physiological and mental health. But a considerable amount of their data came from subjects looking at still or moving images, such as window views, photographs and videos, rather than going outdoors.” It is fascinating just to think about how the human mind can relate and react to images on a screen. No wonder apps and websites keep feeding users with beautiful images. And also adding features such as Instagram Reels, and IGTV. As someone who posts regularly, and a lot of things related to nature, I am always intrigued by the types of images that will be successful on my feed. Those are always hard to repeat, but give us an understanding of a sense of aesthetics. Some can be premeditated, but most of them have to be natural and spontaneous.
The Scotsman, a prominent newspaper in the north of the UK, published in 2014 a different view, titled ‘Digital detox’ Scots tourism plan criticised because at that time connectivity was the most common complaint from visitors to Scotland. One in three tourists had been reportedly unhappy about poor mobile phone reception in some of the most scenic parts of the country. The article by Brian Ferguson was already trying to understand the dilemma of virtual world and real world, and their effect on the human psych. Reports like those are not rare. We are still trying to collect data to deeply understand the meaning of seeing something and experiencing something. However seemingly incompatible sometimes, one doesn’t eliminate the other in our daily lives. We actually need both. Only looking at recipes being done on 30 second videos does not offer taste. But going to restaurants without being educated about what we are eating can also offer a less rich experience. Information is a path to freedom and to having more complete experiences.
I try to live both virtual and real experiences. They both contribute to my work, my relationships, and my state of mind. They both help me plan further, and serve as a trigger for me to research deeper into other places and things I feel I need to know more about to be fulfilled. The 21st century is going to offer a lot more variety in access and experiences. It will make it easier for us to disappear but also to be anywhere anytime. These two ideas, which seemed contradictory until not long ago, will become commonplace. Connectivity at the time of the experience has become probably the most important narrative for social media in the last few years. It offers the possibility of people living something almost at the same time as the spectator. It is the transferring of the possibility of doing reality shows from every single smartphone in the world. With 500 million daily users and one billion monthly users, Instagram (and of course many other platforms) can shorten the distance from audience to new realities. It might not be everything, but it can be a good beginning. You might not be able to be everywhere, but you can get quite close. And you can later choose what to experience yourself.
Read more from the series Digital Legacies where our columnist Julius Wiedemann investigates the many aspects of digital life.