“Turn off, Tune out, Drop out: Preliminary Notes on Digital Escapism”

John Kim
“Turn off, Tune out, Drop out: Preliminary Notes on Digital Escapism”

Curatorial essay for MCAD exhibition, Stream Capture.


In retreat centers, adult camps, support groups, intentional communities, and other enclaves around the country, people long for resources to live a life free from a surfeit of the glow of screens. Digital detoxes, media cleanses, modern primitivisms, and new communalisms are ways, differing in intensity and privation, in which this need has been expressed. To the extent that there is a single theme that connects these movements, I want to argue in this essay that it is a need to “tune out” the media, which I also refer to as digital escapism. The reasons for escape vary, but a connective thread is that individual and social ills attend a culture beset by the media’s non-stop availability. Symptoms range from the individual to the collective, from mental and physical fatigue to social isolation and a sense of diminishing intimacy with others. It would be nearsighted to attribute such a wide assortment of disorders to the media alone, as they obviously reflect other ongoing structural changes in society as well, but the media have become an index with which to identify how our lives are being dramatically reshaped by economic, technological and cultural forces in ways that feel out of our control. By their nature, these effects can be difficult to define, and a convenient shorthand has been to focus on the ways in which the media seem to impact our health and feelings of intimacy and connection with others. 

The 2018 Minneapolis College of Art and Design Gallery’s show Stream Capture, an exhibition that thematizes the representation of the nature in contemporary digital art, helps us to explore this discontent in sentiments about nature. A number of pieces on display foreground how a fascination with nature is a way to articulate our ambivalence about the pervasive sense of disconnection and dislocation. In a close study of a few works from the show, I observe that nature’s appeal is in that it eludes or evades capture by advanced forms of digital representation, including high definition video recording, computer simulation, robotic drawing and more. This elusiveness is crucial to nature’s allure, as it constitutes the real of our desire, and only by pursuing nature as a “countercultural” escape from the digital can one free oneself from the conditions that produce this malaise. This escape, however, predictably ends in failure, suggesting that the fetishicization of nature cannot be a solid ground on which to build a critique of mediated culture. I argue next that this desire for an escape from the digital is now pervasive and undergirds diverse areas of popular culture in phenomena as diverse as media-free spiritual retreats to the growing appeal of backcountry camping. Only by orienting ourselves to the nascent critique that underlies digital escapism, however, can we discover the resources to identify the forces that produce the chronic feelings of disaffection that attend culture, and meaningfully challenge them.

Digital escapism is embedded deeply along the coast of California where it is nurtured by a legacy of countercultural ideas that found a home there in the Sixties. The recent colonization of Esalen in Big Sur, California by creative entrepreneurs, who have been reimagining Esalen as a retreat center for the digital age, is yet another example of the way that Silicon Valley has been pillaging the legacy of the Sixties to create the next marketable service. An iconic countercultural center, Esalen was founded in the midst of the period’s broad revolt against modern life, including a deepening consumer society, an unease with the anomie and isolation of American society, opposition to ongoing imperial wars and the draft, a growing environmental movement, and the rise of popular feminist and anti-racist movements. Esalen has been a spiritual center for the exploration of psychosocial alternatives to society’s norms. Though the counterculture frequently did not offer a singularly coherent critique (it frequently consisted of a grab bag of social issues), it responded to the world in ways that aspired to identify underlying problems in our shared condition in order to make available modes of critique. I see none of this in the uses that are being imagined for the center today.

Esalen appeals to an audience that came of age during the counterculture, but with an aging baby boomer generation, the center has not been immune from pressures to change. As Silicon Valley exerts its influence on points further south, Esalen has started hosting programs to cater to this audience. Classes, such “Digital Detox®: Unplug and Reimagine Your Life,” “Connect to Your Inner-Net,” and others are a hodgepodge of asceticism, nutrition, meditation, esoteric Eastern spiritualities, all offered up in palatable bite-sized morsels. Students are taught how to turn off one’s digital devices as an ascetic practice and to balance time on and offline as a spiritual exercise. There is a long history of orientalist appropriation in the counterculture, and Esalen is still at its vanguard. The unification of Eastern spirituality and countercultural ideas contributes to participants’ impression that they are engaged in transformative personal growth, but this could not be further from the truth. What is on offer are therapies for reintegration back into the life that produced one’s alienation in the first place, a fact that is obvious even in the language used to describe the classes, which are frequently billed as sessions to “recharge one’s batteries.” Such programs do not offer any solutions to the underlying issues that produced feelings of discontent that compelled one to seek escape. They are billed as a temporary respite from a culture that continually produces exhaustion and overload. Even worse, the programs themselves can even be read as internal to the logic of exploitation. If the function of a retreat is to recharge one’s batteries so as to restore proper functioning, then its role is to reintegrate one into the exploitative system that produced the discontent in the first place. Sadly, this should not come as any surprise, for it is without irony that refugees from Silicon Valley–the epicenter of technological innovation–are the ones who now sell us these expensive restorative therapies for reintegration back into life.

The self-care regime that encapsulates the problems with these therapies is the “media cleanse,” a name that takes cues from dieting trends. There are many versions of the dietary cleanse, yet the underlying idea is consistent: one fasts for a given period of time, then takes dietary supplements that allows for the elimination of toxins from the body. The media cleanse focuses on the abstinence part of the cleanse. (It is unclear what supplements one could take to eliminate the memory of a bad television show.) To be fair, there is an illuminating comparison to be made here, as both the dietary and media version of the cleanse suggest that we become more self-aware of those things that we consume in order to exercise stricter self-monitoring and dieting. The foods we eat affect physical and emotional health. We consume commodity foods ill-suited to our bodies, such as corn syrup, petroleum-based ingredients, GMOs, and excess sodium, that can lead to a range of ailments. By refraining from eating certain foods, a cleanse can help to bring balance to the body.

Cleanses take as many forms as there are nutritional supplements for sale that cater to them. There is one styled after Catholic repentance where overconsumption and abstinence are a cyclical process. There is the holistic approach, in which one strives for a healthful balance. When applied to the media, a participant moderates his or her media intake according to a prescribed schedule, and a healthful diet might be structured according to daily or monthly patterns. The search for balance regarding one’s media intake, however, reveals the limitations in comparing the media to food. With food there is a fundamental limit to the amount that one can eat and correspondingly time spent consuming. No matter how unhealthy one’s eating practices, in those in between moments one has time for other activities. With the media, on the other hand, we have not yet reached the point of total saturation. The media aims for 24/7 availability and a total commodification of time. Because of this, there cannot be a holistic balance with the media for they will always strive to colonize those moments in which you are not being exposed. For this reason, we should be skeptical of any solution to our prodigious digital appetites doled out in bite-sized reconstituted spiritual ideas.

Turn off, Tune out, Drop out

An alternative approach to regaining control over our mediated lives has been the movement or migration to the rural, which I referred earlier to as digital escapism. I am interested in the ways in which people are intentionally turning away from civilization in varying degrees of austerity and distance. One can see elements of this in diverse alternatives in modern living, such as new communalist movements, modern primitivisms and off-the-gridders; I would even go so far as to argue that many who participate in the unprecedented popularity of backcountry camping are inspired by a similar idea of escape. People are motivated by a need to be away from the media’s dense supersaturation of life, which in William Gibson’s claustrophobic turn of phrase, turns the sky the color of a television tuned to a dead channel. We have not yet realized Gibson’s vision of an inhabitable virtual reality, but we already live inside of the virtual in that our lived environments have been subjected to varying modes of computational representation (I’m thinking of here geolocational services, artificial intelligence recommendation engines, Augmented Reality, and others). Digital escapism bespeaks a longing for experience that isn’t administered by the digital, an openness to contingency and anonymity increasingly difficult because of pervasive surveillance and computing, an experience of nature untainted by human representation.

Digital escapism once referred to the inverse of what I am describing here. The counterculture’s early adoption of the internet was inspired by its potential to reimagine life. For many, the early internet was an utopian space that allowed for the formation of autonomous social formations that were impossible given spatial and temporal constraints of the physical world. In a scant two decades since declarations of independence defined the early internet, we have witnessed the unprecedented commercial expansion and appropriation of online communications. One can still find autonomous formations online, but more common today are complaints that the internet provides a platform for reactionary voices to surface and reinforces existing social pathologies. This attitude is the inverse of what some in the counterculture had envisioned. Instead of the digital as a refuge from the actually existing world, we now seek refuge from the digital. Given the legacy of countercultural ideas in the reversal of the digital as that from which we now desire escape, I invert the cliched countercultural mantra (“Tune in, Turn off, Drop out”) into a version befitting our situation today: “Turn off, Tune out, Drop out.” This is a better description of the ideological bind we inhabit, where critique has been transformed into a disarticulated set of actions or steps that do not constitute a meaningful critique, and serve to deepen our integration into the forces from which we desire escape.

Turn off

For counterculturalists, “tune in” referred to the act of taking LSD and other mind-altering substances, but it was also a symbolic act, a sacrament connecting an individual to a community of the like-minded who shared a desire for social transformation. Dropping acid was synecdochal for participation in the counterculture; one tuned into the new consciousness that the counterculture aspired to bring into the world. An individual was connected to others in the shared belief that the material conditions for happiness and freedom were realizable. To be sure, there were plenty of hippies who were in it solely for the sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Despite their aversion to being grouped in with the emerging political movements of the time, the Merry Pranksters nevertheless engaged in sporadic political activities in their proto-hippie lifestyling.

As an inversion of the counterculture, “turn off,” by contrast, references the act of shutting down media devices. This can take many forms, including turning off a phone, uninstalling applications that distract, or leaving one’s laptop at home. What all of these actions lack is the connection to a collective belief or understanding of the change that is needed in order to bring about circumstances for happiness and freedom. By “tuning in” conterculturalists strove to recognize the meaning of their activities as part of a collective movement towards social transformation. “Tuning in” connected an individual to a community that held in common a critique of the existing conditions of existence. This step is now lacking. Turning off, by contrast, is a purely subjective activity that does not connect one to others in a shared recognition of what needs to change in order to overcome the forces that produced alienation or separation. One is alone in the activity of turning off, and without a connection to others and a corresponding sense of mutual care and action, a solitary activity disappears into the void, because it does not build capacity for meaningful change.

Tune out

Timothy Miller has observed that counterculturalists, rather than rejecting outright technology, advocated for an alternative vision that deployed it in service of human needs. This became the “appropriate technology” movement. In creative activities like the Human Radio, the Pranksters explored appropriate technologies at the intersection of the social and the communicative. Whereas the mass media divide collective experience into separate and isolated activities, the Human Radio was a social technology to open up a sense of connection with others, to link up with other consciousnesses. In contrast to technologies that contribute to furthering the logic of exploitation and resource extraction, appropriate technologies could be an aid to the formation of alternatives in how humans connect to others and the world. Here we can see the reason why the counterculture was so fascinated by the internet as an appropriate technology to aid the creation of communities that redress the anomie produced by modern life. What is widely recognized about online interactions today, however, is that they can reinforce feelings of separation and isolation. The feelings of control and stimulation that attend online interactions can be addictive, and face-to-face interactions, by comparison, can seem underwhelming. The toxic trolling, bullying and flame wars that abound in online interactions are symptomatic of the fact that in the absence of the physical experience of otherness, it can be difficult to empathize with an other. In order to participate in online environments, we are required to disclose and commodify aspects of our identities, including our appearance, and our interests. On websites and apps, our interactions with others are confined to these categories. Others become instrumental to the satisfaction of our needs, because we are discouraged from treating others as fully realized humans who have diverse and potentially contradictory desires, feelings, and needs outside of these interfaces.  Long ago Sartre noted that we live in a consumer culture that cultivates narcissism and egoism. Despite our desire to see the internet as a fix to the primary narcissism that makes it difficult to connect with others, the current construction of online interactions forecloses the possibility that it can lead us out of isolation and separation.

“Tuning out,” by contrast, speaks to our reaction to the media run amok. As the media infiltrate our lives in more minute, pervasive and intimate ways, a response to the din is to tune out, to cover our ears and close our eyes to the noise that threatens to flood them. Tuning out extends from the act of turning off. We turn off our devices to turn our backs on them. Essential to the counterculture’s conception of appropriate technology is a recognition that a total refusal of technology is a naive romanticization of a human state free of technology. One cannot engage in a discussion about technology’s role in imagining the everyday when one plugs one’s ears to their possible value. If the media have created the conditions from which we now seek escape, then we need to reflect critically on the question of how to develop them in alternative ways. When applied conscientiously with a sense of care about human needs, technology can become a tool for helping to shape the world into one of our collective imagining. Instead of turning our backs to the media, we need to tune our relationship to them and transform them into tools for living.

Drop Out

Finally, an iconic countercultural response to society was to drop out and form alternative communities. Best remembered are the experimental communes, including Drop City, New Buffalo, and the Farm, but these were just a few of the diverse experiments in housing cooperatives and intentional communities. The Diggers, Cockettes, Black Panthers, and many others strove to create alternative community platforms to redress society’s glaring problems. For a variety of reasons, most of these experiments in living disbanded after a few years, including heinous examples of state repression and violence enacted on some of them. But even without overt forms of repression, it can be an overwhelming emotional and physical drain to turn one’s back on the reproduction of existing means and relations of production in order to invent new ways to subsist, cohabitate and communicate that liberate us from the past’s constraints. In spite of the fact that the counterculture has become the endless source of commodified nostalgia and that the conditions against which they struggled are significantly changed today, we can continue to learn from the counterculture. Their ambitious attempts to reimagine life and to bring it into existence through playful experimentation underscores the lengths to which it might be necessary to correct the problems we face today.

Digital detoxes and other escapes borrow heavily from the idea of dropping out, especially through associations with countercultural retreat centers, such as Esalen. Its legacy can be detected in the language used to describe detoxes. By going on retreats, one gets closer to nature and away from the persistent hum of human activity. Camps, retreat centers, and off-the-grid communities offer opportunities to disconnect from the world and tune out media overload. Whereas many in the counterculture dropped out without a return address, digital detoxers go on trips of fixed durations; their return postage is guaranteed. Such retreats are temporary separations from society, done with the security that one will rejoin society and can reactivate one’s accounts after a short respite. A similar accusation has been made about the original counterculturalists, that their experiments in living were simply a temporary pause that allowed them to “play at” being a Native or a noble savage. Today’s digital escapees, however, are one step further removed from these stereotypes and “play at” being dropouts. It must undoubtedly feel risky to leave one’s media devices behind, uninstall applications, or delete social media accounts in order to get closer to nature. These feelings of unsettlement might even be comparable to what counterculturalists experienced when embarking on their utopian journeys, but we need to recognize the ideology and the illusion of digital escapes: they are sad imitations of a failed revolution in living.

Capturing Failure on Displays

Returning to the Stream Capture exhibition, I want to consider how the allure of nature as a respite from the world is reflected in the representation of nature in digital art. A theme that connects multiple pieces on display is the attempt to simulate and/or represent it utilizing advanced digital technologies, including HD digital video, software simulation, robotic drawing and others.1 In his New Nature, for example, Mark Tribe captured 24 hours of footage from a single vantage point set in nature using the highest resolution (4K) digital video cameras available. New Nature is an imperfect digital archive of the wilderness that has become necessary because of the increasing severity and frequency of extreme weather events produced by climate change. There is a real possibility that such places will be endangered in the near future, and we will no longer be able to experience them. When New Nature is understood from this perspective, a viewer is left with a feeling of loss, because of the inadequacy of a digital archive as a replacement for nature. Despite utilizing the most advanced technologies, what is on display is the futility of a digital record, because of limitations in the current means of reproduction. We can marvel at the number of pixels used or the brightness and clarity of the image, but even the most sophisticated media technologies cannot begin to document the natural world. This shouldn’t be at all surprising, for the technological means for transcoding the physical world are still primitive. Even something as familiar as recorded sound, no matter how high the fidelity and resolution in which a piece of music is captured, is still far from reproducing the experience of a live performance. To set out to capture nature, in all its complex and multisensory dimensions, is impossible. What is on display in New Nature in the elusiveness of its original is the imperfect representation of nature.

The failure of contemporary technologies for the simulation of nature is an overt theme of other works on display. In David Rueter’s Drift, it is constitutive of the narrative itself. Rueter released a homemade weather buoy into Lake Michigan and documented his attempt to recover it employing advanced weather and water simulation software to guide him to its predicted location. The piece consists of a video recording of the simulation software at work while the audio is Rueter’s narration of his attempts to recover the buoy. The process is started multiple times, and each iteration ends in failure. Witnessing them, a viewer is left with the impression of the current impossibility of simulating nature to any degree of accuracy. Jan Robert Leegte’s New World illustrates this failure in reference to video games that simulate natural environments. The piece draws on the visual language of video games, in particular, simplified digital versions of natural landscapes. New World renders the world in three discrete ecosystems, each represented by a flat two-dimensional graphic of grass, desert and textured water. A recent trend in video games is to procedurally generate the field of game play, opening up the possibility of an expansive, nearly infinite, open terrain. Employing this technique, New World endlessly generates random blocks in the direction one moves, which makes it impossible for a player to reach the end of the game. Flights of fancy might invite comparisons between New World to the actually existing universe because of the way in which the game imitates the universe’s limitlessness expanse. Any such comparison, however, would be grossly overstated, because even with an open universe of game play, the entirety of the world is still constructed out of three types of terrain.

What Tribe, Leegte and Reuter’s works illustrate then is the aspiration and the failure of contemporary techniques for the representation of nature. Despite their use of sophisticated technologies for its reproduction, a viewer is left with the sense of the gap that separates the digital work from what it depicts. As the elusive subject of digital art, nature provokes precisely because of its unattainability. The subject of these works is the real of desire, the effort to capture nature’s distinctiveness, yet marked by the repetition of its failure.

The Color of Television, Tuned to a Dead Channel

In light of the failed representation of nature found in Stream Capture, I want to conclude on a re-examination of digital escapes. As a temporary refuge, the purpose of detoxes or retreats are to bring one back to proper functioning. From this perspective, the fundamental problem with digital escapes is that escapes restore or, even, enhance one’s capacity to endure the forces that produced the desire for escape in the first place. Instead of offering a solution or alternative to culture, the purpose of digital escapes is to restore one’s capacity for productivity. Detoxes put one on a cycle of repetition that can only result in an escalation of feelings of disaffection, from which there is no closure and no solace.

There is paradoxically a critique embedded in the desire for escape. The language of “detox” implies a recognition that culture has become a slow toxin; to require “grounding” acknowledges that life has become detached or unhinged. Slavoj Zizek has used the term post-ideological to refer to situations in which criticism itself deepens our commitment to those forms of power and control from which we seek escape. Or worse, instead of offering a solution, we engage in activities that are revealed to be complicit with the underlying problems our activities strive to correct. An oft cited example of this post-ideological bind in the West is philanthropy. With the recent passage of tax cut bills that allows more wealth to accumulate among the 1% and the simultaneous hollowing out of social services, lives are made precarious, and the underclass becomes even more reliant on philanthropy. But when philanthropy is underwritten by the richest who have accumulated wealth through the expropriation and exploitation of others, it creates a bind that serves to reinforce ideologically an acceptance of the very structure of inequality that produced it in the first place. In a dystopian landscape of privation and perpetual insecurity, the logic of exploitation is reinforced because it offers nominally humanitarian outcomes.

A similar logic exists in the appeal of the digital detox: unplugging can offer respite from our embeddedness in a mediated culture the volume of which outpaces our ability to process. In this sense, media cleanses can provide us with distance from the world in order to reorient ourselves to it and psychologically prepare for reentry. It is a singularly individual response that does not call us to challenge the forces that produced this discontent. As Guy Debord observed long ago about the media, social separation and isolation are some of their main outcomes. To the extent that a digital detox is intended to restore proper functioning, it normalizes the world without change.

In an echo of the wilderness’s role as a place of refuge for romantics, nature continues to figure prominently in digital escapes as a place of shelter and quiet. Where romantics disappeared into the country, into hermitages, and to mountain tops, today’s romantics find refuge in countercultural inspired retreat centers, off-the-grid camps and backcountry campsites. Nature continues to figure prominently, and it beckons from glossy promotional material calling us to it. Nature is the front for a growing menu of choices to disconnect from the digital world in order to recharge. The promise of escape is a post-ideological bind that does not enable us to tune in, turn off, or drop out from the circumstances from which we desire escape. Instead, it is productive of those very forces that have contributed to our pervasive sense of malaise and exploitation. Digital escapes recondition our bodies to accept the unacceptability of contemporary life. The works on display in Stream Capture teach us that nature is an endless source of awe and wonder; it calls us forth. Nature dangles in front of us with its promise of refuge and quiet, but escape continually eludes our grasp. When we turn back to the world to face its conditions unchanged, we discover we can again endure additional cycles of work and instruction. Before long, finding ourselves burdened and overstimulated, we yearn for a way to recharge, and nature beckons us back to it.

Endnotes

  1. There is an important distinction between forms of digital representation and representation, and I am not obscuring the difference here. What I am suggesting is that they share an interest in representing nature through digital processes that involves transcoding into numerical form.
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