The Great Offline

The concept of “offline” is built on the earlier concept of “wilderness,” inheriting its flaws and hazards

Full-text audio version of this essay.

In 1995, environmental historian William Cronon published “The Trouble With Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” In it, he critiques the Western concept of “wilderness” as nothing but a fantasy that prevents us from meaningfully engaging with ecological systems. He argues that the idea of wilderness is beset by a central paradox: It supplies the “ultimate landscape of authenticity,” allowing for the purest expression of a human self, and yet it excludes human presence by definition (wilderness is wherever other humans are not). Wilderness thus remains a “profoundly human creation” — charged with individualism — in which we perceive not “nature,” but “the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires.”

The idea of wilderness as we think of it today is a fairly modern invention. Up until the 18th century in the West, wilderness still carried overwhelmingly negative connotations, reflecting the biblical story of the Fall, in which it first signified the barren, empty, desolate lands to which Adam and Eve were banished after their expulsion from Eden. Throughout the colonial era, settlers narrated their mission in terms of the restoration of Eden: By turning worthless “wilderness” into something commodifiable and profitable, they were doing “God’s work.”

Before the internet, escaping to the wilderness was touted for its health benefits. Now, it is a remedy to the abstract category of technology — screen light and digital noise

Over time, as uncolonized tracts of land in North America grew scarcer, nature writers such as Henry David Thoreau began to lament the landscapes that were being lost to the plough. Gradually, wilderness came to signify Eden itself, specifically an Eden that predated the appearance of Adam and Eve. In these romanticized accounts of “nature,” Indigenous peoples were neatly figured as part of the fauna; which meant that the lands on which they lived could conveniently be called “uninhabited.” (Ana Cecilia Alvarez writes for Real Life: “It never occurred to the first white settlers who came to Yosemite and exclaimed that it had the pristine beauty of a European garden that it in fact was a garden.”) In 1964, as the U.S. Congress passed the Wilderness Act, it also enshrined into law a definition of wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammelled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” This definition of wilderness, underpinned by processes of racial dehumanization, persists today.

The concept of wilderness has surprisingly close ties to another modern invention: the idea of technological “disconnection,” and the accompanying idea of “digital detox.” These constructs share not only a repertoire of motifs, but also a conceptual underpinning. Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together, characterizes the offline world as a physical place, a kind of Edenic paradise. “Not too long ago,” she writes, “people walked with their heads up, looking at the water, the sky, the sand” —  now, “they often walk with their heads down, typing.” Real Life editor Nathan Jurgenson coined the term “digital dualism” to describe the false presumption of a clean line between the online and the offline. Like the nature/culture binary, the online/offline distinction stems from a misguided preoccupation with authenticity. It frames our relationship with technology in terms of either connection of disconnection, wrongly implying that the “connected” are alienated from their true selves.

As concepts, “wilderness” and “the offline” are deeply enmeshed. Both offer mythologies of ahistoricity and unaccountability, an escape clause from the dilemmas of a globalized world. They cloak themselves in the language of embodiment (the wind in your hair, the sand under your feet), while offering up the fantasy of moving through the world without a digital or ecological footprint, as a little wisp of pure soul. Together — in setting up a binaristic opposition between the corrupted, connected, digital self on the one hand, and the pure, wild, disconnected self on the other — they pose major obstacles to thinking through the complexity of human-technological-ecological relations.

In early 2015, Twitter discovered that the Oxford Junior Dictionary had culled dozens of words associated with the natural environment. The new edition of the dictionary — which cut terms like “acorn,”“buttercup,” and “kingfisher” in favor of adding “21st-century” terms like “broadband,” “voicemail,” “blog,” and “cut and paste” — had actually been published nearly eight years earlier. Nonetheless, the revelation prompted an open letter from 30 writers and broadcasters, including Margaret Atwood and British nature writer Robert Macfarlane, and a fresh wave of outrage. The authors evoked a terrifying portrait of the moral and physical health of 21st-century children, mourning the days when kids would “go exploring, sploshing, climbing, and rolling in the outdoors.” Today’s experience of childhood, they wrote, was an “inner, solitary” affair, plagued by the proliferation of “obesity, anti-social behavior, friendlessness and fear.”

The letter doesn’t mention screen usage and it doesn’t need to. The specter of technology is implicit in its familiar portrait of the contemporary child as isolated, maladjusted, and inactive. Mainstream discussion of the current research on the impact of screen time on child development essentially offers a scientized version of the biblical story of the Fall: innocence irreversibly corrupted. In this sense, much contemporary “disconnectionism” (to use Jurgenson’s term) — like much contemporary nature writing — smacks of the Enlightenment-idea figure of “the noble savage”: a colonial vision of pre-industrial man uncorrupted by the evils of civilization. The figure of archetypal innocence is not always a child, sometimes it is an imaginary and extremely generic ancestor who never sat at a desk for eight hours at a time, went to bed with the sun, and was in tune with humankind’s innate goodness. Sometimes it is a parent, a grandmother, a self several decades earlier. “I am as free as nature first made man, ’ere the base laws of servitude began, when wild in woods the noble savage ran,” wrote John Dryden in 1672. “Thirty years ago,” begins Sherry Turkle’s 2011 book Alone Together, “the world still retained a certain innocence.”

The “offline world” and the “wilderness” function as vessels for our frustrations with contemporary life: They are defined by what they don’t contain, rather than what they do

The construction of screen time as the moral evil responsible for this fall figures screen time and offline time as two sharply distinct and yet internally homogeneous categories, bound in direct opposition to one another (screen time is passive and introverted; offline time is active and social). The absence of analysis about what exactly we are doing online or offline — as well as the ways that screens and “real life” blur together — lend this discussion an almost magical quality: It is as if the mere presence of a screen becomes a kind of radiation, triggering irreparable mutations that lessen our humanity.

Like earlier anti-television campaigns, within contemporary “digital detox” movements the toxicity of screen time and the detoxifying benefits of the offline are conceived in terms of both moral and physical health. Theodora Sutton — whose research looks at “Camp Grounded,” a digital detox retreat that takes place in the Mendocino forest — has written about the way such retreats invoke a parallel between technology and food. “Consuming” digital content becomes equivalent to other forms of addictive, harmful consumption (alcohol, junk food) while the face-to-face encounters that take place in the “offline” are compared to a nutritious snack. Before the internet, escaping to the wilderness was touted for the health benefits of clean air, clean water, an absence of chemicals and smog — qualities that, in restoring the body, would supposedly also restore the soul to its purest state. Now, the abstract category of technology — metonymically represented by the more tangible substances of screen light and digital noise — is frequently added to the list of bodily harms to which wilderness offers a remedy. This sets up the assumption that a healthy relationship with the digital (short of total disconnect) looks like retreat and re-immersion, or detox and retox; a pattern that has its origins in the idea of wilderness.

The compartmentalization of nature and culture that was solidified with the Wilderness Act also shaped the ways online and offline worlds are conceived as separate, both spatially and ontologically. The association between the “offline” and “the wild” was deepened by the uneven distribution of broadband across the urban/rural divide. Increasingly, the fact that many national parks were “off grid” became appealing to those wanting to get away from digital ubiquity. In 2014, Parks Canada’s announcement that it was installing wi-fi in some of its most remote areas was met with backlash, a debate that flared up again two years later when the U.S. National Park Service floated the idea of building a high-speed fiber optic cable in Yellowstone National Park. “People who can’t live without their cellphones aren’t just the wrong demographic for Yellowstone,” argued an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune. “They’re the very demographic the rest of us go to Yellowstone to escape. Let’s not encourage them.”

The us/them rhetoric here is familiar from the patronizing tone adopted by “disconnectionists.” If the offline, like the wilderness, represents the enlightened, healthy, embodied, free and authentic state, then the large majority of us, who cannot claim to dwell in either category, represent a fallen vision of humanity: disembodied and superficial, zombified and anxious, trapped in virtuality. If “people who can’t live without their cellphones” are the wrong demographic for Yellowstone, then this means essentially anyone who does not have a stable, well-paid job that allows them to put on an out-of-office, with zero caveats, for days at a time; freelancers and gig-workers; anyone with caring responsibilities. In other words, the majority of people today.

Writing in 1995, Cronon argued that the emergence of modern wilderness tourism catered to the tastes of America’s white male elites, who would escape to nature to counter the emasculating tendencies of civilization, with its comforts and conveniences. Crucially, writes Cronon, those who evoked the fantasy of unworked land were primarily those who had never had to work the land for a living. Similarly, calls to keep wi-fi out of the National Parks come overwhelmingly from wealthy city dwellers, who “go off-grid” to recharge their minds and bodies, returning to tout the benefits of escape. The fantasy world of the offline reproduces the “frontier nostalgia” embedded in the concept of wilderness, which for Cronon expressed “a peculiarly bourgeois concept of antimodernism.”

Cronon’s critique of wilderness hinges on the fact that the concept never referred to nature as a permanent home: instead, it was a place in which one could rediscover their humanity so as to return to the working world supercharged and replenished. “Digital detox” movements advertise a mode of being offline that looks a lot like wilderness tourism. While some of these (like Camp Grounded) situate themselves in actual protected ecological areas, others (such as the organization “Screen-Free Week”) simply replicate the temporal pattern of retreat and immersion, escape and return. In these cases, the siloed concept of “the offline” is still spatially conceived, albeit more nebulously. The offline takes on the aura of a lost Atlantis: the long-forgotten “real” world underlying the “virtual” world in which we live.

According to the notion of wilderness, history itself is a human phenomenon. The fantasy of escaping to a place beyond history is the fantasy of unaccountability

The problem is, of course, that the boundary between the offline and the online is incredibly hard to situate. It shifts as technologies change and become absorbed — to differing degrees, at differing paces — into the collective cultural perception of what counts as real as opposed to virtual. (Does watching cable TV count as being offline? What about answering a telephone call?) “Screen-Free Week,” for example — which invites participants to put down “entertainment screens” for seven days in May — was formerly called “TV Turnoff Week,” and was initially championed by an organization called TV-Free America. The name change, in 2010, was supposed to reflect the growing prevalence of entertainment and advertising consumption away from the television screen. It also inadvertently reflects the increasing incorporation of television watching into our nostalgia for the offline world. Gone are the happy days when families would gather around a weekly televised program like our ancestors around the campfire! Now smartphones are the threshold of the virtual.

The reality of orchestrating a screen-free week therefore entails a whole lot of decisions about the line separating work from leisure, “healthy” and “unhealthy” screen usage, the necessary and the superfluous, and what counts as a “screen” at all. With reference to Foucault, Jurgenson argues that the moral emphasis of disconnectionism comes from the fact that digital connection is bound up with desire (“to neutralize a desire,” Jurgenson writes, “it must be made into a moral problem we are constantly aware of: Is it okay to look at a screen here? For how long? How bright can it be? How often can I look?”). Similarly, technology theorist Dylan Mulvin has argued that self-control apps and screen-time limits place the onus on the individual to manage their own screen use, rather than encouraging us to think about the systems that determine the nature of our engagement with online platforms in the first place. In shifting the emphasis from what one is doing with the screen to how often one looks at it, we also shift the emphasis away from the worlds we are building collectively, and towards how we are inhabiting them individually.

In Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 painting Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, an aristocratic young man stands in the center of the frame, his back to us, his posture distinctly arrogant, contemplating a wide vista of steaming mountain peaks. In the 19th century, as wilderness tourism was taking off as an industry, natural landscapes were figured as an antidote to the social pressures of urban living, offering truth in place of artifice, interiority in place of exteriority, solitude in place of small talk. Journeys into the wilderness were thus solitary by definition, offering the experience of existing as the only man on earth (Adam, alone and happy, before the arrival of Eve). According to the wilderness paradigm, man’s “truest self” could only emerge in the absence of other human beings.

Much contemporary nature writing still replicates this vision of what it means to be “immersed in nature.” This genre, which has seen a resurgence in recent years, is a corollary of what Jurgenson calls the “disconnectionist” or “detox” memoir. In both cases, the formula is largely the same: The author abandons the hyper-connected maelstrom of urban/digital living for a period of intense, solitary immersion in the world beyond the grid. They undergo a series of profound personal transformations which lead them back to their “authentic self.” In her critique of Robert McFarlane’s 2007 memoir The Wild Places, the Scottish writer Kathleen Jamie points out McFarlane’s ample use of the first person in his accounts of journeys into the English “wilderness.” His isolation in the wilderness is so profound that it isolates him not only from his contemporaries, but from the broader story of humanity as whole. McFarlane writes: “To reach a wild place was, for me, to step outside human history.”

McFarlane’s memoir displays a blindness to the broader context of how the supposed “ahistoricity” of wilderness has been used to justify colonial seizure — as well as the specific way local economies and livelihoods shaped the landscapes of Ireland and Scotland beyond (in Jamie’s words) “the piteous romance of the Clearances and the Famine.” According to the notion of wilderness, history itself is a human phenomenon. The fantasy of escaping to a place beyond history is, ultimately, the fantasy of unaccountability. It spares the visitor from reckoning with the political, social and economic forces which have interacted with ecological forces to shape the landscape, while allowing them to indulge in the idea that they are self-created, forged in the absence of external cultural stimuli.

The myth of unspoiled nature means that fewer resources are directed towards cleaning up homelands that are already considered “spoiled”

As Theodora Sutton points out, one of the major claims made by Camp Grounded and other players within the digital detox economy is the promise of reconnection with other humans. (Camp Grounded’s slogan is “disconnect to reconnect.”) If the majority of other people are still “plugged in,” however, the kind of sociality this encourages is a siloed one: a tight, closed, conditional community. Because of the increasing impossibility of being truly offline while participating in contemporary social structures, “going offline” now is seen as entailing a particularly heroic type of self-ostracization, which deepens one’s connections with a smaller network of like-minded people. The “offline” is ultimately associated with a greater knowledge of the self, attuning one to one’s own needs and desires rather than the expectations of others.

This reflects something inherent in what the “offline” and “wilderness” are actually doing as concepts. If the spaces we imagine to facilitate reconnection with the self also banish the factors that determine who we are — the wider cultural dimensions of the worlds we belong to — then we are condemned to either living falsely, or being alone. Both concepts collapse when one acknowledges that, no matter how far off-grid one travels, there is no place, person nor thing on earth that is not determined by intricate webs of local and globalized forces, social and ecological. It is not possible to cut these cords, or to exit the grid of interconnection. It is only possible to pretend they don’t exist.

True disconnection, like true wilderness, is an empty goal. Whether we have shunned social media or not, the internet does not cease to exist as a driving force in the world, any more than ecological systems cease to shape our lives the minute we reach the end of the forest trail and hop back in the car. The concepts of the “offline world” and the “wilderness” function as vessels into which we pour our frustrations with contemporary life: They are defined by what they don’t contain, rather than what they do. It is entirely possible to abandon the fantasy of “the offline” as the seat of the real, while remaining critical about the ways contemporary technologies — and the socioeconomic systems within which they are embedded — are shaping our relations and identities. In fact, abandoning the idea of the online-offline binary is the only way to meaningfully engage with the question of how we can build a world that is fairer, more conducive to more happiness for more people.

I’m no stranger to apps that help me curb my screen time, and I’ll admit I’ve often felt better for using them. But on a more communal level, I suspect that cultures of digital detox — in suggesting that the online world is inherently corrupting and cannot be improved — discourage us from seeking alternative models for what the internet could look like. I don’t want to be trapped in cycles of connection and disconnection, deleting my social media profiles for weeks at a time, feeling calmer but isolated, re-downloading them, feeling worse but connected again. For as long as we keep dumping our hopes into the conceptual pit of “the offline world,” those hopes will cease to exist as forces that might generate change in the worlds we actually live in together.

As Cronon writes, the idea of “wilderness” corners us into a deep pessimism: By telling ourselves humans have no place in nature, we relinquish the possibility of living harmoniously with wider ecological systems. We’ll never tackle the global ecological crises we face by preserving a few little pockets of “undisturbed nature” when some of the biggest drivers of ecological damage — climate change, biodiversity loss — don’t respect spatial or temporal boundaries. The myth of unspoiled nature not only leads to misguided policies that threaten the very qualities we hope to preserve; it also means that fewer resources are directed towards  cleaning up homelands that are already considered “spoiled.”

The most exciting aspect of giving up mega-narratives like “the offline” or “the wilderness” is the promise of what might rush in to fill their place. By doing away with binary understandings of escape and retreat, connection and disconnection, we edge toward a much richer, more complex picture, in which human, ecological and technological systems are mutually co-determined, and in which everyone and everything is a bit responsible for everything else.

Lauren Collee is a London-based writer and PhD student. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in Another Gaze, Uneven Earth, Eyot Magazine and others.