I wasn’t planning on attending the Launch festival. I am not a Jason Calacanis fan, and I’ve only been free from the crushing pressure of the San Francisco start-up bubble for a matter of weeks. I should have been enjoying my newfound quiet.
But Digital Detox was setting up a booth at this tech party, and I had to see how that would go over. My Digital Detox retreat catalyzed the whole strange trip I’m on now. I never looked at the tech world the same way again after that. I was intrigued to see how it would affect true start-up jockeys.
When Digital Detox founders Brooke Dean and Levi Felix asked me to volunteer at their Launch booth, I signed on for all three days. While their main gig is multi-day retreats to gorgeous places, they’re quite capable of pulling together tranquil pop-up device-free zones, even in freaky places.
A freaky place it was. When I arrived at Launch on Monday morning, the line to get in wound all the way around the block-long convention center. Gazing down the queue from the front, I saw more smartphones at once than I ever had before. Digital Detox had work to do.
The Magic Carpet
When I got inside, I found the booth in a prime location on the show floor. The illusion was already fully formed. It was like a giant magic carpet with room for 20. The floors were well-worn South Asian rugs. The main room was studded with wicker stools and squat, square tea tables. The space was draped in brown canvas that made it look like a tent. We offered massage in the back in a separate enclosure, a quiet inner sanctum.
My friends were serving tea to entrepreneurs, engineers, and investors who already looked brain-fried, and the opening keynote had not even begun. Yes, we had our work cut out for us, but not because this conference was resistant to us. These people needed us.
For the next three days, I washed dishes, served tea, and talked to tech people about life. I also had to gingerly remind them to put their phones back in their pockets every few minutes. They usually resisted, arguing that they had to Instagram our sign that says, “Feel like Instagramming something? Draw it instead!” I would insist, though, drawing them into conversation with me and away from their glowing hand-rectangles.
The room was full of typewriters, paper, pencils, and printed conversation-starter questions, the hallmarks of a Digital Detox gathering. The spaces are pre-loaded with ways for people to express themselves without the use of computers. Most smartphone people aren’t used to doing that anymore. We get nervous. The Digital Detox exists to soothe our nerves from this feeling.
Conversation tends to be people’s preferred way of dealing with enforced social network silence. It works for me, too, though I can also go for a bit of offline writing in solitude. In the traffic lull during talks in the main hall, I bashed out new conversation prompts on the typewriter to scatter on the tables: “What makes a good investment?” “Can you explain your work to kids?” “Would you go on a one-way voyage to Mars?” And so on.
By far, the most popular attraction was massage. I don’t enjoy massage — it’s too weird a combination of clinical detachment and intense intimacy — so I missed the significance of this at first. But I began to notice that there was all kinds of communication happening by touch in the Digital Detox area. We were constantly touching and hugging for support. Many conversations with conference-goers began with handshakes but ended with hugs. The visitors tended to pair up with us volunteers for conversation in gender-sensitive, flirtatious ways, and we didn’t seem to mind, either.
On the last day, Michelle, one of the other volunteers, had to squeeze past me to refill the tea. She put her hand on my shoulder, and an electric spasm rippled down my spine from the spot. A few minutes later, Brooke put her hand on my knee as she stood up, and it happened again. I had to ask them if they were feeling what I was feeling, and they were. The Digital Detox was the thumping heart of all the intimacy at this conference.
People were coming to us for a dose of love, and many of them came back over and over. Out on the show floor, it was smartphone solipsism city. Half the people were looking outward, trying to pitch something they had on their computer, and the other half were using their computers to avoid being pitched. It was scary and desperate and heartbreaking, as life in the marketplace almost always is.
But in a stroke of wisdom, Launch offered some of its prime real estate to Digital Detox, bringing humanity to the conference. Tech start-up conferences are ground zero for testing the idea that fully mediated, networked people need balance. Having seen proof of that now, I look forward to the next one.
I only have these three photos from breaking down the Digital Detox booth at Launch since, duh, I wasn’t using my phone in there while we were working. But Levi took some pictures, and I’ll update the post and share it out again once he gets those imported.