The Americans who use their phones the most are the ones with the least access to trendy tech detoxes.

By Stephanie Buck
March 19, 2018
Yiu Yu Hoi/Getty Images

The year is 1994. You are reclining in your hotel room bed with a pay-per-view movie. The remains of your room service dinner, which you ordered by telephoning — from a phone connected to the wall by a wire — the front desk, sit on a table in the corner. You’re dozing off after a long day of meetings and sightseeing when all of a sudden you hear a beep-beep-beep. Your in-room fax machine is printing a document.

For years, there was no such thing as too much technology in hotel and travel amenities. In the 1970s, guests clamored for mini bars and HBO. The 1980s introduced electronic key cards and specialty phones. With the dot-com boom, the internet revolutionized both booking and guest communications. Now Wi-Fi saturates the hotel experience — from iPad check-ins to mobile room keys.

But with technology so readily accessible in everyday life, more people are viewing digital detox excursions as welcome escapes from connectivity. “Unplugged” retreats discourage guests from texting, posting, and gaming. And they’re charging for it, marketing device-free experiences as the ultimate in restful luxury, an exercise in living authentically, and a pure escape from the grind. The Mandarin Oriental New York, for one, partnered with the Mayo Clinic for a customized wellness program. Once visitors surrender their phones with the hotel, they are treated to classes such as mindful journaling, coloring, or merely sitting silently. Crystals and essential oils sprinkle designated rejuvenation areas. While in the hotel’s custody, guests’ smartphones get cleaned and polished.

Tech-detox travel experiences are cornering wellness for the luxury set. Unplugging has become a new marker of wealth and leisure, that is, if active personal betterment can be considered “leisure” in the first place. But tech-mindfulness marketing and experiences leave out those with fewer resources, who could use the benefits of unplugging most of all.

“Detox” experiences aren’t new, says Bonnie Knutson, professor at Michigan State University’s School of Hospitality Business. She remembers family friends visiting monasteries in the 1950s to escape the hectic pressure of modern life. There, they would remain silent for several days, without access to a daily newspaper or telephone.

What has changed is today’s consumer reliance on technology. A 2015 Gallup poll found that most Americans check their phones hourly; a Pew Research survey found that one in five people reported being only “almost constantly.”

“Tech is with us basically from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep, and sometimes interrupting our sleep,” said Knutson. “Yet the brain can take only so much stimulus at any one time. At some point, it’s going to snap back.” It’s never been more important to take meaningful breaks.

Problem is, so few Americans have the option to unplug at all. Mobile devices that used to signal status are now ubiquitous — integral in managing a household, applying for jobs, studying, and communicating. To take time off from them is simply not as feasible for people with fewer resources, particularly time and money. In fact, consumers who make less money spend more time with the devices they purchase, according to a 2015 Nielsen report. And many can’t afford multiple kinds of tech access points, such as tablets, desktop PCs, or broadband internet. In 2016, one-fifth of adults living in households earning less than $30,000 a year were “smartphone-only” internet users, according to Pew Research Center.

Thus, the digital divide has shifted. Now information access for poorer Americans isn’t the only consideration. It’s that privilege lies in the ability to unplug at all. In fact, it’s the newest status symbol. Besides those swanky detox hotels, #vanlife and #cabinporn are lifestyle choices centered on disconnecting—and all but inaccessible to people with multiple caregiving obligations, health conditions, and more.

Roughly 10 percent of Americans hold multiple jobs; those who do are 60 percent more likely to work weekend days than single jobholders. Those with multiple jobs are also more susceptible to unpredictable schedules, sleeplessness, and injury. “Detoxing” from those responsibilities—missing a shift or a family phone call—for any length of time is not as easy an option.

“[Tech] has introduced this element of endlessness, endless chaos,” said Neeru Paharia, assistant professor of marketing at Georgetown University. “One gets stuck in it.”

As more humans continue to burn out on devices, the market for “getting away from it all” will widen, however, insists Knutson. She predicts budget hotels will offer crash courses in meditation, yoga, and highly social group events. Camping will regain popularity.

“It’s like Airbnb,” she said. “It was primarily the millennials. Now grandma and grandpa look for Airbnb.”

The danger, then, is whether detox effects will stick, especially for those hard-pressed to practice regular tech-mindfulness. The Washington Post’s Megan Ward likens today’s digital detox offerings to “crash diets,” with a “goal [to] plug back in, better than before—to return to, rather than to smash, the machines.” At The Four Seasons Costa Rica, visitors may turn over their phones to be stored in a hotel vault; if guests can make it 24 hours tech-free, they are ironically rewarded with a new iPhone case. Last year, Apple named meditation app Calm one of its best apps of the year. Even unplugging requires a battery charge.

”The iPhone was a luxury at one time. Now it’s a necessity,” said Knutson. ”So the idea of the holistic person who needs time out to recharge is exponential.” No pun intended, she adds.

Whereas vacations used to be about simply having fun, says Paharia, tech detoxes are about perfection, self-improvement, becoming better.

“It’s interesting how Americans can turn everything into a productivity exercise,” she said. Even disconnecting doesn’t necessarily mean letting go; it means improving, which “fits in well with the whole status mode.”

Today, luxury travel straddles both extremes: high-tech and no-tech. Some of the most exclusive accommodations are baking gadgetry into virtually every aspect of the visit. At specialty Starwood hotels, guests may order robot butlers for towel replacements or snacks. At Seattle’s Hotel 100, infrared sensors alert housekeeping when guests are inside the room. The NH Hotel in Berlin projects holographic meetings in hotel conference rooms.

It’s all certainly more exciting than the drone of a fax machine — but for how long, and for whom?

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