Escape from the buzz: Why freedom might be a cage in the digital era

22 Aug 2017

Our understanding of the world tends to be, at its core, habitual. That is, common sense and tradition give us our definitions of cultural phenomena. For example, ask for a definition of ‘escape’, and most people will give something close to a dictionary definition, to do with being removed from a state of confinement. The list of products with marketing underpinned by this broad definition is endless: novels, package holidays, gym memberships, bubble bath, VR headsets, to name a few at random.

In this digital era, a new concept of ‘escape’ is emerging which quite literally turns the ‘common sense’ understanding inside out. With web-connected devices increasingly outnumbering people in many developed countries and information being beamed at us from all directions, day and night, the idea of a safe haven from the deluge of information that consumes the average consumer has grown in prominence – making protection, enclosure, even imprisonment synonymous with escape.

In fact, in this context it starts to makes sense that freedom might be sought not in open space but in something that is actually called a cage. The chances are you’ve benefited from the use of a Faraday cage at some point in recent weeks. Invented by the eponymous scientist in the late 1700s, these containers made of metal mesh stop microwaves ovens giving people radiation poisoning and keep the electromagnetic noise of the outside world from interfering with the detailed imaging of MRI scanners.

As you’d expect, the Faraday cage has become a staple of films and TV shows in the sci-fi and conspiracy theory genres over the last few decades – from electro-magnetic ghosts in Doctor Who to the safe haven of paranoid protagonists in hits like Enemy of the State, Lost and Transcendence. Such films and TV shows use the concept of a protective technological ‘umbrella’ as a key plot device, offering escape from mysterious or frightening (and usually technically inaccurate) forces.

But more recently, the Faraday cage has been taking on new levels of cultural significance in the real world. Going a step further than banning phones during the weekly quiz, pubs and bars – like The Gin Tub in Brighton – have installed copper mesh structures into their walls, looking to encourage a more tangible, human sense of conviviality by making telecommunications of any kind an impossibility.

It is also, increasingly, a desirable accessory in its own right. Ian Sample, writing in the Guardian recently, looked at the numerous products designed to (or claiming to) block electro-magnetic waves, the reasons ranging from the obvious – security, health – to more niche – survivalists fearing nuclear fallout-induced technological Armageddon. Consumers can buy EMF-blocking curtains, wallpaper and nets for sleeping under, and RFID scanner-blocking wallets and bags to prevent ‘cyber pickpocketing’.

Of course, the technologically saturated modern world has also precipitated a growing appeal for more orthodox forms of escape, with ‘digital detox’ holidays being offered online. Where meditation retreats emerged as a commercial enterprise in mid-twentieth century America as a means of escaping the onslaught of fast food, urban sprawl and mass media, companies like It’s Time to Log Off and Unplugged Weekend now take ordinary folk back to nature where they learn the value of disconnecting.

But it’s notable (and maybe slightly unsettling) that because digital signals are more and more like the very air that we breathe – all around us almost all of the time, unseen but indispensable to our daily lives – even these ‘boot camps’ are by necessity set on enclosed ‘campuses’ and set apart from society – like very pleasant, very healthy prisons. Similarly, the large ‘radio quiet zones’ that surround telescopes and other highly sensitive scientific research installations, and which have become Meccas for all sorts of interested parties from hippies looking for a tech-free utopia to people claiming to suffer from the debilitating condition of electro-sensitivity, are in fact policed day and night by security firms charged with stamping out any use of signal-producing technology that might create a disturbance. On the other side of the same cultural coin, this is taken to more disturbing lengths in China’s military-style residentials for internet addicted teenagers, in the news for tragic reasons in recent weeks.

So is confinement (the voluntary sort at least) the new freedom? Even beyond the pressures of our digital habits, escapism in general seems increasingly to be framed in terms of physical enclosure – whether in ‘nap zones’ and ‘warmth pods’ in UK shopping centres or the rise of sensory deprivation tanks and ‘float centres’ as mainstream health and wellbeing treatments. We might also consider the ‘escapism’ being offered by VR, literally shutting out the ‘real’ world in order to immerse (or enclose?) oneself in another. In Faraday’s age, escape was still something achieved fundamentally in terms of a spatial or geographical opening up. As the digital technology that he helped bring into existence has risen to make space almost immaterial, narratives of escapism are increasingly framed not in terms of openness, but that primal feeling of being enclosed, restricted –  and, ultimately, safe.

For more on the cultural meaning of escapism, contact Nat to request a copy of our report.