Food Matters: Insta-Burnout
Admitted to the Oxford Dictionary Online in 2013:
Digital detox (n): A period of time during which a person refrains from using electronic devices such as smartphones or computers, regarded as an opportunity to reduce stress or focus on social interaction in the physical world.
WHEN THE HANGOVER wore off on Tuesday, I was shocked to realize: I didn’t post a single food photo to social media during the entire Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. I’m not sure if I should be proud or embarrassed by my non-contribution to the digital conversation in real time. (I did post a few snaps later, but mostly because my Facebook profile pic was long overdue for an update.
However, I do know that I have zero regrets. I’m feeling burned out by technology lately, and I’m sure that I enjoyed a fuller, richer festival experience as a result.
Despite avoiding social media apps, I did document my days and nights by taking iPhone snapshots, voice recordings, and scribbling notes like mad using old-fashioned pen on paper (Autocorrect and/or fast-moving fingers are surefire ways to ruin a scribe’s attempt at accuracy). I wanted my eyes open to the smorgasbord of chefs and experiences unfolding around me at every turn, not focused on a screen.
The Classic always seems to unfold at warp speed. Then, because it’s drenched in booze and rich bites, suddenly, it’s over. Besides, if my fingers aren’t constantly slicked with pork fat or truffle butter, sticky from Patrón popsicles, or holding a wineglass, I’m not truly enjoying.
In a way, I hoped to create my own social experiment in analog form. I collected brochures and business cards, but kept the tap-tapping to a minimum. As unprogressive as it sounds, ditching the digital leash freed my mind from distraction.
Then I scrolled through Instagram the week after the festival, and I began to wonder: Did I blow a chance to earn international followers or beautify my feed with a mosaic of food porn? Did my self-imposed evacuation from social media make me seem unprofessional as a “food columnist”? Were my editors disappointed? Did my food-loving peers consider me lazy? Had I squandered potential networking opportunities by going offline? Did I even care?
Perhaps one of the reasons why I ended up eschewing social media in the first place: I was lucky enough to enjoy the bucket-list experience of attending a Top Chef Denver Elimination Challenge taping at an undisclosed location on Friday morning. The production lasted from 10 a.m. until about 2:30 p.m., during which time all 200 guests were instructed to keep cell phones hidden. This was partly due to the media embargo and non-disclosure agreement we were all required to sign (episode airs in February), but certainly for filming purposes, too. The organizers advised us that anyone caught with a device out of bag would be escorted off the property immediately. I didn’t notice anyone succumb to the urge; fear of ejection from the set trumped cultural instinct to text.
The forced digital blackout for the first half of Friday set the tone for the rest of my weekend. I embraced it. Then I kept it going.
Millennials might call what happened cray; I call it critical for mental wellbeing. Last fall I wrote a cover story for this magazine on digital detox (“Unplug to Recharge,” Oct. 6, 2016), and the concept has been percolating in my brain ever since. Once at a yoga retreat at White Sands National Monument in southern New Mexico, I managed to keep my phone dark for more than a day. While the test didn’t fully gel until I arrived at the park, which conveniently lacked cell service, I remember driving back to Colorado feeling super calm. I used an atlas for the first time since 2011, and I only got lost once, because I wanted a snack in Santa Fe.
Prohibiting myself access to restaurant recommendations online, I asked a shopgirl for her personal recommendation. And directions. I didn’t photograph the tamales. I didn’t shoot texts or scroll through email while I ate. I didn’t Google random questions to which I felt an urge to discover answers rightthisminute. I simply sat down, ate my lunch, and observed fellow diners. Many had devices in hand or on the table; some sat, eyes glued toward screens instead of on each other. Silent. (According to Pew Research Center, about half of American adults will break out a device to beat boredom in public. What does that say about the state of coupledom in the US?)
I know I’m not alone in feeling increasingly stressed out by the subtle, societal pressure to share photos and captions of every morsel consumed and moment enjoyed. But our collective tech obsession is screwing up our health and happiness via afflictions such as “tech neck,” melatonin-production disruption, and increased anxiety, ADHD, and depression. In a recent study, excessive screen time was linked to loneliness, social isolation, and even reduced immune function.
Of course, there are varied views on technology’s role in the food sphere. Some chefs and restaurateurs discourage use of cell phones in the dining room. In 2013, one LA restaurant offered a 5 percent discount to guests who surrendered their devices to the hostess. Others, such as UK chef-owner Darren Yates, have gone so far as to ban cell phones entirely. Danny Meyer, one of the first big-time restaurateurs to curb cell phone use in his New York City restaurants in 1999, has since changed his policies—Union Square Café now offers high-speed wifi. (The hostess I spoke to told me that, back then, it was more a sound issue.) Ditto with Mario Batali at Babbo. Due to the recent rise of Instagram “influencers” and less-intrusive ways in which bloggers are able to get the shot, most restaurants embrace customers using their devices. It’s free social-media marketing, after all.
Some venues offer special deals or discounts in exchange for Instagram posts or Yelp reviews; how do these posts affect the honest portrayal of a real experience? And how often does someone post a picture of a plate before they’ve even tried a bite — what if the dish, though fodder for beautiful imagery, sucks IRL?
Unless one’s goal is to become an Instagram powerhouse, it seems like a lot of time is being turned away from what matters most: savoring the moment.
I felt content about my social-media coma…until I discovered that I’d eliminated my eligibility to win a stay at The Little Nell because I didn’t Instagram a hashtagged photo from a media breakfast. I learned about my gaffe by — you guessed it — scrolling through Instagram! Another reminder, to me, that sometimes ignorance really is bliss.
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Many locations on Basalt Mountain were barren as recently as two months ago. However, nutrients unlocked during the Lake Christine Fire and a wet winter have sparked a remarkable recovery. Aspen Center for Environmental Studies is leading fire ecology tours to discuss the changes.