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The Tao of Fidget Wigglesworth
Jenna Scatena | Photo: Jeff Singer | January 2, 2014
Breaking our technology addiction with the help of silly nicknames and teddy bear costumes.
Levi Felix is trying really, really hard not to check his iPhone. It rests on the table next to his iced chai and vibrates almost constantly; each tremor spurs him to tug at the thin colorful string tied around his wrist. “It reminds me not to be too attached to my tech devices,” he says.
This isn’t just self-betterment—it’s a business model. Felix is the man behind Digital Detox, a newish Oakland company that throws parties, retreats, and summer camps to help habitually plugged-in Bay Areans—people not unlike Felix himself, whose gadget addiction has earned himself the nickname Fidget Wigglesworth—reevaluate their relationship with tech. "Not only is the Bay Area ground zero for creating technology; we're setting the standard for people's personal relationship with tech across the globe," Felix says, sitting at a window-side table in downtown Oakland’s Awaken Cafe. “And we’re failing at it.” He fiddles with his iPhone, then flips it over, revealing a Digital Detox emblem on the back, and slides it to the side. “OK, I’m ready to talk.”
Last June, Felix threw his first mass detox retreat, Camp Grounded, which launched him into the national spotlight, garnering Digital Detox the kind of press—from the New Yorker, the New York Times, Wired, NPR, and many others—that any tech startup would envy. For the privilege of ditching their phones and not checking email for a weekend at a private 80-acre former Boy Scout camp deep in the Mendocino redwoods, 275 people threw down $350 each. Camp Grounded sold out in two weeks with virtually no marketing other than, ironically (or ingeniously), Facebook, and it drew an A-list roster: “Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Airbnb, VMWare—name a tech company and they were there,” says Felix. To conceal their identities, campers went by nicknames like Cool Breeze, Prism, and Golden Bird. “Describing yourself without mentioning your work is particularly challenging for techies,” Felix says. “Consuming 10 to 14 hours of media a day doesn’t leave much free time for expressing yourself outside of 140 characters."
By all accounts, the weekend was something between a Bohemian Grove bacchanal and a sort of summer camp for adults. Activities included friendship-bracelet-making and archery; participants slept in bunk beds. Mornings started with a bugled wake-up call and a Digital Detox flag–raising, and the last day of camp ended with an ’80s-themed prom-style dance. “Campers had to cope with FOMO [fear of missing out],” Felix says. “So we offered fun activities to make them focus on the present.”
Dan Fredinburg, a Google program manager with the distinction of having been named Google’s hottest hunk by Perez Hilton, attended Camp Grounded with Sophia Bush, erstwhile star of the nighttime soap One Tree Hill. “By the end everyone was like best friends at summer camp,” he says. “People were teary-eyed!” Lindsay Russell, who works in marketing at Facebook, recalls being “greeted by Fidget and a man in a teddy bear costume giving everyone hugs” upon her arrival at camp. “It was so welcoming.”
It was also a clever strategy, one with roots not all that different from those of the tech companies where Felix’s clients work. In fact, though his philosophy is about disconnecting from tech, his messaging—both in person and on signs scattered around the camp bears a remarkable resemblance to startup speak: “We’re a slow-down, not a startup”; “A decelerator, not an accelerator”; “We’re finding ways to program offline”; “Disconnect to reconnect.” Even his outgoing voicemail message has the cutesy cadence of a tagline: “Leave your name, your number, and we look forward to disconnecting with you soon.”
“In tech we call these fun, engaging tricks the ‘new user experience,’” Russell says. “And Fidget is a master at it.”
Evidently. After Camp Grounded, Felix spent the rest of the summer hashing out more such new user experiences: a “tech check” in lieu of a coat check at a device-free party; a “human-powered search engine” at Outside Lands (that is, a scroll of butcher paper and a set of pens); and a campaign to get local cafés to ditch their Wi-Fi for set periods of time, rendering them, in Felix’s jargon, “cold spots.” By fall, Felix had been approached by both the Esalen Institute and Dr. Phil.
Digital Detox’s origin story feels as if it were pulled from a Joseph Campbell book. It’s an archetypal tale of weakness and spiritual malaise, followed by the call to leave society behind, then the inevitable moment of epiphany and the inspiration to share that vision—in Felix’s case, a vision of a world where people have healthy relationships with technology. The whole enterprise is at once unpreachy and governed by an almost religious set of rules: Thou shalt not put your phone on the table during dinner; thou shalt take a 24-hour “tech Shabbat” once a week. And Felix is the ideal spokesperson for it, something between a movement leader and a lifestyle guru.
In 2009, 24-year-old Felix was trying to make it in the budding startup scene at Los Angeles–based Causecast, a social media platform for community movements. He managed event production and celebrity campaigns, logging 85-hour workweeks and sleeping with his phone under his pillow. “I was always the first of my friends to get the latest tech gadget,” he says now. “But I was so sucked into it that it started to wear on me. On my way to South by Southwest, I ended up in the hospital from exhaustion. I had an esophageal tear. That’s when I realized that my lifestyle wasn’t healthy.”
A few months later, Felix and his partner, Brooke Dean, left it all behind to travel for two and a half years. It was on that trip—specifically, on a remote island off the coast of Cambodia—that Felix found the germ of what would become Digital Detox. He and Dean were running an off-the-grid eco-guesthouse when a friend who was working at MySpace came to visit. “He was only in his late 20s, but totally burnt-out,” Felix recalls. “He had bags under his eyes, his shoulders were hunched, and I was like, ‘Dude, you need a digital detox!’” Felix and Dean moved back to the Bay Area and together started the Digital Detox brand out of their Oakland apartment.
Felix is understandably reluctant to talk profits, but some quick back-of-the-envelope math shows that with 275 attendees at $350 a ticket, Digital Detox made about $96,250 over 48 hours during the first Camp Grounded (though that figure doesn’t account for the cost to the company of activities, food, entertainment, and lodging). Felix says that Digital Detox just about broke even in 2013, but that this year promises to be much better: He will be putting on three Camp Grounded events and jumping the ticket price to $570. If all three events sell out, as they’re expected to, the gross revenue will approach half a million dollars.
And that’s just for Camp Grounded itself. Felix plans to conduct three intimate international retreats next year: on a volcano in Nicaragua, in an undisclosed jungle in Costa Rica, and on the Cambodian island where it all began. And this month, he launched Digital Detox’s online store with the debut of what’s arguably the most gimmicky new user experience yet: Detox in a Box—everything you need for your own Camp Grounded retreat, anytime, anywhere, for about $90. “My vision is about the couple who gets home after a crazy week at work and hops in their Prius to the hot springs in Mendocino with the box and has their own private retreat,” Felix says. “With this, people don’t need me there—the box comes with a detox survival guide.” Basically, it’s a pre–digital era time capsule. As Felix puts it, the letter-writing kit is for reconnecting with your Facebook friends the old-fashioned way, the journal is for writing your thoughts when you get the urge to tweet them, and the iPhonesize canvas is for drawing a scene instead of Instagramming it.
Which, of course, raises an important question: Are we really this pathetic? Have we actually forgotten how to live in the real world without someone giving us a survival guide? Do we really need to shell out $90 for paper products in order to spend quality time with our partners? It may be that technology is an addiction beyond our willpower, in which case we do need help. Felix says that he based Digital Detox’s philosophy on clinical research, citing one study out of the University of Cambridge indicating that iPhones and similar technologies generate the same type of addictive mental process as gambling. “Watching your email load,” he says, “is essentially like staring at a slot machine.” As Fredinburg puts it, “Tech is like smoking or drinking—it’s a difficult habit to break on your own. There’s a reason why AA is a big industry.”
Felix, for his part, understands the critiques, though he rejects them with a marketer’s nimbleness. “People always ask me, ‘Can’t I just do this on my own? Can’t I just go camping and leave my cell phone at home without paying extra for someone to make me do it?’” he says, looking down at his tepid chai. He pauses. “Why do you go to a restaurant when you can make food at home? How much would you pay to go to a private party? Part of it is that we create the space to unplug, but it’s also the experience: curated, all-inclusive, and designed just for you.”
Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco