Summer camp for "adults," pt. 2 -- Inmates Rahh-ning the asylum

This post is a direct follow-up to: Summer camp for adults, pt. 1 – The Rahh of the wild

I.

In the previous post I analyzed the marketing for Camp RAHH, a so-called "summer camp for adults." The whole thing made me almost excessively peevish, and I want to figure out why. Let's recap what seems to be the problem here.

The ethos at play is one where the main problems are external. It's society that's creating FOMO in us; society that demands constant status updates and check-ins; society that forces booze and drugs into our hands, and makes us use them; it's all peer pressure. Them, not us. Society is preventing us from unleashing our truly authentic, uniquely personal selves.

But see, all five (five) sections in that post were more or less predicated on the assumption that the target demographic for Camp RAHH is sane. The alternative, far more depressing than enraging, is that something is wrong. The prospective RAHHers haven't made piss-poor choices and drunk the marketing Kool-Aid; rather, they're addicts, and Camp RAHH is more rehab clinic than detox retreat. Even the most woo-ish detox sessions still assume agency on the part of the client. Not so much with rehab. It's, er, all-inclusive.

The parallels are much clearer, too. Sure, typical alt-med detox marketing has the same platitudes about "authentic selves" and "uniquely personal" stuff—usually, custom "holistic" treatments and One Weird Tricks That Big Pharma / Doctors Hate—but only the culty (or especially money-hungry) ones go for the all-inclusive route. Seriously, the HMX / regression-to-past-happiness / self-affirming-platitudes trifecta seems all too unnervingly like the SparkNotes to Nurse Ratchet's workflow in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

II.

One can get a better sense of the Camp RAHH ethos by reading accounts of its inaugural session. In particular, accounts from The Liberty Project (more on them later) and Seattle Magazine (tagline: "Smart. Savvy. Essential.")—oh wait, they're both written by the same person!

So: what did the outside accounts think about the pitch? In a pre-camp article for Seattle Magazine, Happy Analog Trails: We're Going to Summer Camp!, our intrepid correspondent writes:
You're thinking: She’s crazy. Why on Earth would anyone want to spend time in the great outdoors--47 acres on the nearby Samish Island to be exact—sans booze, pot or an occasional game of Candy Crush?
I hope that's a (bad) joke? Why indeed: it's as if those five-ish years of Boy Scouts destroyed me or something. We didn't have any of those necessities, and the adult leaders certainly wouldn't have allowed them! What malign neglect! What deprivation! And when I went on a hike to Oyster Dome or Pine Lake with my Bellingham friends, or to Snow Lake with my fellow CTY teaching assistants, we didn't bring any of that either! How long the lasting trauma! How deep the mental scars!

Upon her return from camp, our courageous reporter writes for The Liberty Project: How a summer camp for grown-ups taught me to loosen up, lay off Twitter—without a shred of irony at the incongruity of juxtaposing "grown-ups" and "lay off Twitter"— and includes this observation.
As camp plugged along, I had zero urge to Instagram anything. I forgot Twitter existed. My fear of missing out (FOMO) was replaced with relief. It’s refreshing not to care what friends and family are doing. It’s refreshing not to share things.
Fear of missing out is a psychological phenomenon that almost certainly has a deeper history than the Internet age, it's just that social media connections make the effects all the more acute. Yet, I always associated it with mentally transmuting one's boredom or loneliness into a kind of paranoia about other people's fun. It stems from something that really is missing; as the Wikipedia article notes, FOMO might come from some lack of self-determination. One isn't getting some necessary emotional support, so one fixates on (real or imagined) distant instances of that support among other people. Fair enough, in theory.

It's strange, though, that FOMO in the quote is rhetorically bound up with sharing stuff. She "had zero urge to Instagram anything." "It's refreshing not to share things." I can't help but mentally amend "fear of missing out" to "fear of missing out... on being noticed." That, I think, is a real problem that social-media culture has created.

Now, I don't mean the actual fear of anonymity. That has surely existed as long as humans have been social animals, and has been a common phenomenon at least since the "modern era" where it was very possible to get lost in an urban environment. Anomie, the purported fragmentation of social bonds and moral guidance in a (usually urban) society, has been discussed since the Fin de si├Ęcle. Similarly boredom, including theories about its causation in modern society. But if you look at the response to these observations, it was mostly of the "we must fight this" kind. Whereas, with social media, the message is more like "you never need to experience this as long as you use this service" and not exhorting people to develop some sort of personal fortitude.

In other words, fear of anonymity is leveraged into a pitch to do more things on social media. It's not an imagined fear: the message is Well, you too could be popular and well-liked if only you post enough content and have a high Klout score and micromanage your SEO and always always ALWAYS think about #brand management...

That's how I end up viewing such astonishing videos as this millions-of-subscribers-on-YouTube woman filming herself crying over news of Steve Jobs' death. Because apparently private grief doesn't monetize. 

III.

In the Liberty article, our correspondend regales us with this anecdote about mealtime:
We ate chef-prepared lunches and dinners at a communal table where professional networking was forbidden, so we talked current events, travel and whether a $50 T-shirt was worth the investment. People discussed shared interests and calmly talked politics. Who knew how polite and engaging we all could be without phones glued to our palms and a few too many glasses of vino flowing in our veins?
How deep do you have to sink, to need admonishment to avoid professional networking? Again, is that not supposedly the default state of the American worker? Or else, the other stereotypical "relationships based on your job" paradigm is blue-collar workers going to the local bar after the work shift ends, and yet that is seen as a "deeply authentic" experience! Perhaps because steel workers aren't focused on #brand management?

I've seen the problem first-hand, in both its aspects: that is, I've talked to people who were either not polite or not engaging. On the less caustic side, I've been to at least a couple gatherings where nobody bothered to introduce themselves, and were terrible at it even when engaged. I for one try to play the minimally-good host and introduce relative strangers to each other at my own events, and so it's a complaint I've been vocal about for a little while now. Calling it the Seattle Freeze would a cop-out, and not even all that accurate; I personally hate small talk, but I will at least throw out the usual introductory lines to see if anything mutual comes up. It's worth pointing out that, yes, the people at the gatherings I have in mind were mostly tech/designer types; that is, the exact Camp RAHH demographic.

On the more caustic side, a lack of civility is mostly the province of the Age of Internet Outrage: you can see my own encounters here and here. Blessedly, I have yet to meet anyone quite so ridiculous in real life (just this kind of ridiculous) and so I have yet to learn whether I can prevent myself from trolling the shit out of them.

IV.

We should ask: what exactly defines Camp RAHH? What makes it worth the $395 entrance fee? After all, one can go camping for a lot less than that per person, and even first time backpackers don't need to spend much more than that for long-weekend excursions nowadays. (Unless you need hiking boots, too.) And if you already have outdoor gear, $395 is stupidly expensive by comparison.

Moreover, this is, ah, the Pacific goddamn Northwest, where we are surrounded by outdoor activity areas. We're also one of the most active communities in the U.S., which is to say, it should in principle be easy to find activity groups—for free—with whom to go on hikes, climb rocks, do archery, and so on. It should be easy, in principle, to agree to ditch the cell phones, and only bring a cheap dumbphone for emergency calling. (And if you're serious enough, it's easy to find places with no data connection.)

All of this, in principle, would require not much more effort than spending four hundred bucks and going to Camp RAHH. So why RAHH, RAHH-ther than independently replicating all its activities for free? Are groups found on Meetup somehow less authentic? What's the added value?

From the Seattle Magazine article:
As for lodging, we're bunking up by gender in the campground's range of dwellings including huts, A-frame chalets, tree houses and cabins. And just like at old-school summer camp, each cabin is assigned a camp counselor.
From the Camp RAHH website:
A Staff Counselor will be assigned to each cabin to ensure you have the best time possible.
And they keep using the phrase "all-inclusive." As in, once you buy in, all meaningful choices have already been made for you. Sit back, relax, and enjoy. Trained staff are standing by "to ensure you have the best time possible." Your leisure is our business.

I have to ask, seriously: is this a unique experience for the Millennial generation? Do we have such a meaningful subset of the cohort, that has never had an unmediated experience? Or at least not one of consequence? All these problems so far, seem to me to be problems of not knowing how to entertain oneself, or take the initiative and write one's own social script.

Compare this to the (decidedly heavy in the Gen-X-and-older demographics) CampQuest, where we put on an awesome summer camp for kids—and yeah, it's a different but not lesser pleasure to be part of that—and everyone has a role... but we all have responsibilities as well! Gasp!

Incidentally, why would this account of such a highly mediated experience be published at something called the Liberty Project? Let's see what that's about:
Liberty has been at the heart of freedom of expression for centuries. We all know that liberty is one of our foundational values – it sets the table for the hard-won freedoms we enjoy every day like voting, free speech, love and marriage. But it’s also liberty that gives you the right to be your authentic self: to grow your beard out big and bold; to spend a whole week’s pay on a pair of front row Lady Gaga tickets; to only eat truffle fries on Sundays; or even to make an evaporating documentary of your dog’s life with Snapchat. Liberty enables us to pursue happiness in a uniquely personal way.
Wow. One can do nothing but admire the unalloyed audacity that allows Liberty to construct a paragraph that seems to equivocate between universal human rights on one hand, and Snapchat documentaries of your dog on the other. Good grief. And notice, once again, the fatal phrases "uniquely personal" and "authentic self." Is it bland cynicism that reduces the meanings of these words to mere marketing?

What's more, Liberty Project claims to be reviving the essence of Liberty, a popular American lifestyle magazine from the first half of the 20th century. (The orange-and-white color scheme, as well as contributors named "Rand" and "Dagney," make me think of a different kind of "Liberty" magazine...) It's also not a shock to me that the old Liberty rebranded itself in the 1970s as "The Nostalgia Magazine"... more on that connection below.

But the big missing element here, that I can see, is self-reliance. I'm almost sure that Emerson and Thoreau never deluded themselves into thinking that growing a big beard was somehow a mention-worthy act of empowerment. Of course, Thoreau did sort of stay rent-free on Emerson's lakeside property, but... what I mean is that this latter-day notion of liberty is more the liberty of the schoolyard than the liberty of so-called Natural Law: do what you want (among choices pre-arranged for you) and if you have troubles there's always an "Adult" to take care of you.

I can't believe I'm going to sound so Kantian by saying this, but: accepting and fulfilling responsibilities, not blowing a whole paycheck on VIP Lady Gaga tickets (seriously, how could anyone but an adult-baby with a massive safety net of privilege afford to do that?), is the better part of liberty. Highly-mediated experiences—for short, HMX—are just a drug.

IV.

The Seattle Magazine article includes a rather telling paragraph about the appeal of Camp RAHH:
The notion of playing and exploring "just like when we were kids" is interesting, especially when nostalgia for the '90s—when a lot of millennials like me were actually heading off to summer camp—is all the rage. Earlier this year, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon reunited the Bayside High gang from popular '90s TV show Saved by the Bell in this video. The skit (good god, Zach Morris is ageless!) went viral and brought back a slew of memories for me, like plopping on the couch after school—my Fruit by the Foot snack in hand—and consuming three-and-a-half straight hours of television until the commercials started to shift from fun toy-related things to boring adult stuff like life insurance. Then there are Buzzfeed's endless listicles blazing with '90s glory: I had all these Ken dolls. I blew into Nintendo cartidges (it worked, dammit). And I was practically betrothed to Jonathan Taylor Thomas.
Not that I actively sought this particular revelation, but now I see more clearly how people enjoy Jimmy Fallon's nostalgia-baiting shtick. I still don't understand why: I thought it was a stereotype of the elderly to take long trips down Memory Lane. The Nineties—childhood—is only a couple decades old for me (and the reporter, and the RAHH demographic) right now.

This isn't Chuck E Cheese!
And why should we be nostalgic for childhood? Isn't it more typical (though not really less pernicious) to dwell on "glory days" such as Springsteen sang about? Note: the typical "best days of our lives" are (if life really sucks) high school or (less so) college and one's twenties or early thirties. Before family obligations set in, usually. Or else it's just the peak of one's virility, real or perceived. Why should we, Millennial twenty-and-early-thirtysomethings, be nostalgic when these should precisely be our glory days? And, uh, it's not as if the kids working at Amazon aren't doing well for themselves, or so everyone believes.

One possibility comes to mind, that's just brimming with existential horror: maybe online social-media services are so incredibly over-stimulating that it's something like psychological trauma in their own right? (Well, that plus 9/11, because It Changed Everything.)

Naturally, life past Y2K would be one continuous stressor: LiveJournal, Myspace, and Facebook all became widespread after the turn of the millennium. Life in the Nineties, meanwhile, was comparatively simpler. (It also may have been the sweet spot for advertising/marketing targeted at children.) We didn't have to care about politics; we didn't have to worry about jobs mere societal manifestations of our interests and talents; all we did was express our interests and talents! Perhaps this is the genesis of the pathology: run a study over all alleged "tech addicts" and oversharers and chronic FOMO sufferers, and see how many were helicopter-parented between various events in their tight-packed and oxygen-deprived schedules. I'd put decent odds on a positive correlation.

I'd almost rather believe the helicopter-parent-no-free-time hypothesis, because the alternative is that something else fucked with people and somehow they forgot how to operate like other humans. That's sort of a terrifying power and I'd much prefer unfortunate ignorance.

And yet, notice the memory in the Seattle Magazine article: "[P]lopping on the couch after school—my Fruit by the Foot snack in hand—and consuming three-and-a-half straight hours of television." That's definitely a mediated experience, but not necessarily a helicopter-parented one; if anything, it's an absence of parents. (One can still imagine the coincidence: absent as long as the kid is having a good mediated time, raining down an anxious hail of protectiveness as soon as feelings are hurt or a good time is no longer being had.)

V.

So, in the end, what can I say in summary about my feelings on Camp RAHH? After nine sections of criticism and snark, you might be surprised to read that I don't hate what they're trying to do, at least not the kernel of their intent. It's just that it seems like a weird grab-bag of structure, a halfway-serious "detox" retreat mixed with oh-so-stereotypical Millennial "lol why not" spend-daddy's-money "adventures." If it's meant to actually ease people out of the toxic tech-obsessed lifestyle, I doubt it'll work, since the only people going to it will probably be tech-obsessives. Case 1: People really need the detox, because they lack the willpower to cut down on their tech use themselves. Then they'll be sufficiently weak-willed after a mere three days that they'll fall back to technology, since all their new friends have the same obsessive levels of connection. Case 2: People will genuinely gain better habits and form "analog" friendships that stay that way after camp. Then why exactly did they need the camp in the first place?

If it's meant to be a fun quasi-nostalgic summer camp experience, then why market it as something new and exciting? Nothing about what's on offer, is surprising in the least.

My mood on contemplation of Camp RAHH isn't "anger" as much as "bleakness" or "despair." Should navel-gazing nostalgia be so glamorized? Should tech-addiction, to the extent that such a thing even exists, be treated so cavalierly as to be made into a Kickstarter campaign? I despair because I see two main possibilities: that nobody's actually addicted, they're just malajusted tech-douches, in which case they need to fix their own shit; or addiction is real, in which case I can't help them since I'm not a medical or psychiatric professional.

If there's anyone I'm happy for in all of this, it's Camp Kirby, the site of both RAHH and Camp Quest. They deserve all the money they can get.