Unplugged: my holiday from electronica

Camping and lecturing at a festival frees Kevin Fong from the digital prison

August 22, 2013

Every year I try to engineer a holiday. Every year work somehow sneaks into my suitcase. There is, I have decided, only one way to escape the digital prison and that’s to go properly off grid. So this month I joined the exodus from London and took my family camping. With no access to electricity and not a broadband repeater aerial in sight, I had finally tunnelled my way to freedom.

The last time I went camping I was a Boy Scout and it was all canvas and wooden poles and swearing. When we weren’t pitching tents we were busy rewarming E. coli and bacon cultures in the frying pan on the almost-on-fire campfire. It was these formative experiences, in fields littered with sheep poo, that in later life inspired me to live in South London as close to a Tube station and gourmet coffee shop as humanly possible.

But this summer my old nemesis returned in the form of an invitation to give a lecture at a festival. “Come and stay for the whole thing, you can camp with the family!” said the invite. Alarm bells were ringing before I’d reached the end of the letter but – having never experienced camping themselves – my boys were so excited that I felt I had to accept. For those of you wishing to avoid this fate, can I suggest crossing Swallows and Amazons off the early years bedtime reading list?

The suggestion was that one’s lack of outdoor aptitude could be entirely compensated for by spending gob-loads of cash

And so, close to a quarter of a century since I last tangled with firelighters and groundsheets, I ventured forth. First stop the camping shop, where I discovered that stuff has really changed. I felt like an outdoor version of Austin Powers, recently beamed into the 21st century. The friendly shop assistant quickly ushered me into the midlife-crisis aisle. Here the suggestion was that one’s lack of outdoor aptitude could be entirely compensated for by spending gob-loads of cash; taking you from Muggle to MacGyver in one credit card transaction. Sensing extreme financial hazard, I bought a tent on sale for £150 and ran.

I went home and had a quick gander online at what the modern person can now bring into the wild. Showing extraordinary restraint, I resisted buying the portable power pack that promised to power all my gadgets for days. Somehow I also managed not to buy the über-tech stove – connected to a thermoelectric generator – that allowed you simultaneously to burn twigs and power a USB port that could charge a phone. This trip was going to be all about escaping electronica, not hauling it with me.

When we got to the campsite I proudly wrestled the tent up. It was a family team effort that took an hour but left us with an enormous sense of satisfaction. OK, so it didn’t exactly look like the picture on the bag but I’d used all of the poles and most of the pegs and considered that job done. It’s all about setting the right outcome metric. (Who says the skills we acquire in healthcare and higher education don’t transfer to the campsite?) Alone at last among the elements, I wondered why we hadn’t done this sooner.

Then a bloke from Fulham rocked up with a tent, on a trolley, wrapped in a bag that looked about half as big as our car. His family was nowhere to be seen and I couldn’t see how he would possibly put it up on his own. I, on the other hand, had newly discovered skills and expertise and was willing to share them out.

There was no need. Turns out Fulham Bloke had dwelled rather longer in the Instant MacGyver aisle than I had. The tent was inflatable and pinged up literally in seconds. Then he unpacked a flat-folding table and bench set that popped into a solid-looking platform with a single flick of his wrist. The eldest of my little boys was looking really impressed. “Why don’t we have stuff like that, Daddy?” he asked, rather too loudly. I fixed him with my best Paddington Bear stare. I tried the same thing on Fulham Bloke but he just smiled and waved. I decided to drag the kids away before our next-door neighbour casually threw a swimming pool into the ground or inflated an amusement arcade.

I marched off to have a look at the venue I’d be lecturing in – partly to prepare for my talk but mainly because it was a long way away from our comparatively sorry-looking tent. I needed the distraction.

I only ever use a laptop and projector when giving talks: no video, no audio, no singing, no dancing, no pyrotechnics. Pretty old-school, really. This I cheerily relayed to the woman organising the session, proud of my parsimonious approach to presentation technology.

“Oh,” she said with a frown.

“We don’t have a laptop or a projector, I’m afraid. Didn’t you read the instructions?” she asked.

I frowned silently, trying to work out how best to admit that I never read instructions and failing to compute the words she was uttering.

“No laptop! No projector! What the hell is this!” I thought.

“It’s just a tent,” she added, as if reading my mind, gesturing at the venue in the field in front of me. This, I suddenly realised, was what total absence of technology meant. I had finally reached escape velocity.

In the end it all worked out for the best. The talk went surprisingly well. For me it was a little bit like trying to put on a theatrical performance of Avatar with a couple of blue glove puppets but the audience seemed to be OK with that. The festival was lovely, Fulham Bloke actually turned out to be Top Bloke and for once my family got to spend some time with me almost completely unfettered by mobile devices.

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Reader's comments (1)

My whole family really enjoyed your talk at the festival you are referring too. I would never have guessed that you had not spoken at similar events before without the aid of a laptop and projector. You held the attention of adults and young children alike. Many thanks!

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