Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Could you survive a festival without your phone?

Could you survive a festival without your phone?

Glastonbury, Leeds and Reading... you could spend them all texting your friends and filming the bands, without really seeing anything. We sent a writer to a festival where mobiles are banned to see how they'd get on

Scout's honour: Camp Wildfire
The joyous spirit at Camp Wildlife Photo: Liam Keown
"Campers, it is time to switch off your phones. After all, they haven’t been invented yet!” The announcement comes in clipped tones in the middle of a forest in Kent. 
I’m surrounded by adults in scout leader uniforms as they decide how to spend their weekend: should they build a shelter from twigs, or go horseriding? 
It is shambolic, but with good reason - the activity booking is done online, and the internet has gone down within the first two hours of Camp Wildfire
The next morning, registration is happening with pen and paper, and working like a charm. It’s a solution befitting Wildfire’s ethos: a 1950s-themed festival with a secret line-up and location, where 500 adults romp around the forest, exchanging their mobile phones and digital cameras for a rediscovery of childlike curiosity. 
You can do all sorts of activities at Camp Wildfire (Liam Keown)
In the past decade, mobile phones have changed festivals immeasurably. We had already come a long way since leaving notes on trees for campers, but a few years ago a fully-charged phone would last a weekend, plenty to contact friends and family when you needed to, even if you couldn’t rely on the signal. 
But five years ago, with the invention of smartphones, suddenly everything changed. 
The more advanced phones, with their cameras and internet connections, allowed festivalgoers to document every one of their experiences in real time. The increasingly experience-hungry Millennial could prove what fun they were having through the click of a butt on - and put a flattering filter on it on the way. 
Telecommunications sponsored music festivals, bringing in charging lounges and WiFi hotspots so that, in the words of Spencer McHugh, director of EE, who sponsor Glastonbury, “everyone [can] share every memory”. 
However, some festivalgoers are finding that the incessant sharing of memories - and checking of email and social apps - gets in the way of making them, and actually enjoying the festival. A smartphone keeps us tethered to the ralitis of everyday life. 
Camp Wildfire is a music festival with a difference (Liam Keown)
One solution is a digital detox camp, which have been running in California for the past few years. Camp Grounded is an adults-only summer camp that bans alcohol, headliners and networking, along with the smartphones. 
Now British festivals are encouraging a similar attitude. In May, 1,500 people attended Unplugged Weekend, where the only electricity was generated by solar and pedal power. Wildfire followed. 
It is well-suited to being phone-free. The tiny site consists of one food hall, a main stage and bar and 26 different outposts for activities ranging from wild choir to trap setting, which means that you are always bumping into your friends, so even if you could text them, there wouldn’t be much point. 
There is an analogue radio station and fire pit, around which talks, music lessons and late night chats take place. For the first time since I was a Girl Guide, I sleep under the tough green canvas of a tent so tall and pointy it towers, majestically, over its more modern, rounded cousins. 
Ironically, it is all perfect for an Instagram photo. But here, film cameras are encouraged, and a shed has been transformed into a dark room to develop your snaps. 
So what does it feel like to leave it all behind? Like 90 per cent of 18-29-year-olds, I sleep with my phone next to my pillow, and text, email or tweet on and off for an average three hours a day. 
Tucked away in a forest is Camp Wildfire, secluded from the digital world (Liam Keown)
Mark Jago, a philosophy faculty member at the University of Nottingham, told me he left his phone in the car. His partner, Anna, a lawyer, had done the same. Both were enjoying being digitally disconnected: “We can’t contact anyone, so when we do different events around the site we just have to rely on bumping into one another,” Mark explains. “It is a really good idea. There are reasons why people might want a phone, but it allows you to think differently.” 
For Anna, Wildfire offers an extension of a recent holiday where the pair couldn’t get 3G: “We were free of email and it was lovely - I feel I have to check them all the time otherwise.” 
Andy Broughton is here on a stag weekend. A digital art director from Brighton, he’s chosen not to contact his fiancee and has switched off his phone. The group are making a lot of friends - although one of them admits he would “run in the direction of a charger” if there was one to be found. 
Johnny, a GP from Southport, disagrees. He left his phone at home, which he says has allowed him to concentrate on other things, like overcoming his fear of bees at a beekeeping session and lighting fires in a survival course. “I wanted to get closer to nature,” he says. “I doubt I’ll ever skin a rabbit again, but I enjoyed learning how.” 
Wildfire Festival allows you to get closer to nature (Liam Keown)
Wildfire invites “only the curious”, and it turns out that’s a mixed bunch: middle-aged couples with well-established camps, young hippies in waistcoats and hats, small groups of women in flower headbands and men in bear suits. 
Some, yes, have snuck in their phones, but most are only using them to take photos or tell the time: “Who has a watch these days?” one camper asks. 
Maybe it’s the set-up - activities and communal dining tables are natural ice breakers - but it is noticeable that, without the glow of a smartphone, people are more willing to strike up a conversation, even if they have never spoken before. 
Instead of seeing something through a screen, I appreciated the dusky summer solstice sunrise for what it was. 
Separated briefly from my friends, I didn’t instantly reach for my phone for distraction, but struck up conversations instead. 
And, as the hours wore on, hand-made animal masks were donned and the bands struck up, people shrugged off the need to document their experiences, and lived it fully in all five senses.

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