Within the last generation, lifestyles have changed dramatically across Europe and the world. The development of new technologies has seen incredible innovations affecting many areas of life, from medicine to transportation, energy production and communication. But with these new technologies have come a new array of challenges for people to overcome. Many of us have transitioned into a heavily digitised existence, with the youngest of us completely unable to remember a time, for example, without the internet, social media and smartphones. Is there a limit to how quickly we can adapt to such life-changing technology?
Studies have shown a worrying correlation between this increasingly urban, technologically-saturated way of living and deteriorating mental health. Social media promised to unite the world, but we didn’t predict how polarised and isolated it has made some of us. We habitually fill each spare moment with endless scrolling and posting; comparing ourselves to idealised projections of others. This is now commonplace, and most prevalent amongst the younger generation.
“It has become exceedingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”
– Albert Einstein
#Disconnect2Reconnect2 was a ten day Youth Exchange designed to address this situation. By creating a safe space in a rural setting, bringing a wide range of young people together from across Europe, and inviting them to lock away their smartphones for a week, we introduced participants to a simpler way of living filled with face-to-face social interactions, team building activities, creativity workshops and much more.
We hosted participants from 5 countries (Italy, Spain, France, Latvia and Germany) in rural Saxony, the southeastern part of Germany close to the border with Czech Republic, outside the picturesque village of Rathen. It was late summer (August 28 – September 6) and we made the most of the weather, practising the majority of our workshops and activities outside the hostel and exploring the local woodland. The main objective? To transport young people out of their normal lifestyle circumstances by minimising their indulgence with technological devices and maximising their real world interactions – with each other, with themselves and with nature.
Using a range of non-formal techniques, participants were guided through an experience which had the potential to be equal parts challenging and rewarding. Designing the activities schedule was all about finding a balance between engaging and thought-provoking workshops, ensuring ample time for personal and group reflection, and fun, practical and creative sessions to maintain an energetic and cohesive group dynamic. As already mentioned, spending a good amount of the day outside was also integral to the process – the participant experience was, after all, about disconnection and reconnection, and nature is in this regard a patient and generous teacher.
The general structure of the mobility followed the typical Youth Exchange format; the first days prioritising the development of the group as a new community, consisting of name games, ice-breakers and teamwork activities. Then we transitioned into activities focussed on addressing the topic, growing gradually deeper until, by halfway through the exchange, we had explored what the topic meant to each of us. As you might expect, there was a wide range of viewpoints, as each of our relationships with technology is a personal thing. Some of us were able to maintain the relationship as a purely practical experience, many of us came to appreciate that the relationship was at times intrusive. We had begun to recognise the similarities of our experiences, which was essential to developing the later stages of the project.
The dissemination event took place in Dresden, the busy capital of Saxony. The participants had produced a range of materials to share their “best practices” when it came to interacting with technology, and their experiences of technological disconnection during the exchange. With drums, musical instruments, games, banners and placards, we took to the streets of Dresden and engaged with its local people to see what they had to say about the subject. Though light-hearted, this is an essential part of the process as it helps solidify the learning experience, and brings a degree of closure to the project, whilst further reinforcing the value of face-to-face interactions over digital.
By the time departure day arrived, participants had discussed and explored the topic deeply, considered it from a range of different perspectives, produced a comprehensive guide of “best practices” and shared them with the public in Dresden and beyond. They had also delved deeply into their own experience, reflected on their own relationship with technology, remembered the value of face-to-face interactions and of spending time outdoors, with others, in nature. They were a tightly-knit family who had shared a great deal in such a short time, many of whom have continued to stay in touch and visit one another in the best Erasmus+ fashion.