Digital Abstinence Symposium, University of Paris

Members of the Critical Media Lab participated in a research symposium on the theme of “digital abstinence” in Paris, May 2014. The collaborative seminar included graduate students and faculty from the University of Waterloo and Masters students in Hypermedia and Digital Design at the University of Paris (VIII). Over the course of the week, students shared their digital research projects and reflected on what we collectively understand by the term “digital abstinence,” and why someone might decide to “unplug.” Throughout the week, we compared digital unplugging to other kinds of abstention – alcohol, meat, cars – and worked to establish some frameworks for a broader study of digital abstinence. It also provided the participants in the seminar to reflect upon their own uses (and abuses?) of digital tools amidst increasing pressures from work and home to remain “connected” at all times. The irony, for instance, of creating a blog for our research project was not lost on the group. One of the provocative highlights of the week was a keynote address by German neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer, whose talk, “digital dementia,” argued decisively and unambiguously against the increased use of digital screens among youth in particular. Drawing on the research of empirical social science and neuroscience, Spitzer argued that even supposedly educational apps do not provide much in the way of cognitive activity for children, and in fact, severely undermine the capacities of the brain in later life. For Spitzer, climbing a tree or playing in a field offers much more in the way of synaptic activity than the most innovative ipad application. His talk provided much food for thought throughout the seminar as we unpacked his claims and reflected on the “cool” response his work has received in North America and Europe. The seminar concluded with a visit to the fascinating “cent-quatre” community space, which houses art groups, start-up tech companies, youth drop-ins, and a lab for students at the University of Paris. A much larger seminar between the two universities is planned for Waterloo next spring, 2015.


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