By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Unplugged Village offers opportunity for phone-less dining
We’ve all seen it.
A couple walks into a restaurant and within minutes of being seated, they begin thumbing their cell phones, only to gaze up from their screens in partial alertness to interact with the wait staff. For the remainder of the meal, their eyes never really settle on much else, or each other, as they succumb to the alluring conveniences of text messaging, web surfing and social media.
Claudia Erickson used to be that type of person. Her husband and two teenage kids still fit the bill. But she hopes they might change because of the behavioral examples she’s setting personally and publicly through her recently created program, Unplugged Village.
The effort combines survey results and research data pertaining to the ill effects of heavy technology use as the catalyst for getting consumers to occasionally dine tech-free — and to shed light on the forgotten beauty of face-to-face communication in all aspects of life.
Erickson’s “tech break” dining events so far have been held on Tuesdays at La Mesa restaurants with the support of restaurant owners and sponsors. Hosts have included Fourpenny House, Centifonti’s Restaurant, Trattoria Tiramisu and San Pasqual Winery Tasting Room & Gallery. The same restaurants, in addition to The Lunch Box, will take part again at various times throughout the day and evening on Sept. 25.
Convivial in nature, participating customers place their cell phones in buckets at the start of the meals or stack them face down in the center of the table. Anyone who grabs their device to answer a call or check a message must pay the entire bill or wash everyone’s dishes at the end of the meal.
Diners are given permission, however, to take pictures of their food.
“It’s like smokers having to take a puff of that cigarette. Do it and get it over with,” Erickson quipped, recognizing that such photographs ultimately benefit a restaurant’s image once they find their way onto social media.
Erickson holds a master’s degree in public health. She’s maintained positions at Rady Children’s Hospital, Scripps Memorial and the San Diego chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Throughout most of her career she engaged frequently in social media and other forms of electronic communication.
“I was the worst offender, the person who checked messages even during vacations,” she recalls. “If you sent me an email at 10 p.m., I replied right away.”
Over time she began taking note of technology leaders bragging about how addicting their new devices and applications are while promoting them in the mass market.
“It answers why we can’t put the darn phone down,” she points out.
Former Google employee Tristan Harris had also caught her attention. He started a movement called The Center For Humane Technology, which comprises an impressive team of former tech insiders calling on tech engineers to start designing products that extract less attention from society.
Though vague in their solutions thus far, the correlations between incessant technology use and issues of depression, anxiety and attention deficit disorder are more tangible, but not entirely proven, according to a study at the University of Pittsburgh. In another study conducted recently by Common Sense Media, it showed adults spend more than nine hours a day consuming media, mostly from hand-held devices.
“I’m concerned about this from a public health standpoint,” said Erickson, adding that a growing number of people she knows working in the mental health field are currently treating patients for technology dependencies.
“It’s doing so much damage, and I’m concerned about what kids are not learning in terms of problem solving and communication skills.”
In looping back to the issue of cell phone use while dining, Erickson cites a 2015 Pew Research Center survey in which 88 percent of respondents believe it’s generally not OK to utilize the devices during meals. Those results perhaps fueled the policies of certain restaurants around the nation to ban or dissuade customers from using cell phones inside their establishments.
Locally, servers at Mister A’s in San Diego have been known to politely nudge phone chatters out of the dining room and into the foyer for the duration of their calls. In a sterner approach, places like The Violet Hour in Chicago forbid phone use altogether in the bar lounge.
Brian Fitch of La Mesa is a seasoned diner and “smartphone junkie.” As a salesperson for a sporting goods company, he asserts that he wouldn’t set foot into a restaurant with such policies.
“It would be like telling me I can’t shuffle through a folder of work documents at my table or reach out to friends while I’m at the bar having a drink to come and join me at the restaurant,” he said.
Though supportive of Erickson’s efforts, Centifonti’s owner Carol Tolosko admits she would never implement a full ban on cell phones because of the professional clientele the restaurant attracts.
“But once in a while, it’s good for getting people to socialize with each other,” she said, noting that the restaurant’s flat-screen televisions are turned off during tech-break Tuesdays and that she donates 10 percent of sales from the events to Children’s Hospital or animal rescue programs.
Unplugged Village has become a full-time project for Erickson. She’s intent on recruiting more restaurants into the program and also conducts public and private workshops on technology addiction, offering tips and tools on everything from understanding online privacy issues and identifying “time-sucking” applications, to helping family members overcome their technology dependencies.
On that front, “It’s always best to start with yourself first,” she advises.
Her mission, she emphasizes, is to help modify our relationship to technology rather than eradicate it from our lives entirely — an unrealistic goal by all accounts.
“I’m not telling people to go live in a forest and give up technology forever. That’s not my thing. I’m instead using a little bit of levity to show that moderation is the better answer,” she said before pointing out with a chuckle: “I wear a watch because checking the time on my phone leads to other things.”
For an updated schedule of workshops and tech-free dining events, or to contact Erickson directly, visit unpluggedvillage.com.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.