Lit by a single bulb in the hipster neighborhood of Chicago known as Wicker Park, a signless establishment beckons thirsty clientele with craft cocktails. A taste of exotic ingredients like beet syrup and huckleberry bitters comes at a price: When you're here, you can't use your phone.
That's the message signposted in the hallway and bathrooms in the dark, speakeasy-styled Violet Hour. It's the first rule in a long list of etiquette (along with "no light beer") -- and the most contentious. Despite the soaring use of smartphones as part of our everyday social experience, guests seem to take the rule in stride. The line to get into the cozy bar frequently flows down the block.
The Violet Hour is one of a growing number of private spaces that bans the use of technology in some form or another as part of their ethos. Turning off your phone to focus on what's in front of you is common behavior in a movie theater, but it's an idea that seems shockingly restrictive in a world where uploading photos to Facebook and Instagram during dinner has become acceptable and even encouraged.
Yet in the last decade, a handful of businesses have created tech-free zones designed to take digital devices out of the equation and get you back to "real" life.
Note: For more, read my related story, My
back eyes neck tech is killing me, in the Spring 2016 issue of CNET Magazine.
If the thought of putting aside your phone for a few hours gives you palpitations, don't go to The Violet Hour. Guests are reminded about the no-phone policy as they come in, and many take the warning a step further by turning off their phones completely.
The 150-seat bar is the kind of dim speakeasy where an illuminated screen calls attention to itself, none of it good. When the bar opened in 2007, cell phones were used for calls more than for tweets and texts, and the Violet Hour partners adamantly wanted the create an environment that was "dark, hidden and sort of a destination."
Those are the words of Eden Laurin, a managing partner who joined the team six months after the bar opened. If someone's sitting solo, Laurin said, the default behavior is to reach for their phone. Instead, bar staff hands them a book of spirits to read.
While some customers push back against the rules, most of the time they politely comply. When their friends get mad over unanswered texts, Laurin said, bar-goers explain: I was at The Violet Hour. No cell phones allowed.
The Violet Hour's focus on one-on-one time can be intense for people who are unused to socializing without distraction. "There are so many blind dates that go bad here," Laurin noted, "There's no escape."
"I began this restaurant as a revolt."
Hear this, and you know that chef Michael Sohocki's Restaurant Gwendolyn in San Antonio, Texas isn't your ordinary place to dine. In this tiny, hyperlocal establishment, Sohocki and his team obsessively make food from scratch the old way, as a stand against impersonal, genetically modified and industrially processed ingredients.
Although there are electric lights and air conditioning throughout ("I'd have no staff and I'd have no customers"), the upscale New American spot has none of the modern equipment found in today's high-tech kitchens. There's a refrigerator because Texas law says so, but that's about it. Meat and produce are sourced from a 150-mile radius. The bread Sohocki serves has been hand-kneaded from grain ground in a hand-operated mill. Whipped cream is literally whipped. Not whisked, whipped.
It's relentless physical toil, and Sohocki's vision, considered extreme by some, can be a hard sell for kitchen staff. "Working in my kitchen is a bitch," he admitted.
Still, hewing to a food philosophy that excludes modern epicurean technology is a full-life conviction that has come to color the way Sohocki feels about our daily reliance on other forms of digital tech. "People are on their phones to the exclusion of real life," he said. "You wind up with a society of milk cows."
That's a harsh statement if you resemble said cow, but Sohocki's point is clear: Maybe we don't need our tech trappings as much as we think we do.
The summer camp for grownups
Face paint and splashing in the lake. There's no better way to take a critical look at the role of personal technology in our day-to-day than at a summer camp full of other adults, right?
At Camp Grounded, a roving series of sleepaway retreats around the country, over-18s like founder Levi Felix purposely put aside their phones, tablets, smartwatches and laptops for a few days at a time. You can guess why. Living tech-free lets campers shed distractions from the outside world and zero in on the things around them.
But there's more to Camp Grounded than practicing archery and swinging from trees. The camp, whose motto is "disconnect to reconnect," wants overstimulated people to question what exactly they're consuming online and how often. "Are these tools really good for us?" Felix asks.
The rush to post in real time leads to less thoughtful stories and comments, Felix suggested, which contributes to a culture of sharing fluffy, clickable articles that people may not fully read themselves before passing along.
To prompt inner reflection, virtual inboxes and Internet searches get turned into camp cubbyholes, a typewriter for composing messages and a giant community message board where people can ask questions.
The inbox especially looks like a big piece of art, Felix said. "It's almost like a social commentary."
Zero tech? Well, not quite
For this trio, part of the point of creating a tech-free zone is that it's a temporary reprieve. The Violet Hour's Eden Laurin, Chef Michael Sohocki, and Camp Grounded's Levi Felix all made sure I knew they aren't anti-technology, that these breaks from gadgets and the Internet are more about clearing some space than about wanting to rewind to caveman days.
Sohocki's guests are free to tap away on their phones in the dining room, and he himself uses Twitter to connect with fans. YouTube videos have helped hone his butchering techniques.
Meanwhile, The Violet Hour won't change its signage or policy, but in practice, patrons can post photos of their drinks online, then put the phone away. Since signal is so bad, the bar has recently installed Wi-Fi.
Even for the people who help run these establishments, a balanced tech diet is hard to achieve.
"There's no more separation between work and life," Laurin admitted about her job. "I wish there were more times in my day when I didn't check my phone, but it's more efficient. I can get a lot more done with this technology."