When the sun starts to set in the remote Kalu Yala valley, students from all walks of life trickle into the town square, wiping off sweat from a hard day’s work.
Wearing headlamps and holding water bottles, they mill around the rectangular wooden tables clustered within the community’s epicenter. Gathering in twos and fours and tens, they play card games and share stories. A member of the kitchen staff blows into a conch shell, signaling that dinner is ready. The air fills with laughter and clinking silverware.
In this space, no one is checking Facebook or staring at a screen. There are no smartphones lighting up anyone’s face. After dark and around evening meals, some of the deepest human connections are formed here.
Kalu Yala’s more than 100 residents live with extremely limited access to WiFi and power. Devices are charged in a shared solar-powered bank and are used maybe once or twice a week, for research or to send a quick note to loved ones outside Panama. For the most part, they remain stored inside airtight bins or rainproof sacks, sequestered from the humid tropical climate.
For many people, the idea of living off the grid creates anxiety, uncertainty, and an overall sense of discomfort. It can sound daunting and impractical, a situation the majority of modern societies can’t fathom in the twenty-first century. But a disconnected lifestyle has become one of Kalu Yala’s defining elements. It’s one of the main attractions for its residents, and it’s not something many of them would give up easily.
Without smartphones and laptops, Kalu Yala residents are forced to interact with each other on a consistent and meaningful basis. Many members of the community say they’ve noticed a surprising array of benefits from this lifestyle, such as a deeper level of thought, are more profound connection with nature, a more creative use of their time, and enhanced social connections.
David Thai, a marketing intern, is one of those people. “When you’re in an environment where there is no technology or anything else to distract you,” he says, “you rely mainly on entertaining yourself through conversation and interacting with people.”
The benefits of an unplugged way of life transcend the borders of a tiny jungle community in Panama. According to researcher Nicholas Carr, author of “The Glass Cage: How Our Computers Are Changing Us,” technology creates a superficial existence in how humans think, communicate, and perceive the world around us.
“What we know about our minds is that true depth of thinking, emotion and communication only happens when we screen out distractions rather than enduring them,” he says. He added that the brain has a natural inclination to adapt to its environment, a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. When devices are taken out of the equation, “our neurons rewire themselves to support and encourage [deep] thinking,” he explained.
The kind of “shallow thinking” caused by persistent computer use also seeps into our social lives, Carr continued. “Early research shows that technology has an effect on emotions such as empathy,” he says. “Those require single-minded concentration on someone else.”
Other research supports Carr’s claims. Dr. Andrea Bonior, psychologist and author of “The Friendship Fix,” says being constantly connected to the world through our smartphones takes us out of our present environments, divides our attention and detaches us from the people around us. “We risk missing out on truly satisfying emotional experiences that way,” Bonior says in a statement.
Researchers from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business conducted a study in 2012 to see how cell phone use impacts social behavior. The results showed that after a short period of cell phone use, people were less likely to partake in “prosocial” behavior, or actions intended to help another person or society. The scholars suggested that because participants already felt connected with others online, they were less inclined to engage with the people around them.
And we’re starting to realize that our dependence on technology can be problematic. “Digital fasting,” or taking some deliberate time to unplug, has become a trend. A number organizations throughout the world, from San Francisco to Dublin, offer “digital detox” programs and retreats where individuals can spend a prolonged period of time sequestered from their devices.
Kalu Yala residents need little more than their own experiences to recognize the positive impact of a technology-free lifestyle. “Conversations reach new levels, and you begin sharing things with each other that you would normally reserve only for those closest to you,” Thai says. “Things get weird — in the best way.”
Still, a world without WiFi is not without challenges. Kalu Yala’s interns and staff members alike acknowledge that enhanced connectivity would make many aspects of life easier, from increased access to essential information from the outside world to the ability to reliably communicate with loved ones.
To address some of these concerns, Kalu Yala’s leaders are considering solutions, including building a specific area designated for WiFi use and a schedule that would allow residents to access technology on a more-than-limited basis. The organization is currently in the process of working with neighbors to install a high-speed internet tower that would function more efficiently than the existing satellite internet, which can be slow and unreliable at best.
In the meantime, Kalu Yala’s tradition of intimate conversations will continue. On a recent evening, as dusk turned to dark, a group of interns finish their dinner and build a bonfire. As the subtle flicker of light began to grow, they discuss everything from family to farming.
Brady Williams, a backpacker from Maryland, stares up at a sky saturated with stars. “Do you believe we’re really out here like this?” he asks Thai.
Thai grins, his face shadowy against the glow of the bonfire. “It really is wild.”