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One of the stories of this strange period in our history will be the story of the triumph of technology. I mean, can you imagine all the Social distancing, the isolation, the quarantines, if we had to enact these measures 30 years ago? In a world before Zoom, how would we have worked from home? How would we have met our families for virtual birthday parties, or enjoyed video happy hour with our fellow-burnt out co-workers? There have been so many great uses of technology that have made the pain of isolation sting just a little less.
And it’s not just zoom. I think I see about 10 fresh memes per day circulating on whatsapp. Even though I may reply “lol” to a friend’s brilliant meme, I’m usually not actually laughing out loud – it’s more like I’m exhaling really hard out of my nose in that special way that conveys: [exhale through nose] “that’s funny.”
But like all good pain-killers, there are side effects to technology.
It reminds me of this meme that was going around: “30 days hath September, April, June, and November. All the rest have 31… except March which has 8000.” Sure, more has happened in March,we’ve gone through more transition, than many of us have ever experienced in our lives… maybe that’s what people mean when they say they’ve experienced long days. But for me? The days pass by in a blink of an eye.
Nothing in my life these days has been slow: Every morning I wake up with a burst of energy, quickly swallowed up by work, running after the most adorable children, strategizing about the next grocery delivery, or, if we’re unlucky, plotting the way to get in and out of the store all while avoiding the specter of pestilence that could be creeping behind the cereal aisle. But that’s not where most of my energy goes.
Most of my energy is consumed by technology. And technology has made everything speed up. So much so that I rarely come up for air. One day bleeds into the next. Day after day in March, I was consumed by my newsfeed. The literal newsfeed. I’d voraciously consume every article the NYTimes had on Coronavirus, reading those minute by minute updates, announcing the news to my friends or family the moment it broke. I’d bounce back and forth between the NYTimes and Foxnews sites to see if maybe I could get the average of the liberal and conservative perspectives. Here’s what I learned, by the way: coronavirus is bad. We need to flatten the curve. The President may or may not be mishandling the crisis.
To try to mitigate my news addiction, I made strict rules to only check twice a day. Once in the morning, and once in the evening. Turns out, checking the news twice a day, for 2-3 hours in the morning and 2-3 hours in the evening, did not alleviate the problem.
And it’s not just the news: The whatsapps are out of control — the ones from work, the ones from loving family, long lost friends, and resurrected groups. And then there’s my iphone messages. And my emails. And my facetimes. And zoom invitations. And I gotta check my insta stories, my facebook feed… so many important things are happening and I need to see it, if not weigh in.
In March and now April of 2020, if you don’t exist on social media…you simply do not exist.
The triumph of technology during Coronavirus makes me think of Hansel and Gretel. You know, that fairytale with the gingerbread house? These two children are lost in the forest. They had left a trail of breadcrumbs so they could remember the way back home, but birds and other animals ate those breadcrumbs, leaving them wandering the woods with no way home. The kids are starving and are in real danger. And then? Salvation. They stumble upon a gingerbread house. A lovely lady invites them inside for some supper and — of course — desperate starving children will trust a stranger. She lives in a gingerbread house! That’s pretty awesome and… trustworthy, right?
Well, the lovely lady turns out to be a witch with cannibalistic predilections. And while the kids in our story turn out okay, I can’t help but wonder if we’re like Hansel and Gretel. For our collective health and safety, we need to be alone for a while, but there’s this seductive saccharine gingerbread house that offers us relief: our phones. It offers to save us, but it threatens to eat us alive.
I’ve had a bit of a love-hate relationship with technology long before the Coronavirus. On the love side? I’m the CEO of Aleph Beta, a company that teaches Torah over the internet. My entire career is based on how to construct a viral video, how to educate through a visual medium, how to reach larger and larger audiences… Also, our company is semi-remote. We have an office, but more than half the employees work remotely. We use Asana to manage our projects, we’ve used Zoom for years, and we are slack aficionados. Heck, I even worked remotely two days a week myself. Technology enables all of that. And yet…
The best work I do at Aleph Beta, the best work that Rabbi Fohrman, Aleph Beta’s lead scholar, does, is something that author Cal Newport describes as Deep Work. Slinging texts or slacks back and forth among my colleagues doesn’t accomplish all that much. And zoom meetings are great, but the real work we do here is in Torah research and content writing. It takes hours and hours, days and days to learn Torah: to understand and shape new ideas. To write scripts that share these ideas faithfully, compellingly. And then hours are spent with producers and editors who eviscerate whatever you’ve written, and you rewrite and rewrite until you’ve distilled an hour’s worth of usable material from 20-30 times that amount of effort.
Deep work isn’t just about time though. It’s about uninterrupted, and focused time. You can’t make headway on Torah research if you get interrupted by a whatsapp. You can’t scroll through NY Times articles as you’re writing a script.
But it’s not just productivity that gets sacrificed here. Cal Newport, in another of his books, Digital Minimalism, argues that social media is engineered to be addicting. We humans have a real craving for connection, to speak to others, to be seen and heard by others, and in turn, to give to others by seeing and hearing them. Social media allows us to connect with others on a scale never before achieved – we can have hundreds or even thousands of Facebook friends, and share and receive updates on their lives. A few hundred years ago, who could have imagined connecting with 2500 friends, and being peppered by their status updates?
Newport argues that it’s not just the scale of connections which overwhelms us, and it’s not just that social media is addicting, it’s that the quality of the connection is hollow and stale. Our bodies and our spirit require a nutrient-rich version of social interaction – we’re always more satisfied hanging out with someone in person, or at least interacting with them synchronously, on a phone call or, yes, even a zoom call. But swapping whatsapps throughout the day, trading emails, or seeing disembodied tweets or posts… that stuff gives you a tiny shot of dopamine. Enough to make you feel like you are scratching that connection itch, but not enough to truly satisfy you.
And so, my days have been spent almost like an operator, or the captain of a starship: each notification on my phone coming in like a crisis alert — does someone at work need me? No? That’s just a meme? Exhale through the nose. Forward to twenty contacts and give them the impression that each one is special to you. Now onto the next notification alert! Hoping that each one will make you feel whole and, connected, but, inevitably, the loneliness just grows.
Why is it this way? Why isn’t this incredible technology making us feel more connected than ever before to hundreds of people?
Let me give you an analogy. I love candy. Lollipops, fruit roll ups, they’re delicious. But let’s be real — candy never really leaves you full, leaves you satisfied. If anything, you’re left feeling a little sick after having too much of it. Why? You extract sugar from fruit, and, in doing so, you separate the sweet part of the fruit from its nutrients. You’ve extracted the part that delights you, and discarded the part that nourishes you. In that way, we overprocess fruit. It becomes bad for you. Physically. But, maybe, also spiritually. When you don’t have a relationship with what you consume, you don’t quite appreciate it as much. It’s more hollow. It’s not as good for you.
This idea is everywhere. It’s reflected in fast fashion, Ikea, even the meat that we eat. Our clothes wear out faster, our furniture falls apart, the meat doesn’t taste as good, there is unethical labor involved… and it’s not just food and clothes. This shows up in government and economics as well. The 2008 recession, for example. There are a lot of things that caused that recession, and I’m not an economist and don’t claim that I fully understand it. But, on a basic level, it was a crisis of subprime mortgage loans. Another way to look at this is that it was a crisis about overprocessing a promise. If I promise you I will pay back a loan, that promise, that debt, is worth something. It’s worth a little less if I think you may not pay me back. And if I, a bank, think that your debt is at risk, I can sell it to someone else. Well, who wants to buy a risky loan? No one. Ah, but what if I only sell you 1% of that loan, bundled together as part of a package of hundreds or thousands of other risky loans? Well, that would make you feel better, right? The risks are spread out. Banks could lend more and more money to people they knew wouldn’t pay, because by processing and overprocessing the promises of risky borrowers, they could still sell the loans off to other people… other people who were too far from the source of the value they were borrowing — i.e. the good word of the borrower. The further we get from an original borrower’s promise, the less and less weight it has. And faith is lost in that original promise. And faith in the system collapses.
With the recession, with candy, with clothing — it all comes down to the same thing. When you don’t have a relationship with what you consume, you don’t quite appreciate it as much. It’s more hollow. It’s not as good for you.
And with technology, it’s the same thing. A whatsapp is an overprocessed phone-call. A Facebook post is an overprocessed coffee with your closest friend. And when we can’t
meet for coffee, we might skip the endless scroll and choose a zoom-date instead. You can feel how those in-person, or even virtual, synchronous, interactions are richer, more deeply satisfying.
Technology is not evil. Human creativity is not evil. But I think the Torah recognizes the danger in overprocessing. In fact, I think that much of the lost spirituality of our Torah is about reigning in that which can become overprocessed.
Look at shabbat — on shabbat, God tells us to stop creating. Enjoys the world, as it is. And shabbat is not just the 7th day. There are different types of shabbatot all over the Torah. There are shabbatot in years — shemittah and ultimately yovel which reign in man-made concepts like slavery or ownership of land. In a yovel year, people who were bought and sold as slaves go free, and land you have rightfully purchased goes back to its ancestral holder — why? Because slavery, and ownership of land isn’t real. People can’t be owned. Overprocessing ownership objectifies people. Land can’t be owned. Not really. It’s a living thing. It provides for you. It buries you. Lo yimacher haaretz litzmitut — Land can’t be sold in perpetuity, God says. Ki Li haaretz — for land does not belong to mankind. It belongs to Me.
Why are we allowed to own people or own land in the other 49 years? Apparently, we are allowed to create, to “own” (quote unquote), to process — as long as we keep in mind the spiritual dangers of overprocessing. We take shabbatot everywhere to kick us out of the dimension of outcomes, profits, dominion, control — and get in touch with the things that matter. 6 days of obsessive work, climbing the corporate ladder, stops abruptly one day out of 7 — the fictions of ownership, of hyper-creativity, of over processing dissolve and what are we left with? A day we spend simply being, with friends, with family.
I don’t know what the divine meaning behind the Coronavirus is. But what I can say is that this has been a really painful reminder that my — our — creativity, our mastery over the world is diminished. Businesses are on pause, busy-ness is paused. And I’ve watched myself rush to fill the void with more processing, memes, texts, news, newsfeeds… and none of it has satisfied me.
Instead, I’ve decided to accept that a sort of Shabbat has been forced upon me, and I’ve been kicked out of obsessive creativity and control. And here’s what’s left for me: Calling my best friend while wandering outside has nourished me. The video game I started playing with my son has nourished me. Walking after a spring rain, noticing how the plants bloom in cycles, first the pink magnolias, then the tulips, next, the green leaves on the oak trees — all that has nourished me. I like my phone, but I know that the part of me that checks it obsessively, deep down, is just craving human connection. And now, I strive to do that less through trading memes and whatsapps, and more through phone calls and zoom coffee dates.
Nothing I’m saying is new. Nothing I’m saying will blow you all away. What’s the punchline, Imu? Enjoy nature? Spending time with friends and family is meaningful? Yeah. That’s the punchline. As obvious as it is, weirdly, I forget, again and again and again, that the most rich and meaningful things are the most utterly simple.
The triumph of technology should not become technology’s triumph… over us. But perhaps the story of this pandemic can be that moment where we became conscious of our loneliness, and of our desire to connect to one another. Perhaps then, we can harness technology to connect us to the ones we love in ways that are deep, rich, and nourishing.