An associate professor of sociology at Princeton University, Janet Vertesi, recently made news when she publicized her nine-month long efforts to keep her pregnancy entirely secret from marketers. She fastidiously kept all mention off of social media and made all pregnancy-related purchases with cash rather than credit cards. In today’s age, that was quite a feat. She even used an anonymizing web browsing service so her identifying IP address would not register her expecting interests. She had learned the Internet’s ethics lesson, its mussar.
Edward Snowden is the infamous computer consultant who revealed countless documents from the NSA’s clandestine surveillance program. Currently an international fugitive residing in Russia beyond the reach of US extradition, Snowden continues to leak confidential information about the vast extent of technological spying. Story after story, headline after headline, he throws the Internet’s mussar lesson at us so hard that we can only ignore it through the unbearable force of inertia. Yet sometimes we must remind ourselves of the obvious.
I take no position on the political and legal implications of Snowden’s revelations. Whether he violated the law or the NSA did, or both; whether he was right to tell the world about these activities or he jeopardized national security by doing so; whether the US government should pursue him with the full power of its robust law enforcement capabilities or should let him be. These are all questions for debate by people with greater expertise than I possess.
But I have learned one lesson from the ongoing spectacle, what I call the Internet’s mussar.
Someone is watching. Whenever you use technology, your activity is registered in a database that will be mined for information. Hopefully, your data will only be used for marketing purposes. Unwanted e-mail is no more than a nuisance. However, in theory, someone with enough access and expertise can piece together your activity and interests. Every time you cross a bridge and pay with EZ-Pass, your travel can be tracked. When you got on a bus or train and pay by card, your movements are registered. Whenever you buy anything electronically or even just view a website, your interests are recorded. All this data is maintained. Someone is watching.
I am not encouraging paranoia. The likelihood of someone piecing this data together in anything other than an innocuous way is low. I doubt the average citizen has much to worry about. However, criminals should be wary. When you commit a crime, your past activity can be dug up and analyzed. This is the Internet’s mussar.
As Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai lay on his deathbed, some of his students asked for his blessing (Berachos 28b). He said to them: “May your fear of Heaven be like your fear of other people.” Surprised, they asked him why it should not be greater. He replied, “If only. When a person sins, he is only concerned that no one see him.”
Our Creator, our Father and Judge, is often hard to see in this world. In our busy routines we neglect anything that is not immediately apparent. But we are embarrassed in front of our boss, our spouse, our neighbors, whom we see every day. If only we could channel that same embarrassment to God, we would be much better people and much better Jews. We would act properly whenever in His presence, which is all times and places.
If we can learn to fear the surveillance of the Internet, we can learn to fear God’s constant watching. I remember my first online purchase. I quickly checked to make sure my credit card was charged properly and monitored my account regularly to ensure the information was not stolen and misused. A year later, I was so used to buying online that I didn’t think twice about it. I had lost my fear of the Internet through habit.
As recent news reports rekindle our interest in protecting our personal data, as we become more aware of our electronic activity, we remember to fear even what is not immediately apparent. If only we could channel that same amount of care to our religious activity.
Fear of Heaven does not mean social paralysis. It means being careful to do what is right, to treat others properly, to fulfill our obligations without cutting corners. The unexamined life is often said to be not worth living. Perhaps social media was created to uphold that sad, lonely worldview. Judaism teaches that every life, created by the Almighty and endowed with His image, is worth living. However, the un-self-examined life is destined for disappointment, failing to live up to its full potential due to dulling force of habit. Fear of God should inspire us, keep us on our toes, make sure we are always careful to do our best.
Just as maintaining our cyber-security requires constant vigilance, keeping our religious standards always demands constant care. Someone is always watching our electronic activity. Some One – a kind and caring but demanding God – is always watching our every move and thought.