As technology progresses, so does our desire to make it appear invisible. But will we reach a time when technology just…. disappears?

mediated reality

“Mediated Reality running on Apple iPhone” (Glogger, CC-SA 3.0)

Part of the fun of writing articles for public consumption is the possibility of receiving comments that are, well … colorful. Thankfully this week I merited such an occurrence (okay, several).

Whereas likes and shares are well appreciated, in all seriousness, it is these colorful comments that foster fortitude and make for hopefully better articles in the future. Therefore unless the comments are totally off the wall (had a few of those also), I try my best to think about them and act on these “pleasantly said suggestions” where appropriate.

There was one in particular that I read last night on Lag Ba’omer which contained two fundamental questions: What has religion got to do with virtual reality (the article was about the Oculus Rift VR headset)? And: Why are you speaking out against the progress of technology?

Having written about the convergence between Jewish thought and technology actively for over two years now, I was taken aback. It’s been now been over 200 articles since I began this journey, but now 200 articles later, I felt as if I was back to square one.

For a moment, I felt floored and doubted whether I was doing a good job, and whether these articles were clear enough. Then I remembered something that I had read literally seconds before that comment. Thankfully, this was one of those instances when the desire to do many unrelated things at once paid off.

Open My Eyes

My primary activity was reading a new translation of a Lag Ba’omer discourse by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The topic of the meditation was the verse from Psalms, “Open my eyes (gal einai) that I may behold wonders from your Torah.” Being as I work at an organization named after the beginning two words of this verse — Gal Einai — I was excited to see this new translation.*

I was at the end of Page 8 when I changed screens to read this comment questioning my approach, and everything I had been actively writing during these past two years (and another ten years before that). I was devastated, not because I think a writer can be expected to make every reader happy, but because the approach was misunderstood. Without knowing how to respond, I decided to plunge myself back into the discourse, rereading the section I had just read before the comment. And here it is:

“Hashem made the revealed aspect of Torah in such a way that a human being is able to understand it intellectually…by designing the Torah in such a way that the “soul” (secrets) of the Torah – even the “soul of the soul” – can be seen within the “body” (logical aspect) of Torah…

To give a practical example, if Hashem didn’t create the Torah in this way, there would be a distinct section of the Torah that taught the secrets of the Torah, but we wouldn’t be able to relate to it from the existence we live in…”

You can read the full 23 pages for yourself if you like, but the text shot back at me like a flash of light. The section speaks about the ability to relate to both the secrets of the Torah, and the physical reality we live in. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe emphasized years after this discourse was said, to “open our eyes” to see the reality of the Redemption before us.

But there are an innumerable amount of physical things “from the existence we live in” that a person can choose to meditate upon. Thus that article was an attempt to convey the spiritual side, the secret behind a piece of technology called Oculus Rift.

Invisible Technology

This also answers the second question posed to me as to whether I am speaking out against technology. As was said, going against the flow of Moore’s law, etc…

My intention in quoting from Astro Teller, head of Google X, was an attempt to answer this concern. Since it wasn’t clear, let’s quote Astro’s statement once again:

“When technology reaches that level of invisibility in our lives, that’s our ultimate goal. It vanishes into our lives. It says: ‘you don’t have to do the work, I’ll do the work.’”

According to an “open your eyes” Redemptive understanding of technology, the goal of technology is that human ability shouldsurpass robot ability. This is what we call the singularity of human potential. Instead of a time when a race of sentient robots will roam the Earth, we prefer to focus on the time when humans will live according to their fullest potentials.

Conceptually, the desire to make technology invisible is the expression of a deep-seated hope that indeed, this should be so. That we should each be able to witness a “Human Plus” experience without the need for implanted nanochips, exoskeletons, and other cyborg components.

Seeing Wonder

When news of Google Glass first came out, I wrote an article entitled, “Google’s Project Glass: Seeing Wonder with the Eyes.” At the end of the article, I included the story of a blind boy who found a pair of glasses belonging to an unknown tzadik. When he put them on he was able to see, when he took them off, he returned to his previous state.

Soon after posting the article, a person who has devoted himself to promoting artificial vision research and technology, messaged to thank me for the article, and the “wonderful glasses” depicted in it.

This was a most surprising result, especially since I was not offering any actual technology enhancement to Google Glass. What I did have in mind was the “open your eyes” concept above. That each of us should train ourselves to see the wondrous and miraculous in reality.

Back then, this gave me hope for the approach taken in these articles. That while I am not an engineer, technician, or computer programmer, even those in real and present need of what these technologies have to offer, appreciate knowing the spiritual side of these physical devices. But now two years later, these convictions were being tested once more.

Immersing in Reality

The article about Oculus Rift and other VR devices was not against technology. Rather it was pro-immersing fully in reality (even to the extent of traveling through time and space) without the need for technology as a crux.

In the story of the blind boy, while it would have better if he could see from the beginning without needing the glasses of a tzadik, we well understand the important function of those glasses. Never for a moment would we tell the boy to toss the glasses away because he shouldn’t rely on “technology.”

But when asked what would be more exciting, a blind boy that woke up one morning able to see or one that put on his vision simulated technology? We would of course answer the one who was able to see as the result of a miracle.

This is why the most exciting talk you’ll hear from gadget advocates today is this desire to turn technology gadgets invisible. More exciting than the technologies themselves, is the ability to experience reality without the need for these technologies; to be able to see like the Seer of Lublin from one end of the Earth to the other without the need for Google Glass, Oculus Rift, or anything else other than one’s pure and simple faith in God.

* Lag (לג) and Gal (גל) share the same letters in reverse order, and they both relate to the great task of revealing the inner dimension of the Torah.

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