It was one of the most nerve-wracking moments of my life. I looked around the room at a mixed bag of humanity: some friends, some strangers, some strange friends, and some friendly strangers. I had never admitted this before. The thought of uttering it out loud terrified me. But all of them had the same problem that I had. A screen problem. You probably have one too.
The LCD (liquid crystal display) revolution happened before we knew what had hit us. I spent my adolescence in the middle of its dawn. I had the first iPod which became an iPad which became an iPhone and before I knew it, I couldn’t remember life before my constant companion. When I moved to Israel, I tried to quit cold turkey. It worked for a time, but I always knew that I would relapse; if you don’t commit to quit wholeheartedly, the apps tug on you like so many riptides.
Nellie Bowles of the New York Times recently penned an article detailing how several scions of Silicon Valley have been disabused of their notions that screens and rapidly advancing technology are benign. Their addictive powers rival those of notorious drugs, and with billions of R&D dollars pouring into the next innovation, there is no telling where, when, or if this trend will end. Well as they say: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. What do our sages and chassidic masters have to teach us about harnessing the LCD light that bursts forth from the depths of human innovation?
That light can damage us needs no proof. The sun’s intensity can burn a human retina, and a concentrated laser can bisect a steel beam. Spiritual light can also do harm if misused or abused. Our masters teach us that if a person has not perfected herself to the proper degree, the Torah she learns – the light of the seven days of Creation – can actually add strength to the negative forces in this world (Derekh Pikkudecha, Hakdama). And yet, just as the sun might hold the key to an energy revolution and lasers make miracles possible, a person utilizes the light of Torah anyway. Hashem gave us light to use it. Because if we remain in the dark, we will never get where we need to go (Id).
But who can use it? And how? The plague of darkness that befell the inhabitants of Egypt can instruct us. The Berditchever teaches that the darkness was caused by an inundation of light. The same spiritual light and divine clarity that Hashem hid from this world at the very beginning of Creation was revealed to those unfit to perceive it. And it blinded them. Because just like an errant glance at a solar eclipse can cause permanent damage without the proper eyewear, perceiving divine truth without the proper spiritual clothing can cause blindness (Kedushas Levi, Parshas Bo). In this same spirit, the gemara states that at the end of days, Hashem will remove the Sun from its sheath, and that the righteous will be healed by it and the evil will be burned by it (Nedarim 8b). The message is clear: if we prepare ourselves properly, an overwhelmingly powerful force can be harnessed and directed for good. Without proper preparation, the light can consume us.
While not a perfect analogy, the light of LCD screens represents a tangible manifestation of a very godly force being given to everyone. With the click of a button, huge percentages of all human knowledge are at the fingertips of anyone who so desires. We need to equip ourselves and our children appropriately. Just like the light of Torah must be learned for a purpose, our screens should only be picked up for a purpose. The most important message to impart is that there is a danger in the first place. Admitting there is a problem is half the battle.
And just like our sages and masters spent thousands of years parsing every word of the Torah so that its light would not be misunderstood, our great thinkers should waste no time convening ethics committees to govern these technological developments. Our libertarian leanings trigger a gag reflex whenever anyone suggests curbing any freedom that does no harm, but as we already know, this particular freedom does do harm. Untold harm. And just like four out of five Jews did not make it out of Egypt, there is no telling how many of us and our children will be lost to these forces. The power electrifies us, but are we worthy? Can we handle the knowledge of all generations at our fingertips? Will we be able to look away from the sun? As the great Jewish sage, Jeff Goldblum, said in the cult classic Jurassic Park, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”