Seeing more

Twitter limits the number of tweets and retweets to 1,000 per day.  This volume is ordinarily more than sufficient.  Ordinarily.  But this week a social media branch of the Israeli Defense Forces tasked with tweeting reports of rocket attacks found itself jammed by this limit.

“We were trying to tweet about more rockets being fired at Israel by Islamic Jihad in Gaza. But twitter kept blocking our tweet for being repetitive.  It is repetitive.  But it’s important. Please RT.”

This is a sobering illustration of the limits of data, algorithms, and social media.

Author Tara Westover recently lamented over a polluting brew of ‘social-media caricature’ and ‘data’ that is doing us a disservice.  It is flattening human life.  Human details are being lost in algorithms.  We are seeing less and less of people unlike us, and assuming more and more about them.

This week’s portion of Torah seeks to school us in seeing more than we otherwise see.  Nearly every incident can be understood from more than one lens.  Take the Binding of Isaac.  It is rich in couplets.  Twice we encounter phrases like ‘after these things’ (Gen. 22:1,20) and ‘and Abraham lifted his eyes’ (Gen. 22:4,13).  He first lifts his eyes, seeing from a distance.  The second time he sees the ram with its tangled horns close at hand.  Additional options become available.

Today’s myopias encourage knee-jerk reactions.  They make us dismissive and contemptuous.   This person drives a Prius.  That one drives a Pickup Truck. Yet deep down we know that second looks are always more spacious.  They are also more generous.  And, they are also more revealing.

Social media and data-driven decisions have much to offer.  They can and do improve our lives in many ways.  Retaining a degree of independence from them, however, may yet prove essential to more charitable living.   Would we hope to receive anything less from others?

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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