In a recent lecture, I spoke about an old dream of mine — to set up the “Movement for Cellular Sanity.” The aim of this movement is to ensure that we are the ones who restore our control over the cellphone, because at the moment, it is the cellphone which rules our lives. However, I have no knowledge or experience in setting up an organization and registering it as an NGO and I certainly am not versed in the technical practicalities of such a task, so I did what I know best — I spoke about the issue and wrote posts on Facebook. Since then, I have been flooded with responses from mothers, fathers, teenagers, soldiers, army officers, rabbis, and teachers. They all feel that something is going awry, but that they are helpless to do anything in face of the all-empowering technology, and are lacking the tools to try and minimize the control it has taken of our lives.
On the surface, the usual battlegrounds are still drawn in the familiar arguments: Right versus Left and religious versus secular but, lurking just below these confrontations, there is a new element by which we define ourselves. This part of our identity is becoming stronger and is threatening to take control of our lives. I am referring to addiction to technology and the new media. A person gets up in the morning and his sole purpose is to promote himself, to brand the product called “ME.” Such a person is less able to concentrate on other people and matters; he or she is less attentive and — in reality – is less of a human being.
Below is a small selection of stories sent to me in the last week.
- As a standard part of an evaluation for a first-grader, a psychologist asked the young boy to draw his family so that she could try and learn about the status of each member within the family and his self-perception. He drew stick-like images of the whole family, and when it came to his parents, he drew them holding cellphones. In his mind, it is a natural extension of his parents’ bodies, an integral part of who they are.
- A good friend told me how she recalls with sadness the time when she could still memorize things. Now she has no need to use that skill. Whatever she needs to know, she gets from Google. Whenever she needs to go anywhere, she uses Waze, and she gets reminders of the birthdays of family and friends from Facebook. She has just moved to a new rented apartment, and however hard she has tried, she cannot memorize the new phone number. She simply has lost the ability.
- Ofira Eliav has recently moved back to Israel, having spent a few years with her family in the States. “My husband had a high-powered position in high-tech and we lived in Silicon Valley. At our children’s school, cellphones were banned and could only be used once school was over for the day. Since we have returned to Israel, the biggest culture shock for our children has been the use of cellphones in school. They can’t understand why the children don’t play games or speak to each other during recess and why each kid is only busy with his own phone. I can’t understand why there isn’t a similar ban in schools here, it seems so obvious.”
- Moriah Shapira is a mom-of-five and a career mom. Her post about “Mom is Unavailable” went viral last week. She suggested that moms (and dads) turn off their cellphones for two hours every evening and, ever since, she has been flooded with posts from parents telling her how they have suddenly gained a two-hour oasis of peace and quiet in their hectic lives. For those two hours, they make face-to-face contact, and don’t reach for the cellphone at the sound of every notification. Some parents changed their WhatsApp status to state the hours in which they are unavailable. Of course, this is a positive initiative, but also a sad one. Is this the maximum we can do? To flee our constant availability for just two hours of normal parenting and connecting with our partner? Is there no middle ground? Do we have to make a choice between 24-hour total submission to the cellphone or complete unavailability? Addiction or disengagement?
- And from Hawaii comes the news that Honolulu has become the first major city in the US to make it illegal for pedestrians to use their phone while crossing the road. After several injuries and even fatalities involving people who were not looking as they crossed the road, of walking zombies with smartphones, the city decided to slap a $15 fine on anyone caught crossing a road while using the phone. This is yet another in a series of steps taken all over the world to combat the plague of smartphones. In England, plans are being considered to cover lampposts with padding so that pedestrians who bump into them while texting will not be hurt. In Germany, traffic lights have already been installed down on the sidewalks at pedestrian crossings because people no longer look ahead at the traffic lights but look down at their screens. Are we absolutely certain that the human race is moving forward and not backwards? Is it even moving at all and not just bent down staring at phones?
So what can we do? First and foremost we have to talk about the problem, to raise awareness and put it at the top of the public agenda. Surely homo sapiens is going to put up a good fight against the technology that is trying to change him. I do believe that this challenge is primarily a Jewish one. We have always known how to present an alternative culture to the ruling norms. In each and every generation when the entire world was swept up by idolatry or by Communism or Nazism, Judaism was never afraid to go against current trends and present an alternative spirit. In this week’s parasha of Va’ethanan, Moses reminds us that the Torah is eternally identified with wisdom and understanding: “For that is your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of the peoples, who will hear all these statutes and say, “Only this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”
We are in the midst of a technological revolution and why have we Jews become swept up in it like everyone else without presenting a clear ideological stance on this issue?