Not-So-Smart Phones

The narrative of creation accounts for many details of our origins but obviously not all, so what is included must be of great import. And of course the Torah was not given to us to teach cosmology, science, or even history but rather to teach us morality – not how we came to be but why we came to be, and how we should live. And so the nuggets of information provided about the ancients should catch our attention.

Thus we are taught that Lemech had one son named Yaval, “and the name of his brother was Yuval, the forerunner of those who play the harp and the flute” (Breisheet 4:21). Yuval was the original music man. And Lemech’s other wife Tzila “also gave birth to Tuval Kayin, the forerunner of those who sharpen and craft implements of copper and iron” (ibid 4:22). These facts are certainly interesting, but what’s the point?

And note the contrasts: the Netziv commented that the harp and the flute have dueling functions; the harp soothes while the flute arouses. They are not generally played together, and yet Yuval played both. So too, the instruments that were manufactured by Tuval Kayin could also be put to disparate uses. Tuval Kayin, like his great-great-great-grandfather Kayin, was also a farmer, so he created tools that made the work easier. But Rashi wrote that that he was too much like his ancestor Kayin, who murdered his brother Hevel but was not very efficient in carrying out the dastardly deed, But Tuval Kayin was so named because he perfected the craft of Kayin, manufacturing weapons of homicide like knives and daggers. So too Yuval the music man who used his music for idolatrous worship. What exactly are we being taught?

The Wall Street Journal recently featured a long essay by Nicholas Carr that should wake us up to the realities of the new world and the potential dangers that technology present. We always see the good, the benefits and the advantages in every modern invention but rarely internalize the downside, the struggles, or the changes for the worse, if we even do more than pay lip service to it. And so it is with the ubiquitous Smartphone.

Smartphones have become indispensable; more than half its users cannot imagine life without a product that didn’t even exist less than two decades ago. Traditionally, we have worried about the moral and spiritual dangers that are extant. I, like many rabbis, have railed against people even bringing Smartphones to shul, much less using them during prayer. Sadly, some people just can’t help it, and can’t disconnect from these devices even for a few moments. We have all witnessed people answering emails or texting during the davening (a real embarrassment to the shul and its sanctity as well as an insult to G-d in whose presence they presumably stand) and all been irritated by phones ringing during davening (although, fortunately, it is less of a problem in our parts).  But the essay makes a different and much stronger point: these Smartphones are making us dumb and our children even dumber. And that is a real, and in many venues an uncontrollable, problem.

The advantages are numerous. Smartphone provide with heretofore unimaginable convenience and an ever-increasing array of diversions. Who could have dreamed even a few years ago of a hand-held device that serves as a phone, camera, mailbox, photo album, computer, every newspaper and magazine you want to read, every movie, television show or sports program you want to watch, a calendar, a diary, a siddur, Tanach, Shas, Shulchan Aruch and much more? But Smartphones come at a great cognitive cost, and that’s what the research is showing. Just hearing a ring or a vibration makes it more difficult to concentrate. And when people hear a buzz and don’t check their phones, immediately their blood pressure spikes, their pulse quickens and their problem-solving skills decline. The ramifications for us will be clear in a moment.

In one study, three groups of students were given a test. One was told to keep their phones on their desks, another in their pockets or purses and a third group in a different room. Those whose phones were in view did the worst, those whose phones were in another room did the best, and those whose phones were present but in their pockets came out in the middle. Their mere presence drains away our mental energy and detaches us from our surroundings.

Obviously, those who people who bring phones to shul will have worse kavana even if the phones are off, and kavana is something with which we struggle under the best circumstances. Even more seriously, schools that allow children to bring their phones are wasting the parent’s tuition money. The children will simply not learn as much, their cognitive skills and ability to concentrate will decline precipitously, and then we will wonder where we have gone wrong. It is also worth noting that the mere presence of a phone diminishes the concentration of all those who see it, even if they do not own it, because it reflects the universe of opportunities, delights and fantasies in the great beyond, which always seem more interesting that whatever one is doing at the moment.

And worse: we are impairing our social skills through addiction to these devices while our children are not developing any social skills at all. Relationships suffer, if real ones at all exist. Smartphones serve as a constant reminder of all the friends we could be chatting with electronically, so they grab at our minds even when we are talking to live people, leaving those conversations shallower and less satisfying. Read “Reclaiming Conversation,” by Sherry Turkle, and you will realize that the ubiquity of Smartphones makes us less productive (even as we think we are being more productive), destroys our capacity for self-reflection, and prevents us from living in the moment with real people. It has spawned a generation that prefers texting to talking and virtual interactions to real ones.

These phones are not just in our hands but they are inside our heads. They hijack our attention and constitute a “supernormal stimulus” such as the world has never before seen. And we remember less, because everything is out there, accessible with a few taps of a finger. But William James, the 19th century American psychologist and thinker, said that the art of remembering is the art of thinking. We encode certain information that enables us to think conceptually, to make intellectual associations. When we stop doing that we create delusions of intelligence, with people feeling they know more but actually know less about the world around them. That’s why so many college students struggle to place the Civil War or World War II in the right decade (or quarter-century) and have no idea how many Supreme Court justices or United States Senators there are.

The only hope – the only answer – is to learn how to disconnect. Shabbat is great for that but it only comes once a week. Shul is even better – twice a day, morning and night. Leave the phone at home, period, or in the car. Carve out disconnect time as well with spouse and children. And parents who send their children to school with Smartphones are forewarned; the phones are smart but the people who cannot disengage from them become dumber. That’s the science.

The Torah introduces these ancients as the pioneers of innovation, which began with them and has not ceased. Yuval’s music brings joy, inspiration and comfort but can also be used for debauchery and idolatry.  Tuval Kayin’s inventions were great for farming but also for homicide and mayhem. It’s not history; we are not accounting for the dates of the Bronze Age or the Iron Age. It’s Mussar, designed to tell us how to control all new inventions but not have them control us. Every invention is morally neutral, with positive and negative qualities. Rashi says that the sons of Lemech failed in their understanding and embrace of the new technology and let themselves be swept away by the immoral possibilities and their potential for evil and dehumanization.

That same potential exists in all of us, until we internalize the notion that everything created is primarily for the glory of G-d and must promote His service.

 

 

 

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4 responses to “Not-So-Smart Phones

  1. I enjoyed reading your essay on my phone on the bus. Unlikely I would have otherwise had the chance.

  2. Rabbi Pruzansky said: “We always see the good, the benefits and the advantages in every modern invention but rarely internalize the downside…”

    This precious and profound Pruzansky point should be publicized perennially in powerful periodicals.

    Many great technological advances have been weapon-ized, making the world more violent and less safe. I no longer believe that technological progress is the path that leads to increased happiness. Now I believe that increased happiness is primarily the result of everyone practicing: VeAhabta LeReacha Camocha, love your neighbor as you love yourself, by not harming others in any way, as is taught by our divinely-revealed Torah.
    ___________________________________
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    https://shilohmusings.blogspot.com/2017/08/defeat-terror-with-torah.html
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    How intermarriage harms Jewish
    sovereignty over the Land of Israel
    :

    http://shilohmusings.blogspot.com/2016/11/guest-post-joshua-chapter-23-verse-12.html
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    How Shabbat-desecration
    harms Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem:

    https://shilohmusings.blogspot.com/2016/12/guest-post-jeremiah-chapter-17.html
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    Why Israel’s 1967 Borders are Undefendable:

    https://shilohmusings.blogspot.com/2017/03/guest-post-why-1967-borders-are-suicide.html
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    Ancient Roman historians connected
    Jews with the Land of Israel
    :

    https://shilohmusings.blogspot.com/2017/02/guest-post-josephus-vs-muslim-liars.html

  3. Phillip Slepian

    Your final paragraph, rabbi, is very appropriate to those who fight “gun violence” as if guns spontaneously fire bullets at people with no human involvement.