As technology advances I sometimes wonder if we are becoming more primitive in our interpersonal interactions. This is not a new idea of course. Many others have raised this issue through research and inspiring videos that warn us to ‘look up’. The message is simple: instead of increasing engagement, technology is increasingly enabling disengagement.
Turning Our Backs on Each Other
The image here is potent. Over time there’s been a shift in how people communicate: moving from facing each other (no device), to having a device between us, to turning our back to one another in order to catch that ‘awesome selfie’. Next we will be communicating with robots instead of humans, and this is not a fantasy, chatbots already exist.
Some believe that technology is just adding more opportunities to engage. The reality is that these opportunities are mutually exclusive. We cannot at the same time have a deep engaging face to face conversation while also turning our backs on the other to take a selfie or answer a phone that beeps. Research shows that we are actively disengaging, and worse still, unlearning both body language and essential interpersonal skills. Not only is our quality of face to face engagement becoming worse and less frequent, but our actual skills and abilities for quality face to face communication are being destroyed!
When we interrupt a stream of conversation and wedge technology between us, we are replacing quality with quantity. What we are doing is choosing to detach from the present to capture yet another moment, rationalizing that it’s better not to miss out on what’s going on around us then being focused on the person in front of us. It’s what they call in economics an ‘opportunity cost’. We know we’re giving up depth, but we are so addicted that we choose quantity instead, believing it is somehow better.
What we don’t realize is that the depth that we lose in the present is actually worth much more in the future. Depth of communication and relationship is what creates meaning and value in our lives in the long term. More does not mean better. When we choose quantity over quality, the future we are building is actually void of the extra bit of connection we could have gained and carried with us into the future. This false belief that more is better is so extreme that it is driving our most intimate interpersonal choices in unbelievable ways: 1 in 5 people ages 18-34 admit to using their phones during intercourse.
Disengage to Engage
Technology in and of itself is not the problem. Technology is merely a tool. How we use it, and don’t use it, is a choice we make as individuals and societies. It can bring out our worst only if we let it. Technology can be addictive, and just like any addiction, it requires some regulation and a lot of self control. The only way to mediate this psycho-social phenomenon is through making conscious choices. This is what makes us human, the ability to go against an urge and to choose otherwise.
That’s were Judaism steps in. Through all the seemingly unnecessary laws and details Judaism actually trains us to be conscious of ourselves, often going against our urges in order to ‘do the right thing’. In Judaism we can find an antidote to our increasingly disengaged society.
I am first to admit being guilty of being addicted to my phone, and I always laugh (somewhat nervously) that if I wasn’t keeping Shabbat I would be totally addicted to it, just like so many people are. “Thank G-d I keep Shabbat.” The age-old adage that “as much as the Jews keep Shabbat, Shabbat keeps the Jews,” is so on point when it comes to breaking phone habits.
Shabbat also helps build depth in our relationships through encouraging real conversations. By switching off from the rest of the world for 25 hours on Shabbat, we enable ourselves to switch in to those in our immediate proximity – the ones nearest and dearest to us, who we often ignore the rest of the week because ‘they’re just there’ and we somewhat ungratefully and unapologetically get used to them. Shabbat forces us to disconnect to reconnect: to ourselves, to Hashem, and to one another.
Facing Each Other to Forgive
Then there’s Rosh Hashana. Before Rosh Hashana we are commanded to ask those we have wronged during the year to forgive us. Every year it seems like an insurmountable challenge emotionally and physically to ask for forgiveness. It is so hard to let go of hurt, to be ‘the bigger one’ in an argument, to swallow some ego and actually approach the other person and apologize. Every year this challenge seems harder and harder. Maybe the root of this challenge and the challenge of technology-enabled disconnection is actually related.
As we turn into a global community that is quick to judge each other while standing safely at a distance behind the screen, it seems only logical that we also find it harder to face each other when we need to apologize. Have you noticed the abundance of apps that exist these days that revert or delete sent emails and messages. Even the technology we build shows us that more is not always better. We are so quick to say our 2 cents that we need these same devices to help us revert our actions two seconds later. We train ourselves for speed, multitude and facelessness. So when we need to face-up to the other of course it is becoming more and more challenging.
Apologizing forces us to face people. Rosh Hashana forces us to go deep, to slow down and face one another. Rosh Hashana forces us to connect. No wonder we need two days for this, even in Israel.
We are told that even Hashem, who can do anything and everything, doesn’t grant forgiveness until the person you have wronged has forgiven you. He implores us to be brave in building bridges, in facing one another, and in building our world with one another. We, people, human beings, have to be the source of unity, and when we are, we create the space for His presence.
The holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed through baseless hatred. It was a people to people conflict and although they didn’t have technology back then, they too did not face each other. We know that whatever happens in the physical realm is mimicked in the spiritual realm. When people could no longer face each other, the two angels that faced each other in the holy Temple, actually turned away from one other. As a result, Hashem’s presence, His Shechina, withdrew from us also.
Only baseless love can bring it all back. Only real unity between people can bring true spiritual revelation. Only when we will choose to create limits on quantity and choose to face each other in quality, can we build a happy connected future.