At a recent program at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center on the new digital landscape, a rabbi and three prominent writers debated whether our current “Digital Overload” — as the panel was titled — is leading to a more interesting cultural environment for our children, or whether we are going down a rabbit hole of apocalyptic distraction. Unsurprisingly, no answer was declared. But the conversation was notable for several reasons.
The first was that the panelists — all of whom had children — saw themselves in the middle of a digital revolution no one fully understands, and through which they are parenting only with constant technological self-education, and wise improvisation.
The conversation was engaging as well because Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz and the three writers — Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times tech reporter Matt Richtel; Wired magazine’s Steven Levy, author of “In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives” and moderator Jonathan Rosen, author of The Talmud and the Internet — offered a behind-the-scenes look at how they digest the new technologies in the privacy of their kitchens, as opposed to the public domains of the pulpit and the newspaper.
Rabbi Strulowitz, whose Modern Orthodox congregation Adath Israel co-sponsored the conversation, noted that many children he knows are essentially addicted to their smart phones. One eighth-grade girl told him that not only did she send 5,000 texts a month, but she wrapped her phone in a zip lock bag and took it into the shower with her, to ensure that she didn’t miss a message.
This was absurd, he acknowledged. But he also conceded that the moment the Sabbath ended he turned his phone back on: Shabbat was a gorgeous 25 hours of reading and non-electronic talking, but he still felt like a smoker waiting to pick up his cigarettes.
The New York Times’ Matt Richtel backed up these anecdotes with reports from the neuroscience front. A beeping text, for instance, activates deep brain structures designed to distract us from our tasks to consider a potential opportunity or threat. Adolescents struggling with the shower/texting conundrum have to fight against an “underdeveloped prefrontal cortex,” which can’t yet control their impulses “when [the text] bombardment comes in and they have to decide if they want to text in the shower, or think a deep thought about life, spirituality or homework.”
Jonathan Rosen noted that the web has become so large and powerful that we may be blurring the distinction between the Internet as a tool (Google as search algorithm) and as culture itself (Google as the arbiter of what is worth searching for). But at the same time he used his iPhone to teach one of his daughters, who is dyslexic, how to read.
And journalist Steven Levy, who rues the constantly evolving text limit he allows his son, notes that today’s students seems to be succeeding and focusing as well as his generation did.
I wondered, in this back and forth between talk of kids and of Kindles, whether our conversations about technology and child rearing have essentially converged. For instance, Jonathan Rosen’s anxiety (and mine) about what Google or Apple is telling us about cultural values is utterly linked with our anxieties — and hopes — about how technology is teaching our kids. And our bewilderment over how Facebook is supposed to improve our public image and professional efficiency without stealing all of our time is inseparable from our concerns over how kids are creating their teenage identities online, or digitally cheating on their homework, or even foregoing homework altogether in favor of GarageBand or Angry Birds.
The panel offered some thoughtful Jewish contexts for how we can manage our changing digital world. Jonathan Rosen reminded us that the Jewish tradition asks us to use our tools to help God finish the work of creation, and therefore to see today’s digital tools as a means, not an end. Matt Richtel explained that new technologies are seductive, and are pushed by massive corporations, and should not be seen as “false idols.” And Rabbi Strulowitz, evoking the Bible’s Great Floot, explained that the sins of Noah’s generation were not big ones; they were collections of small sins that prevented moral connections between people to properly develop.
“I’m old enough to have had a grandmother who used to shout into the telephone whenever it was a long-distance phone call. My sister and I found this hilarious,” Rosen said. “But I’ve begun to see in my children’s eyes that same sense, as I talk about digital things, that my sister and I had. I’ve lived inside a digital world for 15 or 20 years, but I’m not native to it. I have an accent.”
Daniel Schifrin is writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.