Here’s an interesting statistic for you to ponder: in 1994, half of the world’s population had never made a telephone call. Fifteen years later, in 2009, there were 3.3. billion mobile phone subscribers out of a total world population of five billion.
The impact of new communications technologies has been enormous. The Internet certainly shaped my life, since as many of you may know, my wife Keleigh and I met through jdate.com, the leading Internet dating service for Jewish people. At the time we met, Keleigh was living in Atlanta and I in Baltimore. Though we knew a few people in common, it would not have occurred to any of them to introduce us because we were “geographically undesirable” for each other. But when I began organizing a conference to be held in Atlanta and realized I would be travelling there frequently, I changed my Jdate search to Atlanta rather than Baltimore, and the rest is history!
Some technological changes happen invisibly. The widespread usage of fax machines is such an example. When they first came into use, you might ask someone if they had a fax number, but at a certain point the question was no longer “do you have a fax machine?” but rather “what is your fax number?” Our assumptions had changed almost imperceptibly. My first fax machine purchase came in 1989 when I was the director of the Hillel Foundation at the University of Virginia. Some months later, the Hillel national office required every Hillel Foundation to have a fax machine.
Other technological devices have also achieved almost full market saturation. When is the last time you called someone and got neither a live person nor an answering machine or voice mail system? If it happens, as it sometimes does, we get annoyed. We expect that the person or office we are calling will have voice mail. Similarly, it is rare to ask an adult if they have a cell phone or an e-mail address. It is simply assumed that everyone has both.
This technology can be a blessing, but there are downsides as well. The proliferation of ways to be in touch creates an expectation of instant access, and we can be frustrated if we want to reach someone and can’t. A friend of mine, also a pulpit rabbi, reported that a congregant left him a voice mail at his synagogue on Thanksgiving day and was very annoyed that he did not return the call until late the next morning. While this was clearly an extreme example, I noticed last year at a meeting of the Rabbis Without Borders Fellows that all but one of the 22 rabbis present had a “smartphone” as opposed to a regular cell phone. This meant that all of us were able to receive not only phone calls but e-mails, text messages, Facebook postings, and Twitter tweets while we were studying together. It was nice to know that I could be reached easily in case of an emergency -- and a couple did arise -- but it also meant that I could never fully clear my head and enter completely into the discussions that we were having.
So are these new technologies good or bad?
I would maintain that, in fact, they are neither. My understanding of the Jewish attitude towards technology is that in general it is morally neutral. Virtually any technology ever invented can be used for good or for bad, but the ultimate use of technology depends on the human beings who control it. The Internet can be used for good purposes -- such as helping people to meet and form families, or raising money to help those in need. Or it can be used for bad purposes -- such as scamming people out of their money or helping pedophiles prey on young people.
Technology has changed certain of our expectations -- that we can reach anyone easily and instantly, that I can buy virtually anything and have it delivered the next day, that I can browse a restaurant’s menu online before deciding to go there. But it did not change human nature. My meeting Keleigh was facilitated by the Internet, but both of us met a lot of other people before we met each other, and we still fell in love the same way people have been falling in love for thousands of years -- through human contact.
The new technologies have in a way made the world a smaller place. You can set up a Google feed to notify you any time your name appears anywhere on the Internet. I have such a feed, so if my name appears in a newspaper, magazine, blog, or any other type of website I will know about it in very short order.
As a result of such a feed, a rabbi I know discovered recently that another rabbi had given a sermon which was highly critical of her and the organization which she runs. Because the rabbi who had made the criticisms posts all of her sermons on-line, the other rabbi’s Google feed found it and she knew about the sermon two days after it was delivered.
Most of my sermons are not posted on-line, and it would be hard for me to post them, since except for the High Holidays I speak from notes rather than a prepared text. But I do send out a “Two-minute Torah” e-mail almost every week, I have this blog, and Beth Jacob’s Voice is also put on our website every month. I know that what I write can potentially be read by anyone anywhere on the globe who has access to the Internet.
Anything posted on the Internet has two audiences; the intended one, and everyone else in the world. A d’var torah I gave on Shabbat morning is heard by a handful of people. But a bulletin article, a two-minute Torah or a blog post can be read by anyone, and I have in fact received e-mails from people all over the world who have read our online bulletin, been forwarded one of my Torah discussions, or read my blog, and wanted to share their questions or reactions to them.
As we become more aware of the fact that anything posted on-line is accessible to anyone and takes on a life of its own, I wonder if we will become more sensitive to each other.
About fifteen years ago I spent a year as a Scholar-in-Residence at a Trappist monastery in Northern California. The one really uncomfortable moment was the Easter Vigil. The liturgy of the Easter Vigil struck me as very supersessionist, positing that the whole story of the People of Israel was merely a prelude to the birth of Jesus. I got so uncomfortable that I got up and left. And the next day, a number of monks sought me out. One of them said that he, too, became uncomfortable listening to the readings. "I said to myself, how must Rabbi Charles be hearing this?"
The anonymity of the Internet has in many ways coarsened our discourse. If you read the comment sections of our local newspapers, you will be distressed at how the most innocuous news story -- say the opening of a restaurant or a store -- can bring out vitriolic, hate-filled comments. But in the last few weeks the Norwich Bulletin has changed its comments policy. Users now must register and provide their physical mailing address to the Bulletin before being allowed to post comments. Their name and address are not made public, but the Bulletin verifies the person’s identity before they are able to post. The number of comments has gone way down, but the level of discourse is much less crude and angry than before.
Interfaith and inter-ethnic dialogue programs work on the principle that if you know members of a group personally, you are less likely to hate the group as a whole. The important new book on American religion, American Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell makes this point quite well. They say -- and they have the statistics to back them up -- that Americans are being increasingly divided between fundamentalists on the one hand and secular, atheist, or “spiritual but not religious” types on the other. The broad center is rapidly disappearing. And yet, despite the fact that many Americans adhere to religions which, at least on paper, are quite intolerant, even fundamentalist Americans in general tend to be quite tolerant. I may belong to a church which teaches that everyone else is going to hell, but I also have friends and relatives who are of a different faith or none at all, and I know they are good people and going to heaven. It's one thing to hate or attack an abstraction, it's another thing when you actually know the person.
As the spread of new technologies helps us to “know” more people from all walks of life, will our discourse become kinder? Will we have more empathy and understanding for those who are not like us? It remains to be seen. The technologies available to us have changed, but the human being remains the same.