Tuesday, January 31, 2012

It's A Small World -- And Getting Smaller

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.


Aaron said...

I read a Victorian novel recently which argued that the technologies we invent and apply as tools become extensions of ourselves, thus implying that in fact as technology grows we do in fact change.

When I saw this post linked on your Facebook account almost two months ago, I started reading it, and was pulled away, but I left the tab open on my iPad, knowing I would eventually get back to it. Well, I finally did, and if I'm late in posting a comment, then I suppose I'd better make it thorough.

I find myself frustrated by two facets of modern civilization you describe.

The first is the expectation that you can get in touch with anyone you need almost immediately and at any time, or acquire whatever you wish to acquire almost immediately. The desire for instant gratification is a natural instinct, but only in the past couple of decades has it been consistently achievable for anyone beyond the ultra-rich. The result of this ability being widespread has, I believe, imbued the youinger generations with a false sense of self-importance.

The second is the rising polarization of cultures around us, and the increasingly callous way in which views are expressed. Anonymity carries an element of safety, in which people can say what they will and never be held accountable. Some might argue this is desirable, that it is in accordance with the first amendment. I don't believe that was the intent of the first amendment. The freedom to say what you will without fear of prosecution, and the freedom to say what you will without fear of identification, are two entirely different things.

I hadn't throught to so closely link these two gripes until reading your post. Here is how I see it now, in logical progression:

Technology provides for immediate gratification, therefore people gain a sense of self-importance, therefore people are less inclined to give credit to opposing views, therefore more communication is adversarial in nature vice collaborative.

In the meantime there is a supplemental effect:

The ability to communicate anonymously via the internet leads to less restraint and forethought being put into what actually gets said, therefore stated views tend to be more absolute and less tolerant, therefore communication tends to consist of less actual discourse and more butting of heads, therefore people on one side of an issue tend to become alienated from people on the other and vice versa. Additionally, those communications see a larger audience, so the number of people alientated from each other is larger for any given communication.

Aaron said...

This of course is the general effect, if you examine the population as a whole. Obviously there are still plenty of people who are not hateful and prejudicial just because they were one of the first to buy a smart phone.

I think there is a different effect taking place, now that I think about it. Maybe the existence of the internet really has opened the world to people, and the polarization and callousness we are beginning to see is the natural human response. People who cling to absolutes are generally people who are afraid of alternatives which they do not understand. Could the internet be presenting people with a sort of information overload? In other words, the fact that there are so many points of view, all so radically different, and all perpetually knocking on the virtual door of your laptop, which has increasingly become your window to the world; if that world is now far more diverse and more condensed, is it not likely that people who are less secure in their own points of view feel threatened by this, and feel an increased need to seek out others to collectively agree on something in an attempt to shut out the clamor?

In this sense, I believe you're right. Human nature does not change, and the fact remains that many humans are very insecure. The age of mass communication and the whole world at your fingertips has just given them a lot more to be insecure about.

Is that bad? I don't think so.. But I do see it as a challenge.