Friday, September 16, 2016

Technology and the High Holidays

  Neil Postman was a professor of education at New York University. He published his last book, Building A Bridge to the 18th Century, in 1999 and passed away in 2003. Some of his works are considered classics in the field of education and I recall reading him in graduate school in the early 1980s.

          Postman was known as something of a skeptic concerning technology and maintained in his final book that many technologies are being created to solve problems which don’t exist. For example, he wrote (in 1999) that Bill Gates was working on a technology “that would make obsolete the task of locating and then sending recordings into action.  One approaches the machinery and speaks the words "Frank Sinatra" or "Pavarotti" or, if you can imagine it, "'The Spice Girls," and we hear them. May one ask, What is the problem solved by this? The answer, I am told, is speed. We are a people who measure our lives in seconds. Five seconds saved here, five seconds there, and at the end of the day, we have perhaps saved a minute. By year's end, we have saved over five hours. At death's door, we may allow ourselves a smile by gasping that we saved a month and a half, and no one will ask, But for what?”

          As a matter of fact, the technological innovation decried by Postman in 1999 now sits on the counter which divides our kitchen from our den, albeit not invented by Bill Gates and not manufactured or sold by Microsoft. It’s called the Amazon Echo and it will play music by a particular artist, in a particular genre or even a specific song upon request. It does quite a bit more than that as well. While Postman attributed the quest to develop this technology to a desire to save time, it seems to me that its main virtues are rather saving space and resources. If I buy an album or an individual song as an electronic file rather than on a CD or phonograph album (remember those?) it does not take up storage space in my home. It does not require whatever raw materials went into its manufacture nor the emission of carbons to deliver it.

          Keleigh and I also both have Kindle E-readers, and as a result we rarely purchase physical books. Since we are both voracious readers, our book collections were literally consuming all the available wall space in our previous home as well as being stacked on floors and tables and piled in boxes in our basement. The advent of the Kindle has let us keep up with our reading without being engulfed by mountains of books.

          Of course there are downsides as well. Digital technology has changed the music business and it’s much harder to make a living as a musician unless you hit it big. (The Amazon Echo actually is better in this regard than MP3 players, because it doesn’t play pirated or illegally-shared files.) E-readers and Amazon have lead to the closing of the Borders bookstore chain as well as many local, independent booksellers.

          Postman was not calling for a moratorium on technology but rather reminding us that while it has benefits, there are costs as well. He posed an important question: “Which people and what institutions might be most seriously harmed by a technological solution?“

          Technology is not going away, and in our religious school we have harnessed it to provide what I firmly believe is a better education and a better experience than was provided before. A balanced approach is called for. But as the High Holidays approach, Postman’s questions still echo. Who benefits and who is harmed? And most importantly, what are we going to do with the time we save?

Friday, September 2, 2016

Thoughts the Morning After Seeing a Bruce Springsteen Concert

If you see me this evening and I am a bit groggy, it is because Keleigh and I got home at 1:45 this morning from the Bruce Springsteen concert at Nationals Park. Bruce Springsteen’s music has been part of the soundtrack of my life. His high school was 15 miles from mine (although I am ten years younger than he is). I was vaguely aware of him even when I was in elementary school as there was a riot after a performance by his band Steel Mill at a nearby swim club. Some of the locales he mentions in his lyrics, like Madame Marie’s, Kingsley Ave. or Highway 9, are very familiar to me, and when I was in high school and he already had two albums out, I ran into him in the sporting goods department of K-Mart.

But it has been a long time since I had last seen a Bruce Springsteen performance. I’d seen him twice at the old Capital Center, once in an acoustic performance at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles when I was living there, and a couple of times at unannounced performances at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park and Big Man’s East in Red Bank. The power of a Springsteen performance is not just in the musicianship but in the stories he tells through his lyrics. The characters who populate his songs are very specific but also universal. People who have been beaten down by life but not broken. They either walk tall or don’t walk at all. They tell their boss “I’m not a boy, no, I’m a man  . . . and I believe in the promised land.”

In this week’s Parasha we are reminded more than once that we were slaves in Egypt, and that therefore we are to act with compassion towards those who have less than we do. If someone becomes poor, we are to provide them with whatever they need -- which the sages tell us means that we’re responsible not only for their subsistence but for their dignity as well. We are to have empathy for others and put ourselves in their place,to imagine what it would be like if we were they. Springsteen in his songs plays a role similar to that played by Nathan the Prophet in King David’s court.

Last night was the first time I heard Springsteen perform “American Skin (41 Shots).” This song was inspired by the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo in New York City. Plainclothes police officers mistook him for a suspect they were after. He reached for his wallet to show the police he was not the man they were looking for, one of the officers thought it was a gun, and 41 shots later Amadou Diallo was dead.

When the song first came out, the New York City police union called on the public to boycott Springsteen’s performances. This pattern is so familiar in our society where so many people want to see things as cut-and-dry, binary. If you are concerned about African-American men being killed by police, you are anti-cop. But it shows a fundamental misunderstanding.

In the song, a (presumably African-American) mother has “the talk” with her son Charles (yes, that is his name.)
She says, "On these streets, Charles

But that isn’t the only story Springsteen tells. The refrain of the song is as follows:
Well, is it a gun? Is it a knife? Is it a wallet? This is your life.
It ain’t no secret, no secret my friend;
You can get killed just for living,
In your American Skin.

Who is speaking these words? It’s somewhat ambiguous but it seems to me that the speaker here is the police officer who has to make a split-second decision. If he makes the wrong decision someone could get killed -- maybe him, maybe the suspect. I’m thankful my job doesn’t carry those kinds of stakes on a regular basis.

Springsteen wants us to put ourselves in the shoes of all these characters. The mom who knows that her son’s skin color instantly makes him a suspect; the young man who doesn’t understand why that should be and why he has to follow different rules than his white classmates; the police officer who goes to work every day knowing that he might come home in a coffin; and the police officer’s family who never really sleeps while their loved one is at work.

If we can’t see ourselves in all these people, we’re flunking the empathy test and falling short of the standards the Torah sets for us.