Klal Perspectives: Technology and the 21st Century Orthodox Community
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The Time In Between
Our world has been transformed into a place that would hardly be recognizable to people a generation or two ago. A tap of a button can provide access to all the world’s information, navigate you to anywhere on Earth, or launch a video chat with a family member across the world. Within the Jewish sector, Torah is transmitted throughout the world in audio, video and text form in a matter of moments, and the elaborate network that is the world wide web creates chessed connections and tzedakah opportunities of which we have only dreamed. The benefits to the Orthodox community are unprecedented and life changing.
As technology has become easier to use and access, we have grown comfortable being connected at all times. Many who carry smartphones have come to consider them as an extension of themselves. They are the last thing we put down before we fall asleep, and the first thing we pick up when we awaken. Our phones are our constant companions, the address we turn to when we are bored and want some stimulation.
In my work as a User Experience Engineer, I study the intersection of people and technology, including the needs, perceptions and issues people have with digital devices of all kinds. As a result, the effect technology has on people is of prime interest to me, and making technology easier and more useful is the goal of my work.
In recent times, it has become increasingly common to see people multi-tasking, using technology to fill every free moment for digital productivity or relaxation.
It goes something like this: There’s a moment of downtime too short to get anything real done. Maybe you are waiting for a bus or in a check-out line. Maybe you are in your car waiting for your spouse or child to come out of your home, or at a chasuna (wedding) waiting for the kallah to walk down the aisle. So you pull out your smartphone and catch up on your e-mail, message your WhatsApp group or check in with what your friends are doing on social media. After all, it’s a moment of downtime. You might as well get something done. What’s there to lose?
A Time to Plan
As it turns out, there is quite a lot. Recent studies have shown that these moments of mind wandering are important for us, giving us a much-needed opportunity to reflect and plan. Filling that time up with other tasks can rob us of something the research calls “Autobiographical Planning,” the time we take to contemplate and plan what we are going to do in the future. You might say it’s akin to what we would call cheshbon hanefesh, taking time to assess who we are, what we want out of life and how we are going to get there. When we pick up our phones to fill that time, we are losing something of value, an opportunity that is vital to our futures.
Further, when we bombard ourselves with constant stimulation, many of us start to feel stressed out from it. Instead of having time to relax and think, we feel like we are constantly on call, constantly in demand with no respite.
In fact, this insight is identified by Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzatto (the Ramchal) in his epic work Mesillas Yesharim as essential to our spiritual progress. When Moshe arrived to rescue the Jewish people from Egypt, the verse says they could not listen to him “mikotzer ruach u’mavoda kasha” (from shortness of spirit and hard work, Exodus 5:9). The Ramchal writes, “In reality, this is one of the most clever devices of the evil inclination – to mount unrelenting pressure against the hearts of men so as to leave them no leisure to consider the type of life they are leading… It is this consideration that underlay the counsel of the wicked Pharaoh when he said, “Let the work be heavier upon the people…” His intention was not merely to deprive them of all leisure so that they would not come to oppose him or plot against him. He was determined to strip their hearts of all considered thought by means of the enduring, interminable nature of their labor.”
Pharaoh understood that any available down time provides an opportunity to think, to contemplate what’s important and plan better futures. His primary goal, the Ramchal explains, was simply to distract the Bnai Yisrael from thinking, which he knew would inevitably lead to a commitment to self-determination and a yearning to serve G-d instead of him.
This, the Ramchal teaches, is the ingenious ploy of the yetzer hara, to stifle any tendencies we might have to pursue a path of spiritual growth. The yetzer hara “knows” that if we feel like we are busy, we will not take the time to think about what we are busy with. In this respect, the smartphone is the perfect “pocket Pharaoh.”
We live under the illusion that constantly filling our time with “productive” activities makes us productive. In reality, though, we frequently fill our time with non-essentials that simply make us feel overwhelmed and stressed out. And when we feel overwhelmed – when we feel like we don’t have a moment to spare, without open space between our activities – we lose the opportunity to think about what has happened and recognize our mistakes. Worse yet, we lose the opportunity to plan better futures.
A Time to Contemplate
It is a well known psychological concept that information that is learned over time with breaks in the middle, is more likely to be retained long term than if it were learned in one block. Called the spacing effect, it has shown that cramming a mass of information into our brains will be less effective for long term remembering. We need time to think, to digest what we have learned, whether in our learning, per se, or in life in general. Rashi, when commenting on the word Vayikra at the beginning of the parsha by that name, discusses the significance of the “breaks” in between G-d speaking to Moshe. He says that the breaks are there in order to “give space for Moshe between each topic.” We are talking about the most perfect teacher ever, G-d, delivering information to the model student. However, Hashem understood that Moshe would need time between each topic to contemplate, digest and commit them to memory. And if Moshe needed it, how much more so do we need it?
In addition to digesting information, the space in between activities also gives us an opportunity to turn the ideas over in our mind and see them from new angles that we may not have understood when we first heard an idea or experienced something in our lives. Having ideas percolate around in our minds gives us an opportunity to develop them further. As we turn ideas over in our heads, we come to understand them more clearly, we remember them better and they become part of who we are.
A Time To Introspect
It’s not only planning and developing ideas that fall by the wayside when we fill up every free moment. We also lose the opportunity to get to know ourselves. Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski poignantly tells the following story about how he discovered this. He recounts:
After completing three years as the clinical director of the Department of Psychiatry at St. Francis Hospital, I decided to take a vacation. I was thirty-eight years old and it had been three years of constant stress with no day and no night. I decided to go to Hot Springs, Arkansas for vacation because I wanted peace and quiet with no interruptions. I wanted to just sit and relax, and take advantage of the opportunity to enjoy the spa and soothe my bad back. I got into the whirlpool and said, “This is so wonderful! This is just what I wanted. No one can reach me.” After a few minutes I got out of the whirlpool to move on to the next item on the agenda, a massage. The attendant said, “Where are you going? You can’t get a massage until you’ve been in the whirlpool for twenty-five minutes. That’s the way it works.” So I got back into the whirlpool. The next twenty-five minutes were absolute hell. I didn’t know what to do with myself.
When I got back to Pittsburgh, I said to a therapist I know, “Three years in constant stress and I took that well but I can’t take five minutes in paradise? I don’t understand.” The psychologist said back: If you ask people what they do to relax, they say, I knit, I read a book, I watch baseball. They are telling you what they do but that is not relaxation; that is diversion. Real relaxation is just sitting back and doing nothing. When you were in that hot spring, they took your diversions away from you and without them you were left immediately in your own presence. It’s very difficult to be in a room alone with someone you don’t like. There must be something inside of you that you dislike so much you can’t tolerate yourself for more than five minutes.
Through this, I came to realize that I did not know myself. It was unbelievable! Here I was, 38 years old, and I did not understand what made me tick! It took a few years of searching and internal work to really like the person that I saw in the mirror. After a few years, I was able to go back to the hot springs and sit there for forty minutes with no problem.
When we spend every moment busy with something else, we are engaged in diversions that prevent us from understanding ourselves. Who am I? What are my strengths, and what are my weaknesses? Why do I react certain ways in this situation but not in other, similar situations? Self-awareness and understanding come from ongoing, meaningful introspection. When we fill up our available time, we lose the opportunity to get to know ourselves.
Where Was I Before I Rudely Interrupted Myself?
So if planning, contemplating and introspection are so valuable, you might think all you have to do is turn off the phone and set aside some time when no one can bother you. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. When Gloria Mark and Victor Gonzalez of the School of Information and Computer Science at UC Irvine observed people in the workplace, they found that, people tended to switch activities approximately every three minutes despite not being finished with a task. Moreover, half of the interruptions were self-imposed, meaning the individuals were the cause of their own interruptions. And once someone got sidetracked, it took an average of twenty-five minutes to get back to their original task. Getting interrupted is costly indeed, and we do it to ourselves.
In addition, new research from the last couple of months shows that even having a phone out on the table in front of us distracts us from what we are doing and impedes our performance. The authors of the study believe that just the reminder that there is a “broader social network” out there distracts people from the task at hand. One does not even need to interrupt themselves in order to become distracted.
How Do We Get Hooked?
Most of us know intuitively that the way we use technology is negatively affecting us. We know we shouldn’t browse the web while ignoring the children who need our attention. So why do we keep on doing it? Why does technology have such a hold on us? One possible explanation is the “fear of missing out” phenomenon, the attraction that many have to keeping up with the most up-to-date happenings. But that does not explain our behavior entirely.
It turns out that a powerful chemical in our brains called dopamine is likely what is driving us. This is the same chemical that fuels drug and gambling addictions. Hashem created us with brains that seek fulfillment for our needs and with feelings of pleasure associated with meeting those needs. Without this, we wouldn’t do things like eating or reproducing. When we see something that we anticipate will cause us pleasure, we get excited and our brain is flooded with dopamine. The desire for the pleasurable feeling of dopamine in our brains is the reason for many healthy behaviors but also for addictions and compulsions.
That desire is even stronger when the reward does not come consistently. If every time we perform a behavior, we get a reward, then our brain receives some amount of pleasure. However, when the reward is variable, when we don’t know whether our behavior will bring us to our goals or not, the dopamine levels go through the roof. This explains why services like e-mail, text messaging or social media are such powerful compulsions. We never really know whether looking at our phone will bring us an update that is interesting, uplifting or informative. That anticipation, that “not knowing,” is what drives us to keep checking again and again.
Some Solutions and Thoughts
What can we do? Is it possible to overcome this type of temptation? At this point, as society is so swept up in the awesome capabilities of technology, there is precious little guidance as to how to overcome these hurdles. While these are by no means complete or authoritative, I would like to offer a few humble suggestions.
In order to cultivate your downtime you need to protect it by setting boundaries, both on your time and on the technology. For example, it may make sense to set quiet times for yourself, such as a specific hour on a Sunday or every weeknight after 10pm. During that time, your phone gets turned off and you are not available. That time is non-negotiable. For some, it may make sense to start with smaller boundaries. Deciding not to take out one’s phone while in a supermarket checkout line or while eating lunch provides a short opportunity for one to reflect. It doesn’t always have to be an hour or evening. Creating small opportunities is helpful as well.
As far as the technology, the relentless notifications on our devices are an unnecessary assault on our peace of mind and can be turned off or limited. E-mail newsletters can be cancelled (or moved to a secondary e-mail address you don’t check as often). Do we really want a 10% off sale at Lowe’s to distract us from our davening, spouse or job?
It’s tempting to view responding to a text as just a momentary interruption that has no real effect on what we are doing. But as the research cited above shows, even a quick interruption or a phone sitting on a table in front of us can distract us and prevent us from accomplishing our goals. Ultimately it’s about creating boundaries we are comfortable with, that reduce unimportant interruptions in a manner that fit our lifestyles and needs.
Busy or Productive?
There is a tendency to confuse being busy with being productive. Often, we add things to our list of to-dos that keep us busy but don’t actually advance us toward any of our goals. Some of us to want to “do everything.” There are so many opportunities in the world, so many commitments, so many desires that we frequently end up being pulled in multiple directions. Instead of trying to do everything, choose the items that are most important to you and then commit to focusing on them to the exclusion of all else. Keep in mind that the goals you are setting aside are not lost forever. You are just choosing to focus on what is most important to you for the time being. Later on, when you reach this goal, you can move on to the one you set aside. The decision to focus on one task or goal, while initially feeling limiting, will ultimately feel liberating when you get to where you want to be.
Be More Mindful, Be More Self-Aware
Of course, all of this is easier when we train ourselves to be more self-aware and think more about what we are doing. If we are able to pause and think twice before we instinctively reach to respond to a notification, we are more likely to have that time to think and contemplate. The mussar yeshiva of Kelm was well known for focusing on behaving thoughtfully, on always striving to think through their actions. In the secular world, the practice of mindfulness or meditation helps with creating space between thoughts and actions. Rather than thoughts and emotions immediately leading to action, creating a small space in between allows us to behave more mindfully.
No matter the method, the goal is to act more deliberately, to think twice before acting in order to deliberately cultivate that downtime. Ultimately, success in this area requires being aware of our actions and pausing to think about them beforehand. And of course, we won’t do it correctly the first time. It’s going to require trial and error along with repeated practice to be successful.
A More Mindful Future
As we begin to realize the power within this new world around us, we are only starting to grasp the downsides. As someone who is a technology enthusiast, I believe that this future can bring benefits far beyond what we expect but it will also bring challenges. Learning to harness the power while making sure it doesn’t overwhelm us is one of the subjects that must be studied on an ongoing basis. After all, technology should work in our service, rather than the reverse. I look forward to a time in which we use technology mindfully and in a way that benefits ourselves, the Jewish community and the world at large.
Daniel Weiss has a Masters degree from Carnegie Mellon University in Human-Computer Interaction and is the founder and director of The Dvash Project, an organization that creates opportunities for marriage minded singles to meet through interactive shiurim and events.
 Schooler, J. W., Mrazek, M. D., Franklin, M. S., Baird, B., Mooneyham, B. W., Zedelius, C., & Broadway, J. M. (2014). The middle way. Finding the balance between mindfulness and mind-wandering. Psychology of Learning and Motivation – Advances in Research and Theory (Vol. 60). Elsevier Inc. http://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-800090-8.00001-9
 Chapter 2: An Explanation of Zehirus. See also Chapter 5: Obstacles to Zehirus and How to Avoid Them.
 González, V. M., & Mark, G. (2004). “Constant, Constant, Multi-Tasking Craziness ”: Managing Multiple Working Spheres. CHI ’04 Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 6(1), 113–120. http://doi.org/10.1145/985692.985707
 Mark, G., Gonzalez, V. M., & Harris, J. (2005). No task left behind? Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems – CHI ’05, 321. http://doi.org/10.1145/1054972.1055017