I am uncomfortable with my dependence on everyday technology. I constantly check my phone — “for the time,” I tell myself, though I know it’s for the little, red notifications. The number of times I look at my email on desktop eludes quantification. It remains open all day as I work, leaving me vulnerable to Gchats and Container Store coupon alerts. And if I go out and leave my phone at home, I feel deeply unhinged.
This discomfort stems from many aspects of modern technology. I don’t like that being attached to my tech removes me from the physical world. I hate that I could be looking up and around (at birds? the sky? other people?) but instead remain in my cellphone’s glass and indium tin oxide confines. I consider Google an evil monster corporation (in spite of its original slogan, “Don’t be evil”) because it’s just too big to be good, but I used it moments ago to search “cell phone screens made of” to write that last sentence.
To overcome my moral tech dilemmas, I started thinking, “What would rabbis do?” (Actually, I didn’t. I performed some Google searches on tech use ethics and a rabbi’s blog post came up in the mix. This led me down a rabbit hole featuring a surprising number of blog posts and articles in which rabbis discuss how religious Jews can ethically engage with their tech. They included lots of embarrassing stock art.)
I’m not a religious Jew myself, but I did take comfort in the fact that there are rabbi-approved reasons why we should be using technology. Still not sure what they’d think of my propensity to mindlessly scroll through my phone’s news app in search of BuzzFeed listicles, but I’ll take whatever guidance I can get.
1. Technology is good because it brings disparate Jewish communities together.
Rabbi Jason Miller, in true rabbi fashion, begins his technology blog post with a wise question: “So what’s a rabbi doing writing a technology blog?”
Thanks to Miller’s blog, titled “Jewish Techs,” we learn that being a rabbi and being a techie is not mutually exclusive. The son of a computer consulting company owner, Miller took over as the company’s president in 2010 and has long been interested in how the internet can connect Jews from all over the world.
“Instinctively I knew that the ability for a rabbi in New York to teach a class to Jews in Chile, and for Jews in Butte, Montana to order kosher meat on the Web, would significantly alter the proverbial borders of the Jewish world,” he writes in his blog’s introductory post.
Globalization has certainly had its ups and downs, but sharing cultural practices and ideas across formerly unreachable communities is pretty cool. Just the other night I had a hankering for Gujarati dal, and a woman in India walked me through the recipe on YouTube. And if you haven’t heard of “Queering the Map,” then you should probably go ahead and do that now. You’ll find that the internet can indeed be used for good.
2. Technology can bring Jewish families closer together.
Not only does our everyday tech connect us to strangers all over the world, it also connects us to people we know, like our own family members. However (dis)pleased we may be about that fact (sometimes I don’t need a play-by-play of my mom’s trip to the department store), Rabbi Marci Bellows makes a good point about the plus side.
“About six years ago, my father was ill during the High Holy Days,” she writes in The Jewish Week Media Group. “My mother, who worked at the time as the cantor of our home synagogue, had to go in to sing and help lead these holiest of days. My sister flew home to Chicago to help out, and she was sad that my father was unable to attend worship. My father calls himself the ‘kveller feller,’ and he just beams whenever my mother sings. Thanks to the proliferation of cell phones, my sister was able to attend services, dial my father, and allow him to feel like he was there, even from his hospital bed.”
You can’t argue with the benefits of giving the “kveller feller” access to his singing wife. However, I do see where this can go too far. If everyone feels like they’re entitled to experience anything remotely, will they stop getting up from their couches? Then again, that attitude discounts the experiences of people with certain disabilities or illnesses. Tech ethics are hard.
As much as I hate to admit it, Facebook has been the most reliable way for me to communicate with my friends who live in Denmark and Italy. I wouldn’t have been able to promptly congratulate one on their recent engagement last week without it. Plus, there are some times when I’m okay with my mom sending me her department store updates — like if she wants to buy me a dress but decides to send me a picture first to make sure I like it.
3. Blockchain is literally the solution to everything, including religious doctrine.
If you’ve been following tech news in the past year, you’ve probably seen numerous articles like this: “Company X is Putting Thing Y on the Blockchain.” (Blockchain, in case you don’t follow tech news, describes a decentralized ledger that makes “cryptocurrencies” like the much-buzzed-about Bitcoin possible.) Such headlines are usually accompanied by text about how company X is going to “disrupt” product Y’s industry because it has “blockchain solutions.” Seriously, people have ideas about how this technology can change industries ranging from “entertainment” to food.
Rabbi Andrew Bloom believes there’s a blockchain solution for religion. What’s the problem, you ask? “The roots of our shared traditions are based on events and individuals that cannot be historically verified,” Bloom writes in the Times of Israel blog. The lessons of sacred religious texts, like the Torah, may also have been distorted over time.
With blockchain technology, Bloom argues, this wouldn’t happen. To grossly simplify, a blockchain is made up of a number of different “blocks,” together creating a public, permanent, immutable record of information. “The verifiability and auditability brought about by this, now public info, printed onto the commandments allows us to ensure each piece we use is part of the original revelation at Mount Sinai,” Bloom writes. “Now, once our structures get viewed or studied, nobody ever has any concern over which version of the commandments came first because with the public timestamp we would have totally auditable authenticity.”
He’s not actually suggesting we go back in time and do this, but that we consider it for “new commentaries and interpretations” of religious texts, so they can be accurately credited and chronologically ordered. I’m not sure if tracking and putting timestamps on people’s ideas has much practicality or potential, but anything that could help hold people accountable for lies they tell could serve us well in this political climate…
After much consideration of these fine rabbis’ points, I’m not more convinced than I was before that existing with my phone as a sort of fifth limb is a good thing. However, I am certain that using your everyday tech to learn new things, keep in touch with loved ones, and potentially hold people in power accountable for their lies counts as ethical.
So maybe I’ll work on making my tech use more deliberate. I’ll use it when I have a specific purpose and not because I’m bored or wish somebody was texting me. For instance, rather than passively sifting through my phone for the next BuzzFeed listicle, I’ll actively seek it out for the purpose of bringing myself joy.
Header Image via Christo on Giphy.