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Get Smarter Than Your Phone

Get Smarter Than Your Phone

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Get Smarter Than Your Phone

 

That, kabbalistically understood, the smartphone is nothing less than the flower of technological wisdom is a proposition I ventured to put forth in a recent article on the innermost chochmah of this wondrous pocket appliance.

The proposition, to my flabbergasted consternation, was not received with big smiles and open arms by all readers! In the discussion appended to the article one finds a number of biting comments. Mushka D. laments: “Almost daily I see people bumping into each other just because they do not see anything besides the screen of their phone.” Rick Brown muses: “I see families in restaurants, parents and children all reading or texting on their phones. Occasionally there is a verbal exchange without taking their eyes off the phone. This is progress?” A reader who goes by the happy sobriquet Wunder-Lust warns: “The fullness of an expanded human consciousness is much more than the sum of technological gizmos.”

Now I do hope these critics will at least thank me for acquainting them with a kindred soul who, while reviewing my article before it was uploaded for publication, offered an incisive, cutting, painfully smart criticism along the same lines—namely my dear colleague and co-editor, Yaakov Ort. With his permission, I am here reproducing his criticism, with its exquisitely straightforward cry from the heart and its diamantine eloquence.

… I very much disagree with the conclusion that “the smartphone is the flower of technological wisdom.” It is, I think, the opposite: the key enabler of a technological dystopia.

I guess I’m one of those social critics who does lament our lemming-like self-abandonment to virtual existence, which is, after all, so much easier than in-person interactions where one cannot hide behind his or her computer screen. Yes, I do believe that the “smartphone dimension” is a toxic illusion of reality, and no, I don’t believe that this is a distinctly cavalier dishonesty just because I’m communicating my thoughts by email. Yes, I do think that the distance between two people on Skype is categorically different from the distance between two people sitting together at a table.

. . .the “smartphone dimension” is a toxic illusion of reality ...

There is more than one shade of reality (or non-reality) to “virtual” reality. First, there is the virtual reality of words and words alone: hearing about or reading about your new grandchild without having seen or held her. The second form is cooing with her over Skype from a great distance. The third is the perfectly silent, wordless “virtual reality” of holding her in your arms.

A smart metaphysician may see no difference on the loftiest levels of abstraction between these “virtual realities”, but I do believe that a wise one like you should. At the crux of the issue for me is the all-important distinction between what it means to be smart and what it means to be wise.

In short, no, I don’t think I’m a hypocrite because I earn my living trying to connect otherwise disconnected souls through electronic media. Yes, we need to use all available technology to communicate the truth. But let’s not fool ourselves that on balance the negative impact of the words and images available to us, and in fact imposed on us and our kids by smartphones is a good thing in itself. It’s not.

In addition to the often poisonous content available on smartphones, far worse is the illusion of the connectedness by smartphones and other electronic devices, and the shattering of authentic communication between husband and wife, parent and child, teacher and student, friend and beloved that requires actual real, in person presence. The world is far more than the words that we use to describe it, and no, you can’t really smell the spaghetti unless you’re in the kitchen.

Anyway, that’s one Luddite’s view.

I hope my readers will appreciate how sincerely and humbly grateful I must be to have the opportunity to work with colleagues like Yaakov Ort who are of course as far from Luddites as sunlight is from the dark side of the moon.

What can be said to such a truly smart criticism? And we might recall the neat, somewhat antiquated expression one can use upon accidentally cutting into one’s finger with a kitchen knife: “That smarts!” The criticism cuts right to the bone of the issue.

To begin with, as a general guideline to approaching any question of this type, namely any question concerning technology, we may recall a very apropos story about a certain yechidus, a “private audience,” with the Rebbe. (Arnie Gotfryd refers to the story in a very fine article on the topic at hand.1 ) A young family came into the Rebbe’s chambers with their special burdens. They had with them their little girl, five years of age or so. By the end of the meeting the precocious child, who had been respectfully quiet throughout the palpably meaningful event, evidently had something to ask the Rebbe. The fact of her burning question became acutely apparent as the family was heading toward the door, shushing the little girl from wasting the precious time of the man carrying the burdens of multitudes upon his shoulders. “Yes,” the Rebbe interrupted their exit, now focusing his entire attention upon the five-year-old girl, “tell me, Rivkale, what is your question?” The parents froze in their tracks. “Rebbe,” she asked, with obvious profound concern, “is nuclear energy dangerous?” The Rebbe, we can be sure, smiled in great delight at the precocious acumen and anxiety of this little Jewish soul. And he had every intention of addressing this far-seeing anxiety with perfect seriousness and due wisdom. “Tell me,” said the Rebbe, “in your kitchen, you have knives, don’t you?” “Yes, Rebbe, lots.” “Do you suppose a knife is a dangerous thing?” asked the Rebbe. “Well,” considered the thoughtful interlocutor, “it depends on how you use it.” “You see,” explained the Rebbe, “nuclear energy is very much the same. Whether it’s dangerous or not really depends on how you use it.”

Applying this guideline to the question concerning smartphones and correlate information technologies, we want to know: How, specifically, do we use such devices in a way that is not dangerous? There are at least two questions at stake, one quantitative, one qualitative.

The Quantitative Question

Quantitatively, there is the issue of how much time we spend on our smartphones. We can hardly dismiss Reb Yaakov’s suspicion that the distance between two people Skyping on a phone “is categorically different from the distance between two people sitting together at a table.” If virtual human interaction were to replace real physical interaction, Heaven forbid, then our world might indeed become a “technological dystopia.” How could anything ever replace the warmth of a hug, or of a simple handshake? How could any electronic screen, no matter how hi-res, ever capture the gleam in the eye of a friend or the Mona Lisa subtlety of her smile? How could an electroacoustic transducer (“speaker”) ever generate the scrumptious resonance of a human voice which is never simply a flow of sound-waves poured into one’s ear but is, even beyond any quality issue, a kind of mini-climate in which the listener finds himself enveloped? Behind the promise of “high fidelity” sound does there not lurk a yet higher treason?

How could anything ever replace the warmth of a hug, or of a simple handshake?

The same Chassidic sage on whom I relied to compose my rhapsody on the smartphone, it must be noted, gives us an unimpeachable example of the value of personal, embodied contact between human souls. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi offers the following metaphor to explain the workings of the kabbalistic sefirah of yesod, “foundation.”

It is the bond by which the father binds his intellect to his son’s intellect while teaching him with love and interest, for he wishes his son to understand. Without this, even if the son were to hear the same words from the mouth of his father (while he speaks and studies aloud to himself), he would not understand them as well as he does now when his father binds his intellect to him and speaks with him face to face, with love and passion, because he very much desires that his son understand. And the greater the passion and delight of the father, the greater is the influence and the study, because the son is able to receive more and the father influences more.2

This example is especially relevant because it relates to a situation in which the content of the communication is very much at issue. We are not told about how the father gives his son hugs and kisses as a matter of pure paternal affection and how no amount of letter-writing, for example, could replace such tenderness at close range. The latter is also true of course. But the example of Rabbi Shneur Zalman underscores the fact that the very communication of information cannot attain its full force and meaning, that the information cannot sink to the required depth in the mind, if the son cannot see the unique twinkle in his father’s gaze, the nuanced gestures, shiftings, and aura of his father’s entire physical presence as he imparts the lesson, if he cannot feel the warmth of his father’s hand on his own or the pat on the back when he asks his father a good question or offers a good answer.

There simply can be no question, in sum, of replacing such fully embodied “I-Thou” sessions by disembodied electronic ones. The minutes we spend with our smartphones each day must be intelligently rationed so as to protect eye-to-eye contact from being overrun by eye-to-screen-to-electrical-signals-to-satellite-to-more-electrical-signals-to-screen-to-eye contact.

The Quantitative Question Qualified

At the same time, to haul the entire length of the dividing line between the “real” and “virtual” toward the other extreme, to insist on a total or even a high degree of commitment to the “physical” aspect of communication, would be, not just a fallacy of Neo-Luddism; it would be a misplaced nostalgia, a mirage of “good old days” that in fact never existed, not even in the blessed Garden of Eden. The allure of this mirage is grasped specifically by Chabad teaching with greater dexterity and firmness than by any other system of thinking. The bold message of the tradition that culminates in the Shaar HaYiḥud vehaEmunah says, radically and without misgivings or apology:

REALITY IS VIRTUAL.

All reality is virtual. Without remainder, through and through. Reality is made up words, G‑d’s words, the words that G‑d uttered during the six days of creation.

Human reality is doubly virtual, moreover, because the human being is defined in his essence as haMedaber, “the speaker,”3 and hence embodies in microcosmic fashion the essence of this cosmos that is constituted as dibur, the “spoken word” of G‑d. The phenomenon popularly designated as “virtual reality” (internet, video games, smart phones, etc.), therefore, is just one specific, localized manifestation of the general human condition.

Long before smartphones and the internet were around, this profoundly virtual character of the human condition was evident in our passion for the written word.4

When a certain would-be chassid of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn expressed his distress at being unable to become personally acquainted with him due to geographic constraints, the Rebbe assured him as follows. “To the one who asks what his connection is to me when I do not know him on a face-to-face basis ... True connection takes place by means of Torah learning. When he studies my Chassidic maamarim, reads my discourses […] herein lies the connection.”5 The term feebly translated as “connection” here is hiskashrus, a code word for the profound spiritual bond between a chassid and his rebbe. It is the same word for the “bond” cited above between the father and son learning Torah together in a setting of total intimacy.

True connection takes place by means of Torah learning.

In a similar text, Rabbi Shneur Zalman assures his beloved chassidim, “with whom words of affection have been frequently exchanged” face to face, that his book, the Tanya, will have an effect not totally unlike that of a personal audience if they only apply themselves to it: “May my word percolate to them and my tongue be like the scribe’s pen …. since time no longer permits of replying to everyone individually and in detail on this particular problem.”6

And the constraints of time are transcended within the “virtual” dimension of the word still more radically than are the constraints of space. When a disciple of the Magid of Mezritch once expressed heavy apprehensions about writing down his master’s living words for publication and even dared to ask the Magid why he desired such a thing, the latter responded: “Is it a small thing in your eyes that King David, peace be upon him, beseeched: ‘May I dwell in Your tent forever!’ (Psalms 61:5)—by which he meant: in both worlds?”7 Death itself shall have no dominion over the communicated word.

What such texts seem to ask us to consider is how communication technology, precisely in its “virtual” dimension, can be a red rose in full bloom of a kind of physical reality for the metaphysical reason that physical reality as such, as physical, is itself constituted as the roots of this rose, or the stalk of the rose, or the rosebud.

None of this, again, can serve to refute Reb Yaakov’s vital distinction among the three shade of “virtuality” of “virtual reality” mentioned in his criticism. As Rabbi Shneur Zalman would no doubt say today: Quantitatively speaking, every single minute that a grandfather spends discussing Torah with his granddaughter by Skype which could have been spent in the same discussion at the kitchen table must be counted a minor tragedy.

Therefore, indeed, I very much share the anxiety of my dear friend Yaakov about playing with knives.8 And here arises the other question. For it is by divine providence that both Yaakov and I find ourselves, by vocation, with our sleeves rolled up, cutting the virtual mushrooms and onions for our conjoint gurgling virtual spaghetti sauce—in his kitchen beyond space and time known as Chabad.org.

The Qualitative Question

On this question, we might well worry with Rabbi Tarfon that “the day is short, the work is great, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master of the house is urgent.” (Pirke Avot 1:15)

As I mentioned all too cursorily in my previous article, while our passion for communication has become clearer than ever in this brave new Age of the Smartphone, in terms of the content of what is being communicated, the great flood of sentences pouring in around us still needs to be channeled into better, more decent, holier, smarter words. If smartphones become nothing more than opened flood gates for pulp information, frivolous twittering, an electronic tarrying with the trivial, and a forum for gossip boys and gossip girls, then we remain cultured philistines afloat in a diluvian-wide alphabet soup.

We must be careful not to recklessly draw the conclusion from the teaching that the world was made by Ten Utterances that all communication is good. Heaven forfend! It is to the extent, and only to the extent, that each and every word uttered or written by human beings takes pains to root itself in those specific Ten Utterances, the utterances of the Mouth of G‑d, the one source of all possible meaningfulness in the cosmos, the fountainhead known as the Torah—it is only to this extent that human communication can have any genuine value.

“When one speaks words of Torah, one arouses the Supernal Speech, thereby unifying the Divine Presence [Shekhinah].”9

In a discourse published in 1980 based on talks delivered in the 60s, the Rebbe makes a radical statement about the technological advents of the telephone and of the radio, which statement, mutantis mutandis, applies to smartphones and to their primary information basis, the internet. The statement is based on the radical teaching of the talmudic sage Reish Lakish regarding the raison d'être of gold. Why did G‑d create gold? What is the purpose of this enchanting yellow metal in the grand scheme of things? If the question seems bizarre to our contemporary ear this is only because we live in a state of spiritual exile wherein gold’s degraded value alone is manifest. For Reish Lakish, the true, transcendent, supernal value of gold was painfully apparent. Hence his problem: “The world was really unworthy of enjoying the boon of gold. Nevertheless, it was created for the sake of the Tabernacle and the Temple, as it says, ‘And the gold of that land is good’ (Genesis 2:12).”10 Human beings have certainly used gold for purposes other than the ornamentation of the Tabernacle and the Temple, but all such uses, without exception, are a degrading insult to gold in its essence.

The world was really unworthy of enjoying the boon of gold. Nevertheless, it was created for the sake of the Tabernacle and the Temple

Now the Rebbe’s radical statement follows tightly upon this logic. He applies to the “secular” technological wisdom behind the invention of the telephone and radio the same extreme value judgement that Reish Lakish applies to gold.

This is how the matter sits with our issue [of technological wisdom]. When the Zohar connects the advent of secular wisdom with the disclosure of the (inner dimension of the) Torah11 … this itself is an indication that herein lies the entire purpose of this advent. [...] Its true purpose is that secular wisdom itself should be utilized for the sake of Torah and mitzvot. [...] For example, when one uses a radio to broadcast the inner dimension of the Torah [expounded in Chassidic teaching], the material taught regarding the Torah’s inner dimension is thereby heard in a bodily manner and ‘in all the corners of the natural world’. 12

In other words, a knife can be used for good secular purposes, such as cutting vegetables; it can also be used for holy purposes, such as slaughtering an animal for the offerings in the Temple; gold, however, has no good secular usage. Its only good and proper usage of gold lies in the sacred beautification of the Tabernacle in the desert and of the Temple in Jerusalem. And likewise, the radio and the telephone, and, by extension, the internet and the smartphone, have their only good and proper usage in the communication and broadcasting of Torah and mitzvot. This and this alone constitutes the “supernal wisdom” of a smartphone. This alone is the way to get, not just as smart as your phone, but smarter.

. . . the internet and the smartphone, have their only good and proper usage in the communication and broadcasting of Torah and mitzvot.

Halleluka!

I must conclude on a psalmodic note. And I wish to do so advisedly. Generally, I find it distasteful when writers or organizations indulge in any kind of self-promotion. In this case, however, relating to this issue at hand, it seems to me that intellectual honesty positively demands something that must seem like self-promotion, and that I would be guilty of a certain moral negligence were I to let the matter slide in the name of modesty.—

If the smartphone is indeed part of the general metaphysical blossoming of lower wisdom, i.e. of technological wisdom, and even a synecdoche (“a part standing for the whole”) of this cosmic-historical springtime, then it follows as a matter of logic and of simply opening one’s eyes that Chabad.org is, to date, the one site in view where the beauty and the fragrance of this e-flower is most evident. (Here of course I am focusing on the internet connectivity of smart phones.) This site in this world-wide web, again, to date, must be identified, openly and without false modesty, as nothing less than the very purpose of the e-revolution that is the outcome of the technological progress that has been underway since the mid-1800s.

Are there not more informative sites on the web? More politically savvy sites? More academically intellectual sites? Sites that catch your eye and your heart more easily and more quickly? To be sure and to be sure. But if Moses received G‑d’s word at Sinai, and if the Torah is what has shown humanity what it means that the cosmos was made by God’s word, “Let there be light,” and if the kabbalistic tradition that culminates in Chabad Chassidut has brought maximum illumination to this teaching—three propositions that we embrace with a resounding Amen!—then it follows as a matter of strictest logical necessity that this site that you are presently “visiting” (and as a dear old Jewish man once said to me as I was leaving his home: “Don’t be a guest!” by which he meant: “Feel at home!”) is the efflorescence of the internet, the loveliest thing to bloom on the net—until something still more fragrant with Torah is planted and cultivated in this virtual garden, may it be the full messianic manifestation now!

Which means—just to draw the most important psalmodic conclusion here—that you the frequenter of this website must openly recognize your own intelligence and spiritual sensitivity in the fact of your regular pilgrimage to this admittedly virtual yet none the less holy site.

 

FOOTNOTES 1. See The Big Knife. And cf. Tzvi Freeman’s “iSnake”. and Rochel Holzkenner’s “Can G‑d and Facebook Be Friends?” 2. R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Tanya (Vilna edition, 1900), Pt. 4, Igeret HaKodesh, Epistle 15, pp. 122b-123a. 3. See R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Sefer HaMaamarim Melukat, Vol. 2 (Brooklyn: Kehot, 2002), p. 210, where the Rebbe underscores the communicative aspect of the human being as haMedaber: כח הדיבור הוא זה שבכחו לצאת ממציאותו. Cf. Likutei Siḥot, Vol. 6 (Brooklyn: Kehot, 1973), pp. 112-116. It is true that Aristotle also defines the human being as “the speaking animal” (ζῷον λόγον ἔχον); see Politics 1253a, and cf. Ethics I:13. But this definition follows from man’s being a social animal (πολιτικὸν ζῷον) and his quest for what is good within an all-too-human cooperative venture. The unique מדבר status of man indicated by the Torah, by contrast, is derived from the individual soul’s pre-social, primordial conversation with G‑d. 4. The Chassidic celebration of virtual reality finds strong philosophical support in the thesis of the philosopher Jacques Derrida, e.g. in his Grammatology (1967), against an old philosophical prejudice that favours the putative “full-presence” of the spoken word over the written word said to lie “dead on the page.” Derrida’s Il n’y a pas de hors-texte, “there is no outside-the-text,” could be a supplement to Chassidic teaching. 5. HaYom Yom, Sivan 24 (Brooklyn: Kehot, 1943), p. 65. 6. Tanya, Introduction, p. 4a. 7. Magid Dvarav leYaakov, ed. I. J. Schochet (New York: Kehot, 1972), p. 5. The ideal of a thoroughly virtual existence is embodied in the tzadik, as is so evident upon his passing into the next world. “When the tzadik departs he is to be found in all worlds more than in his life-time” because “the life of the tzadik is not a physical life but a spiritual life” (Igeret HaKodesh, Epistle 27, p. 146b). 8. For the record, I myself acquired my first cellphone as recently as as seven years ago (2008), and my first smartphone only last November—which I picked up only because my older one broke and the retailer no longer had any simple “Nokia” phones in stock. Nor can I say that I am yet an avid user. I mention this by way of suggesting that my argument has little to do with any personal predilections. 9. Igeret HaKodesh, Epistle 25, p. 140b. 10. Exodus Rabba, ch. 35:1. 11. Zohar 116b. 12. R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Likutei Siḥot, Vol. 15 (Brooklyn: Kehot,1980), p. 46. By Michael Kige

 

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