March 21, 2013
On slavery and memory
Judaism is a religion that likes symbols. The Passover Seder table is full of them: There’s the salt that can represent tears or bitterness, the wine as metaphor for blood, the unleavened matzah as a symbol for humility, and so on.
In the Passover story itself, one of the deeper areas for symbolic reflection is slavery: We can be slaves to our physical desires, to our craving for honor, even to our need for certainty.
Today, there’s a very modern strain of figurative slavery, the notion that we can be enslaved by informational “pollutants.”
I came across this idea while reading “The Sabbath World,” by Judith Shulevitz, in which she writes about the “pollutants of communications overload: the overabundance of information that turns us into triagers and managers, rather than readers; the proliferation of bad or useless or ersatz information; the forces that push us to process information quickly rather than thoughtfully.”
Drawing from the work of David Levy, a professor at the Information School at the University of Washington, Shulevitz cautions that “if we don’t fend off these pollutants, we risk becoming cut off from the world, rather than more connected; less able to make wise decisions, rather than better informed; and, in the end, less human.”
We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Pretending to listen to someone while sneaking a look at our smart phones to check the breaking news or see if anyone has e-mailed us in the last … er … 30 seconds?
Shulevitz quotes a techno-addict trying to deprogram herself: “I love technology. I’m not a Luddite. But I realized it was a problem when I would sit down to check my e-mail and it was almost like I would wake up six hours later and find I was watching videos of puppies on YouTube.”
Mixed in with the amazing privilege of being able to access virtually any information in seconds is the slippery slope of allowing technology to run our lives.
This is the slavery of virtual connection. I am wired, therefore I am.
The funny thing is, the demon has been outed. We all know it. We hold our smart phones in our hands and in our beds knowing full well that technology now runs our lives. And yet …
Someone once asked me: What good is Judaism if it can’t make our lives better?
There’s one sure way, I responded, that Judaism can make our lives better: It promotes deep reflection. The very text of the haggadah demonstrates this. It is storytelling interrupted by countless questions and commentary.
We probe, we try to understand, we look for lessons, we seek to improve.
It is this value in our tradition that can free us from informational pollutants — our inclination to keep asking questions until we feel the tingle of a possible answer.
In Shuvelitz’s book, Levy provides one possible answer when he equates informational pollutants with real-life pollutants:
“Much as the modern-day environmental movement has worked to cultivate and preserve certain natural habitats, such as wetlands and old-growth forests, for the health of the planet, so too should we now begin to cultivate and preserve human habitats for the sake of our own well-being.”
With a Maimonidean sense of moderation, Levy adds that “just as environmentalists no longer try to shut down factories or get rid of cities, information environmentalists should not try to slow down the pace of life or limit the information revolution.”
Instead, he says, “We will need to cultivate unhurried activities and quiet places, sanctuaries in time and space for reflection and contemplation.”
I know what you’re thinking: That sounds a lot like Shabbat.
Well, yes, it does. But Shabbat per se is not the only antidote to our technology addictions. The idea behind Shabbat is equally important, that state of awareness and contemplation that puts us in touch with how we are leading our lives.
That Shabbat state is always available to us. It’s the spiritual smart phone of our souls that can be turned on at any time to reconnect us with our humanity.
Just as commercial smart phones connect us with the digital world, spiritual smart phones connect us with the very pitfalls of that world.
If we remember to carry them, these spiritual phones will sound alarms when we ignore our loved ones during dinner in favor of a digital screen, or when we’re tempted to waste our lives away watching funny puppies on YouTube.
Because any power that enslaves is usually pervasive — whether it’s informational pollutants or our primal appetites — our vigilance must be pervasive as well.
Maybe, then, we can say that the antidote to slavery is watchfulness or, if you prefer, continuous memory.
We must be wired for memory so we can remain free.
The seder table, where for centuries Jews have been reflecting on their ancient story, is the ultimate instrument of memory. It doesn’t just tell us to remember, it tells us to remember to remember.
As Shulevitz writes at the end of her book, “We have to remember to stop so we can stop to remember.”
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at email@example.com.