Shabbat in The Age of Technology @ the Forward

October 17th, 2007 by Menachem Wecker

My article Shabbat in The Age of Technology is in this week’s Forward on technology abstinence. It particularly attends to an assignment in Danna Walker’s “Understanding Mass Media” class at American University in Washington, D.C., which was featured in The Washington Post’s “The Longest Day.” It’s interesting to see how some people view religion and technology as adversaries, while others strive to find common ground.

Keep reading for the interviews.

Interview 1

MW: I wonder if you were in any way inspired by the notion of Sabbath in devising the project? How did it first occur to you? Did any of the students realize a spiritual/meditative benefit to cutting themselves off from technology?
Danna Walker: I did not take into consideration the Jewish Sabbath but I have heard from many readers about this observation and I wish it were a tradition in many other religions. It is a great way to find peace. Some students did talk about paying more attention to nature, going camping and enjoying interacting with the natural world. This was not a dominant theme, however.

MW: What were the limitations exactly? Could the students not even turn on lights, or was it just entertainment media that was prohibited?
DW: I have attached the assignment, which was simple and straightforward. They could still use electricity, just not electronic media.

MW: You asked the students to do this on a one case basis. Orthodox Judaism asks for this sort of project once a week, plus a handful of holidays. Do you think the added regularity would enhance or detract from the results you discovered in the assignment? Were there any Jewish students in the class?
DW: No one in the class talked about this being part of their religious practice so I assume there were no Jewish students in the class. Maybe it’s me, but I got the impression that the task was not that big a deal for the older students but a very big deal for the younger ones (ie freshmen), which could have several meanings. I think that a regular e-media fast would take the mystery and fear out of the practice and enhance students’ lives. That’s just a personal opinion.

Interview 2

MW: What was your initial response to the assignment when it was first presented? Did any of your initial reactions prove to be realistic in retrospect?
Sara Blatchly: My initial reaction to Professor Walker’s assignment was that it was a joke. I really didn’t think that I would be able to complete the fast. I remember sitting in class last year, and hearing half of the people in the class complain to no-end about the assignment. In retrospect, I think the assignment was something that everyone should try. It really makes you realize how much you depend on technology to communicate.

MW: What if anything did you learn about media and communication from the assignment? About yourself?
SB: As a communications major, I think the assignment made me realize that we are so dependent on technology to communicate. Think about it … most people in Professor Walker’s class most likely talk through aim on their computers rather than walk across the quad to talk in person. I think the same thing goes for media. I know for myself, I get all, if not most of my news from the TV and the Internet. I honestly don’t remember the last time I went out and bought a hard copy of a newspaper.

MW: Do you think the word “addiction” should apply to the way people rely on media? Are you likely to alter any of your practices vis. media after the assignment?
SB: Addiction is certainly a word I would use to describe the way people rely on the media. Think about all of the people who were glued to the tv, or logged onto perezhilton when Paris Hilton went to jail. I know so many people who constantly carry their blackberrys and interrupt their in-person time to read e-mails or check websites. But, on the other hand, as someone who has grown up with this “addiction”, I honestly think it would take a lot of will-power to break the cycle. I thought Professor Walker’s assignment made me re-evaluate my addiction with the way I rely on the media, but I wasn’t effected to a point where I would stop my addiction.

MW: My article is particularly focusing upon how students responded to the assignment given that Orthodox Jews who observe the Sabbath will cut themselves off from everything electrical for at least 25 hours a week. Did the assignment carry any religious connotations to you? How do you think your reactions would differ if the assignment applied once a week rather than a one time affair?
SB: I think that you can certainly make a religious connotation to this assignment. As a practicing Presbyterian, I participate in lent. I think that it is easier for me to give up something, such as chocolate for lent however, as my religious beliefs are stronger than my will-power to cut back on my Internet browsing or cellphone usage. I’m not sure if I would be able to give up going online for a week, just for the sake of giving it up.

Interview 3

From Dr. Benjamin Myers, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Centre for the History of European Discourses (CHED), The University of Queensland:

Dear Menachem,

This sounds like a very interesting article, and I think you’re addressing an important question.

I must admit, I’m probably not the right person to help you with this, since (regrettably) I really haven’t given enough thought to the ethics of technology. But just to make one small point: Bill Gates has referred to the internet as “frictionless capitalism”, and it’s true that the new technology is a medium for the constant movement of capital. And as a Christian, it worries me that our entire lives are taken up in this unceasing movement of buying and selling. From this perspective, I think a “technology fast” would be a very wholesome thing; it would be the attempt to open up a small space within modern life which is not defined by relations of buying and selling. In that sense, it could perhaps be viewed as the “sanctification” of our time.

Interview 4

Mr. Wecker,

Thank you for your e-mail (and for reading our blog!). I’m not sure I can speak directly to your questions below. I can only assume, from my experience in talking with our members — 3,500+ public and private school administrators here in Washington state — that technology can be
a blessing and a curse. While technology has found ways to bring schools and students together and enhance learning, it has also raised new concerns (a la cyberbullying). Our own members struggle with not only keeping pace with the technology, but also with their students’ use of
the technology. The digital age has also accelerated the pace of life as a school administrators. (I know more than one educator who would love a technology fast, just so they can get caught up on things! :) )

So while being unplugged, even for a short time, may have its initial pitfalls, as the students in Ms. Walker’s class demonstrated, it can have many positive effects, too.

As for your question re: teachers, tech fasts and religious holidays, I would imagine most educators are respectful of religious observances and find ways to work with students so they may complete assignments on time. As our school populations become more diverse, educators must find ways to accommodate learners of all backgrounds and religions.

Not sure I’ve really added anything to this discussion, but I do appreciate your e-mail. Good luck!

Best,

Jocelyn A. McCabe
Director of Communications
Association of Washington School Principals

Interview 5

From Paul S. Appelbaum, MD, Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Psychiatry, Medicine and Law
Director, Division of Psychiatry, Law and Ethics, Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons:

I may not know entirely where you want to take this issue … But comparing the responses of the majority of students before (disbelief that they could give up their electronic devices for 24 hours) and afterwards (acknowledgment not only that it was possible, but that they were positive benefits to it) echoes the findings of the growing literature on affective forecasting. In brief, a body of experimental evidence suggests that humans are quite poor at anticipating what their emotions and desires will be under future circumstances that differ from those they now experience. These students fell into the trap of believing that their current circumstances (i.e., 24/7 access to communication and other electronic devices) were the only ones with which they could be content.

Of course, as you point out, Jews who are shomer shabbat surrender constant connectedness for 25 hours every week. Hence, the Walker experiment doesn’t really tell us anything new about whether that’s possible–we know it is. And we know that many observant Jews value shabbat for precisely the advantages that some of the students recognized: opportunities to slow the pace, connect with family, and give priority to values other than those that dominate their weekday lives. Some such Jews may have an affective forecasting problem of their own: the belief that 24/7 connectedness will bring success, happiness, and fulfillment now lacking in their lives, hence the reality to which you refer that some observant Jews elect to abandon shabbat observance.

With regard to your questions about the use of the data from this experiment, I have to respond not as a psychiatrist, but simply as an observant Jew. I think it is a mistake to rely on instrumental arguments for observance of the sabbath or any of the other mitzvot. Whatever practical benefits there might be to a day of rest from the secular world, there are costs too, and these increase as 24/7 availability becomes more of a norm. Sabbath observance should be based on a belief that shabbat has been divinely ordained, and from a desire to live in conformance with G-d’s will. At best, these data might be a rejoinder to those people who see only negatives in sabbath observance–not to persuade them to observe shabbat, but to point out how limited their perspective are.

Finally, although I am reluctant to use the word “addiction” to describe many people’s constant connectedness, I do think it’s helpful for everyone to step back from their routines and reflect on the neglected aspects of their lives and relationships. For sabbath observers that opportunity (on which some may capitalize and others not) comes weekly. For others, building in a periodic retreat from the pressures of every day life, which may include getting away from email, IM, cell phones and pagers, is probably a healthy thing to do.

Final Interview

From Ralph W. Hood, Jr., Professor of Psychology, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga:

I read to Walker “Longest Day piece.” Obviously it has relevance to keeping th Sabbath. One good example is how the Amish control technology — refusing to allow what would be detrimental to their tradition.

In a religious sense, a day of retreating from technology could be a powerful “ritual” affirming one’s own faith.

Study does not show anything new. Also, term “addiction” is inappropriate. Is like saying we are addicted to our car!

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