The Perils of Being Perpetually Connected

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5778/2017


Perhaps you’ve heard: After having dug to a depth of 1,000 meters last year, French scientists found traces of copper wire dating back 1,000 years and came to the conclusion that their ancestors had a telephone network all those centuries ago.

Not to be outdone by the French, an English scientist dug to a depth of 2,000 meters and shortly after headlines in the U.K. read: “English archaeologists have found traces of 2,000-year-old fiber-optic cable and have concluded that their ancestors had an advanced high-tech digital communications network a thousand years earlier than the French.”

One week later, Israeli Newspapers reported the following: “After digging as deep as 5,000 meters in a Jerusalem marketplace, scientists had found absolutely nothing. They, therefore, concluded that, 5,000 years ago, Jews were already using wireless technology.”

While the punch line is facetious, Israel has been the epicenter of many hi-tech hardware discoveries, many of which power our cell phones and lap tops, not to mention the software innovations that make our text messaging and the GPS in our cars work.

For which we ought to be grateful, I suppose. Yet, for all the benefits that technology has brought, there have been unintended consequences. For example the computer hacking that in just the recent past has led to plunder of personal information on Equifax’s database, the hack of the Securities and Exchange commission’s computers which undoubtedly has led to untold trades based on the ultimate in inside information, and perhaps most disturbingly, the hacking that occurred before, and perhaps even during, our last presidential election.

On a more personal, day to day scale, the promise of technology was that it would save us time by automating routine tasks, like paying bills. It would keep us better connected with friends and loved ones. And it has done those things – just ask any grandparent who Facetimes or Skypes with grandchildren across the country. Without recent advances in technology our lives would be impoverished in many ways.

Yet, as technology kept its promise to keep us connected to each other, to our workplaces, to libraries, data banks, e-commerce, there were some unanticipated costs. The challenge of technology was summed up in an old television ad with Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Gates. Jerry says, “Bill, you’ve connected over a billion people. What’s next?” The screen goes black and two words stand out in brilliant white: “Perpetually Connected.” Being perpetually connected must have sounded like a good idea, at least in some ad agency, but we have come to learn being perpetually connected comes with some very real human costs.

We’ve learned that to be perpetually connected is to be perpetually distracted:

  • An opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal decries the loss of productivity as workers are distracted on average every three minutes by texts and email. With no small irony, this article appears on the web site flanked by an advertisement for the Journal’s newest electronic feature: STAY CONNECTED 24/7VIA EMAIL NEWSLETTERS AND ALERTS…
  • How many text messages do you think teenagers send a day? Those of you who made the mistake of not getting unlimited texting plans can probably answer. Teenagers now send an average of 2272 texts a month.
  •  It’s hard for parents to convince their children to stay away from the screen when we ourselves can’t go a half an hour without checking our smart phones.
  • Author Stephen King said it was when he realized he was spending “almost half of each day’s consciousness” facing screens that he decided to cut back. He said: “I don’t think any man or woman on his or her death bed ever wished he or she had spent more time sending instant messages.”
  • And what about the content of those instant messages? Television writer and producer Bill Persky wrote an Op-Ed piece entitled “We’re Killing Communication” in which he complained that the new technology had brought him friends he didn’t need and updates about their lives be didn’t want, such as, “eating leftover lasagna” and “getting a colonoscopy.”

Perpetually connected. Does this describe you?  Do you need to have the cell phone at arms reach? Do you automatically check email every five minutes?  Do you respond to email, even when you are on vacation, even when the recipient has already gotten a message saying you are on vacation? When you’re on vacation, is hotel WIFI access a deal breaker?

You, my friend, are perpetually connected. Forget about wasting time – after all, faddish pursuits have always been with us – but consider the glut of information you receive that you don’t need or want. Think about it: Fifteen years ago, did anyone use the phrase, “TMI”, too much information?

Don’t get me wrong. I am no luddite; yet, in the embrace of technology, I recognize a very real dilemma. What we have gained in broad-band’s breadth, we have lost in human depth. Our connected lives ensnare us so completely that we rarely have time to think, to contemplate, to reflect. We are losing depth in thought and feeling and relationships. And there’s the irony: we may be perpetually connected to the crowd, but the closer we get to the crowd, the further we recede from those closest to us, the more we lose touch with our own souls.

In short, being perpetually connected means our public life with the crowd overshadows our interior, private lives. We may have hundreds of Facebook friends, but not many know us well.

We are not the first generation to deal with this crisis. Over the past two thousand years, periods of rapid technological change have upset the balance between people’s public social lives and their private, interior lives. What’s more, in every generation, seminal figures arose to provide strategies for reasserting the balance between public and private lives.

In his book, “Hamlet’s Blackberry,” William Powers describes the way influential thinkers negotiated periods of rapid technological change. I want to share some of their stories with you today, that we might glean from both western historical models, as well as Jewish models, a way to balance our public and our private lives.

Powers begins with the assumption that if we are being perpetually connected, we are always in the midst of a crowd. From a Jewish perspective, being in the crowd has its advantages; after all, it is through relationships that we affect change in the world, and even come to know God.

But when does the crowd become too big? For Plato, twenty-five hundred years ago, the growth of Athens as an urban center was a boon to philosophers, yet, he found that the crowd was oppressive, robbing him of time to think and reflect. He increasingly sought to be outside of the city, eventually establishing his academy in the country. Imposing distance allowed Plato to make the most of life in an increasingly, crowded, busy society. It allowed him to fulfill his teacher Socrates’ goal: Give me beauty in my inner soul; and may the outward and inward man be at one.”

Plato’s dilemma remains with us today in our perpetual connectedness; no matter where we go, if there’s a cell phone in our pocket, the crowd is always with us. A 19th century Jewish teacher suggests a way to achieve space to think. Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav was a practitioner of hitbodedut, of wandering outside in the country, thinking, meditating, reflecting, deliberating. Like the Biblical Isaac, who conversed with God in his late afternoon walks in the fields, Nachman found a different kind of connectedness, not with his fellow man, but with the heart of the Universe.

Five hundred years after Plato, the poet and Roman statesman Seneca encountered a different imbalance between the public and private spheres. Leaving the city, as Plato had, didn’t solve Seneca’s problem. As Seneca himself put it: “The man who spends his time choosing one resort after another in a hunt for peace and quiet, will in every place he visits find something to prevent him from relaxing.” The solution for Seneca was to narrow his focus from the crowd to the individual. He accomplished this most often through writing letters. Seneca found the writing of a letter as a place to have a private, reflective, moment.  Through this he found “inner distance” a way to remove himself from his surroundings, to have an audience of one other person.

In his own way, Seneca was creating the conditions for what Martin Buber, two thousand years later, would call an “I-Thou” relationship. Rather than relating to those around us as instruments to fulfill our own needs, Buber suggested that beyond such utilitarian relationships are truer, more authentic, relationships that occur when two souls connect, through the medium of God. Like Buber, Seneca aimed to reclaim a quality of presence in the world. And he wanted to do it through relationships with others.

Fifteen hundred years later, Gutenberg ushered in a period of transformative technological change, the creation of the printing press. We most often think of his invention as the beginning of an information revolution, the widespread dissemination of information that had heretofore been held by a chosen few. Yet, the printing press was an essential technology to promote inwardness. Before its invention, reading was a public activity. People didn’t read to themselves. Now, however, people could have a personal relationship with a text Reading became an immersive experience. As Poet Willliam Stafford put it: “Closing the book, I find I have left my head inside.”

Our era of perpetual connectedness has made reading a complicated business. It began with the hyperlinking of text, when certain words in electronic documents appear in the color blue, indicating that if you click on that work, you’ll be instantly transported elsewhere to learn more in depth about that topic. As a research tool, hyperlinks are a Godsend, making quick work of what used to take hours of research. But it also makes reading a less linear experience. Endless diversions appear in the text. What’s more, popular e-readers, like the Kindle or the Ipad are bundled with software that enables users to surf the web during the course of reading, toggling between sports, weather, news, email, and oh yes, the book they were reading. Why is this a problem? It’s the difference between access to information and the experience of it. Technology that encourages multitasking while reading encourages access to the detriment of experience.

For Jews, reading Torah is the way we commune with God, learn from our people’s experience, and access their wisdom. the concept of hyperlinking text derives directly from the rabbis’ habit of comparing words and phrases from one holy book to the next. Yet, experiencing the life of literature requires uninterrupted attention to narrative. Sports scores and weather maps can only detract from that experience.

Society, has on occasion, resisted technological advances. Author William Powers described his own infatuation with moleskin writing pads, a decidedly low tech way to take notes. In his book, called Hamlet’s Blackberry, he describes how Shakespeare gave his character a set of tables, which were erasable writing pads on which Hamlet took notes – in one case to remember to avenge his father’s murder most foul. An advance over the wax tablets that had been in vogue for centuries, Hamlet’s table was a small notebook of specially coated paper that could be erased and reused. The technology was so popular even Thomas Jefferson owned one. It was portable, and allowed the user to preserve just the information she needed, and nothing more.

Hamlet’s tablet undercuts a widely held assumption: that when new technology comes along it immediately supersedes what came before. In fact, sometimes the opposite occurs. Older technology enjoys a resurgence. When Gutenberg’s printing press made books commonplace, the people were inspired to write, but lacking a printing press of their own, turned to older technology – handwriting. Enthusiasm for writing led to the creation of pencils and fountain pens. Witness the more recent farm to table movement, which eschews modern food production for more traditional methods.

And sometimes, it turns out the older methods really are better than the latest technology. A few winters ago, Conde Nast Traveler magazine sent out three reporters to Moscow, one equipped with a blackberry, one with an iphone, and one with a hard copy guidebook. They were given a series of tourist challenges to complete in the frigid metropolis, such as finding a great cheap restaurant, and locating a pharmacy open at midnight. The low-tech contestant won. After the article ran, one reader wrote in: “I have traveled successfully around the world armed with nothing more than a dog eared guidebook and a friendly smile… As any seasoned traveler will tell you, the kindness of strangers can be relied upon anywhere. Just don’t be too absorbed in your smartphone to notice.”

The promise and problems of technology:

  • Plato’s retreat from the city of Athens enabled him to balance his public and private lives, so that the outward and inward might be at one.”
  • Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav’s practiced hitbodedut, wandering in the field, reflecting, meditating, deliberating, renewing his inner dialogue;
  • Seneca realized that writing was a way to establish an authentic relationship with another;
  • Martin Buber’s identified the ideal I-Thou relationship.  His aim, like Senecas’s, to reclaim a quality of presence in the world.
  • Gutenberg brought the interior experience of reading to the masses;
  • Shakespeare illustrated how the old tools are sometimes the best;

And what about today? How can we overcome technology’s persistent tendency to throw our public and private lives into imbalance?

The answer is found in the oldest Jewish practice, Shabbat. Shabbat is the Jewish antidote to civilization. It is the insistence that to be fully human, we have to regularly break our routine and concentrate on the essentials.

  • To rediscover Solitude – establish distance between ourselves and the bustling world.
  • To restore Mindfulness – pay attention to the world around us.
  • To restore interior life – pay attention to the world within us.
  • And to restore relationships – Reclaim a quality of presence in the world.

So try an experiment this week. Pick one day, perhaps even the Jewish Sabbath, and unplug for 24 hours. If you need to, put a message on your email saying you’re unavailable for a day. See what happens. Tell people you’re taking a facebook fast.

I promise Shabbat will surprise you. Mark Bittman, food columnist for the NYTimes, wrote about a secular Sabbath he took after he checked his email while on an airplane and realized he was a techno addict. He swore off one day a week and was amazed at the transformation. He wrote: ” this achievement is unlike any other in my life.”

At first, not having access to google to look up needed information will be annoying. Not being able to check email will be an inconvenience. But little by little, you should notice a change in atmosphere. You’ll be living in the present, able to just be in one place, doing one thing, and enjoying it.

Remember, even God needed to take a day for Shabbat. The Torah tells us that after six days of creation, shavat vayinafash, God took a break. VaYinafash means, and God took a breath. Pretty good advice for us, as well. And Vayinafash means something more. The word nefesh means soul. That God, shavat vayinafash means that in taking a breath, in breaking routine, God’s soul was strengthened and enriched.

In this new year, 5778, may we be inscribed for a year of spiritual renewal, perhaps by:

  • Unplugging just one day a week;
  • Rediscovering Solitude
  • Restoring Mindfulness
  • Reinvigorating our interior life
  • And restoring our relationships

That our presence might be a source of enduring blessing to each other and to the world.



Rabbi David B. Cohen
Congregation Sinai
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

©2017 David Cohen