Sunday, September 15, 2013

Post-Yom Kippur Thoughts on Technological Teshuvah

Most actions or objects are not inherently bad, wrong, or evil. Fire can be used to destroy, but it also has positive uses such as heat, light, and a way to cook food. Money isn't evil either. It can be used for greed or it can be used to help those who are less fortunate. How we use our technology also comes with a similar conundrum.

As I pointed out a while back, whether it is our Facebook accounts, our iPhones, or e-mail, technological progress is very much a double-edged sword. On the one hand, technology is a great tool for me to keep in touch with those who do not live in close proximity. If it were not for Facebook or e-mail, I would have to handwrite letters to family and friends far away, which would be quite tedious. Social media, the Internet, e-mail, these can all be instruments to enhance our lives, particularly in terms of communication.

Conversely, technology has downsides to it, and since we're all too human, it has a way of getting the better of us with its allure. For many of us, technology is not so much as life enhancer as it is an extension of ourselves, or even worse, a form of enslavement. If someone sends a text message, many of us would feel very compelled to answer it immediately, and if we don't, it eats us up inside. The amount of time spent on social media or in front of a screen can be mind-blowing. As I was reminded of while sitting in Yom Kippur services yesterday, one of the biggest casualties of using technology as a crutch is with our social relations. Texting, Facebook messaging, and writing e-mails are no substitute for having an actual, personal relationship. Although our real friends are also Facebook friends (unless they don't have an account), that certainly doesn't mean that anyone who is a "Facebook 'friend'" is an actual friend.

What does any of this have to do with Yom Kippur?

One of the fundamentals of Yom Kippur is teshuvah. Although it is commonly mistranslated as "repentance," it literally means "return." When we talk about returning, there is always an indirect object, even if the indirect object is implied. So to what is it we are returning? In essence, we are returning to our good essence. We realize that we are more than our mistakes and errors because the potential we have to perform good acts is quite astounding. In this instance, we have to realize that we are more than our Facebook accounts or [text] messaging interfaces. We are social creatures that need authentic social interactions and intimate relationships to truly live. We are told to choose life over death (Deuteronomy 30:19), and that applies here because when we gravitate towards technology, we have opted for the virtual world instead of the real world. Instead of having a live interaction with another human being and develop intimate relationships with other human beings, it has become simpler to use technology as a form of escapism.

Since a vital part of teshuvah is about examining our lives and relationships, now is as good of a time as any to apply that to technology. A recent study about Facebook shows that one of the primary reasons people are on Facebook as much as they are is because of boredom. Going with the definition that boredom is a pervasive lack of interest in one's surroundings and perceiving them as tiresome or tedious, then one has to deal with this ennui in order not to get sucked into the abyss of technology. With all the pastimes out there, knowledge and subject material to study, and all the forms of live, social interaction, it makes me wonder how anyone can ever be bored. In order to get past this sentiment, we need to be committed to saving ourselves from ourselves. What is the first step? Much like any addiction, the first step is admitting there is a problem. Realize how precious time truly is and make the best of it instead of wasting it in front of a screen.

In this context, "making the best of it" starts by making a concerted effort to limit time on Facebook, on the Internet, and in front of a screen. I'm not advocating to completely remove oneself from technology because in this day and age, that is unfeasible. Nevertheless, there should be some time we should set aside some time to disconnect from cell phones and computers. I find one of the best ways to have a digital detox is Shabbat. Think of it: a whole day where you're not bombarded by e-mails and text messages. Instead, you get to spend that time having authentic interactions with real people. I find that non-usage to be such a tranquil, liberating part of my week--really helps with my blood pressure. If you haven't tried it, I highly recommend it.

After Yom Kippur services, I decided to make a commitment for the year 5774 to spend less time in front of a screen and more time with people. I hope that you join me in choosing the real over the virtual, the authentic and profound over the superficial. In short, I hope that we can all choose life by returning to our true selves.

This blog entry was heavily inspired by a Yom Kippur morning sermon given by R. Taron Tachman. Todah rabah!

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