PUT THAT SMARTPHONE DOWN AND LISTEN
In my first post I summarized the introduction and first two chapters of Rabbi Ori Cohen’s book Kelim BeYad Keleinu (Tools in the Hands of Our Tools), on the “culture of the screen” and the smartphone in particular. The first chapter dealt with the effects that are seen in society and especially among youth today. The second chapter made the point that the problem lies not only with the content transmitted by the medium but with the medium itself: communications media affect our very essence as speaking beings.
The third chapter focused on the threat to childhood in the sense of a space where the child is protected and given a chance to learn and mature, and also to the development of a caring and responsible adulthood. Whereas the medium of print required the child to learn and study in order to gain access to the adult world, and encouraged the development of abstract thought, the screens give children access to adult content without effort and thus short-circuit the process of maturation. Jewish culture, of course, is based on the study of written material and on personal relations between teachers and students, and among students.
Rabbi Cohen’s fourth chapter, “The Electric Revolution,” begins to discuss the stages that led from the culture of the book to the culture of the screen. The first was the invention of the telegraph.
What the telegraph did was to “abolish time and space as factors in human communication,” and thereby change its essence. When told that the telegraph enabled a person in Maine to talk to one in Texas, the American writer Henry David Thoreau quipped, “What would they have to say to each other?” This, however, was precisely the point. With the abolition of these limitations, communication became anonymous and addressed to no one in particular. “Mass” communication had begun.
Things speed up
Furthermore, as long as the speed of transmission was limited, the quantity of information that could be transmitted was also limited. Instantaneous transmission meant a flood of information transmitted without regard to its relevance to the recipient. The recipients would become increasingly overwhelmed with “news” from all quarters which they had no way of sorting out, assimilating, and responding to. This would lead to a growing sense of helplessness and passivity. News about the world we live in would become a form of entertainment.
Before the invention of the telegraph, news for the most part could travel no faster than humans could travel. (There were, of course, systems of beacons, smoke signals, and carrier pigeons, but the use of these was very limited.) Humans existed within conditions to which they were more or less adapted. With the telegraph, new conditions were created to which we were required to adjust. Whether we really could adjust to them, of course, was another matter.
All this, Rabbi Cohen points out, is diametrically opposed to the kind of communication Judaism values. “The one who says a thing in the name of the one who said it brings deliverance to the world.” (Avot 6, 6) The Jewish way of life relies on transmission from person to person.
The flood of information from all sources interferes with the atmosphere of the beit midrash, with the establishment of the teacher-student relationship, even with communication between parents and children. The immediate availability of information short-circuits the toil of the learning process which is essential to absorption; the speed of communication militates against deep thought. Instead of relating to the past, the future, and eternity, the person is forced by the speed of communication to stay glued to the present moment, which is a form of slavery.
The person is constantly distracted, has difficulty concentrating.
Rabbi Cohen writes that our sages compared the yetser hara to a fly, and “zevuv (fly)” was also the name of an idol. “The fly is a creature without rest, you almost never see it in one place for long. Thus the yetser hara disturbs the rest of man, stirs him up with constant stimuli so that he cannot think in a settled manner.” In a similar vein, the mysterious workings of all the electric devices create a “culture of magic (kishuf)”: people are so impressed with all these “wonders” that they seldom stop to relate to them critically.
The speed of communication leads to “globalization”: “The world has become one small global village.” Here I would interject that the term “global village” (originating with McLuhan) is something of a misnomer. Whatever the faults and merits of the many and varied primitive cultures that once existed, real villagers knew with whom they were dealing. The electronic revolution does not return us to primitive, oral culture but pushes us forward into a kind of homogenized chaos that is totally new.
Connecting to our soul
Toward the end of this fourth chapter, Rabbi Cohen cites HaRav Kook to the effect that redemption will arrive when each person is connected to the root of his soul.
“When man forgets himself and his soul,” writes Rabbi Cohen, “he forgets his G-d.”
At the beginning of the chapter, Rabbi Cohen compared the influence of Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph, to that of Darwin. Darwin studied animals and drew conclusions about human origins that many perceived as threats to traditional faith. (HaRav Kook, by the way, was not afraid of these threats; he held that evolution could be reconciled with faith through Kabbala.) But the influence of Morse, writes Rabbi Cohen, was greater, because his invention attacked the structure of consciousness itself.
Thus, the great struggle for faith today is not only the struggle for the specific content of belief. It is the struggle for concentration, for the capacity of the mind to relate to G-d.
Rabbi Cohen’s fifth chapter is entitled “The Iconographic Revolution” and tracks a shift from verbal to pictorial communication which began in the early 19thcentury with the invention of the camera.
As with the telegraph, this invention produced changes in human perception that occurred unconsciously. Among other things, Rabbi Cohen notes that the mass production of images opened a channel of communication which does not depend on words. The language of images is a universal language, not bound to any particular culture nor dependent on any level of education.
The image creates an impression of reliability, it seems like “evidence.”
It freezes reality at a certain moment and “immortalizes” a past that is never shown as it really was. Unlike a painting, which requires the painter’s subjective input, the photograph appears “objective,” created without human involvement. The use of the camera trains people to see the world in terms of subjects for photographs which serve as a substitute for visual memory; it has been shown that after photographing a scene, people tend to forget what it actually looked like! It often seems as though instead of the photograph commemorating the event, the event itself comes to take place for the sake of producing photographs.
Thus the immediacy of experience is sabotaged. The tendency of the image to replace reality was amplified when, with the cinema and the video, sound and motion were added, creating a still more convincing illusion of reliability.
Rabbi Cohen begins discussing the deeper implications of the “iconographic revolution” by citing Maimonides’ definition of imagination.
Defining the imagination
The imagination is that faculty which retains impressions of things perceptible to the mind, after they have ceased to affect directly, the senses which conceived them. This faculty, combining some of these impressions and separating others from one another, thus constructs out of originally perceived ideas some of which it has never received any impression, and which it could not possibly have perceived.
For instance, one may imagine an iron ship floating in the air, or a man whose head reaches the heaven and whose feet rest on the earth, or an animal with a thousand eyes, and many other similar impossibilties which the imagination may construct and endow with an existence that is fanciful. In this regard, the Mutakallimun have fallen into grievous and pernicious error, as a result of which their false theories form the corner-stone of a sophistical system which divides things into the necessary, the possible, and the impossible; so that they believe, and have led others to believe, that all creations of the imagination are possible, not having in mind, as we have stated, that this faculty may attribute existence to that which cannot* possibly exist.
Thus, according to Maimonides, imagination is a vital faculty insofar as it allows us to retain impressions of what is absent, but as “fantasy” it can allow us to construct unreal impressions of things contrary to the laws of nature. The visual media, writes Rabbi Cohen, tend to amplify the “fantasy” aspect of the imagination, causing us to accept unrealistic images as substitutes for reality.
The entire advertising industry is built on this negative aspect of the imagination – on fantasy – and of course strengthens it. The result is that commerce – and politics – have come to depend more and more on fantasy.
Pictorial language versus mature discussion
While verbal language appeals to reason, visual “language” appeals to the senses and the emotions. Thus it cannot convey abstract ideas or inner realities. Insofar as images replace words, they prevent the person from expressing their inner reality, and even from formulating it. Again, whereas written language requires years of education to understand, pictorial language is intelligible to a two-year-old, and thus tends to short-circuit the process of maturation.
Rabbi Cohen notes that since the beginning of the twentieth century there has been a decline in the ability to describe things verbally. After all, description is not necessary when one can show a picture!
In short, an environment of artificial visual images results in a life focused on externals, until the person becomes simply an “image” in his or her own and others’ eyes. “Image” replaces character.
Again Rabbi Cohen notes that all this is the diametric opposite of the focus HaShem wishes us to have. As we recite in the Sh’ma daily, “and you shall not go astray after your heart and your eyes which you go whoring after.” In the Yerushalmi (Brachot 1 halakha 5) R. Levi adds: “The heart and eyes are two panders for transgression.” Rabbi Cohen cites a number of sources in which the Torah warns us not to follow our eyes, not to be drawn away by externals from inner reality. The very essence of the yetser hara for sexual immorality is the following after the eyes. Even if the content of a given visual display is not immodest, visuality itself is a kind of training for immorality.
Television exposes our children
Rabbi Cohen’s sixth chapter is entitled “The Invention of Television.” Most of what Rabbi Cohen said about televion can be extrapolated from what he said about the telegraphic and iconographic revolutions. By bringing these two revolutions into the home, television exposes the child to the adult world without protections.
In a footnote, Rabbi Cohen cites a passage by Rabbi Daniel Shalit which points out that this medium has specific political consequences for us as Israeli Jews. Rabbi Shalit writes:
All that pertains to the Jewish people is imperceptible to the senses… and the same is true of the land of Israel. True, it seems like an object that can be photographed like any other. But something essential is missing: the peculiar property of Israel, which is a spiritual property…. Moreover, the land of Israel is a task, it is the ground and foundation for a certain human destiny. All this is not sensual, it is not visual, it isn’t “media material.”
This is the kind of muteness of the Jewish argument: Moshe is “heavy of speech” because what he has to say is so difficult to express, it is transmitted only to those who want to understand and actively try to understand. It is an argument of the depth, not of the surface. On the surface it is possible to show an Arab house that has been destroyed and its inhabitants sitting on the ruins. That is photogenic, and it makes people indignant. But – why was the house destroyed? What did its inhabitants do? Whom were they serving? What was the goal of their organization? Who is funding them? How just are their claims? What is the historical truth? Oh, that is the subject for research that would be too long and expensive and would demand a commitment to truth…
So once again we see that as the media revolution attacks the essence of humanity, WE, the people Israel, are its prime target – our consciousness of the soul, our system of education which seeks to mold man in the tselem elokim, and our very land, the ground on which we stand by virtue of a long history, of bonds and commitments not visible to the external eye.
Or as Rabbi Cohen will put it later on:
“This is a world war between the culture of Israel and the culture of Edom.”
Computers stunt growth
Rabbi Cohen’s seventh chapter deals with the computer, the internet and the smartphone. Briefly, concerning the computer, the main point made is that it tends to replace human knowing and thinking. Rabbi Cohen makes a strong argument for the proposition that the use of computers in education is stunting. The Internet with its astronomical quantities of information multiplies the problem of “information overload” to infinity.
The smartphone combines the harmful aspects of all the other inventions and adds that of complete privacy. Now whoever wants to look at forbidden sights does not need to sit at a computer where others can see what he is looking at. There is no need to go in search of temptations and distractions; they are all there in a pocket-size package and can be accessed at any time. Many and varied phenomena are discussed in this chapter, and all of this is material that parents and educators should be aware of. The principles, however, have been stated in previous chapters. The eighth chapter summarizes the various kind of damage done by the media.
In the second section of the book, Rabbi Cohen proceeds to the question of our possible response. How do we fight back? This will be the subject of my third and final installment.