Put that Smarthphone down, and listen
Rabbi Ori Cohen on Media and the Torah Life
I have a friend.
The friend has a son.
The son is mentally challenged.
He used to go out and work.
He would put on tefillin.
He would go to shul.
Once he went to Uman.
One day he went out and bought a smartphone.
Now he doesn’t go out to work.
He doesn’t put on tefillin.
He doesn’t go to shul.
He lies in bed all day,
Eyes glued to his smartphone.
This post, the first of several, is addressed to anyone who has observed anything similar, also to those who haven’t noticed yet. I am writing this in the Nine Days; it seems an appropriate subject for study during this time. And afterward. As Rabbi Ori Cohen writes, “The complete consolation will only come when from this darkness a great light will appear, when something new is born that would not have been possible without this darkness.”
A few years ago, Rabbi Cohen was driving in his car when he heard a broadcast advising parents, in all seriousness, to avoid the next tragedy by placing their smartphone on the back seat next to their toddler. Apparently someone thought that it would be easier for a parent to remember their smartphone than to remember not to leave their child to die in a locked car.
The shock Rabbi Cohen experienced on hearing this announcement brought it home to him that in confronting the “culture of the screen,” as Rabbi Cohen calls it, we are dealing with a threat to life. This realization eventually resulted in a book entitled Kelim BeYad Keleinu (Tools in the Hands of our Tools).
I saw this book a few months ago in “Dabri Shir”, the religious bookstore in Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station. At last, I thought, a religious book on the influence of the media. So I bought it and have managed to get through it (my reading speed in Hebrew is not great), and I’d like to summarize its findings for other Anglos, adding a little input of my own.
The book is actually based partly on English sources, notably the work of Neil Postman and Marshall McLuhan. But Rabbi Cohen adds a Torah perspective, which both highlights the urgency of the problem and suggests ways of approaching it. You’ve probably heard a lot of it before. But there are things that can’t be said too often, and they’re the basis for any constructive thinking on the subject.
In his first chapter, “Knowing the Sickness”, Rabbi Cohen writes:
My goal on first reading is to shock the reader, even make him despair a bit….because on this subject any premature consolation is dangerous. It is important to stay with the despair. Any action to change reality has to come from a clear and unvarnished view of it.
Paradoxically, Rabbi Cohen notes, in “despair” is hope! “This is an emergency affecting our very self-definition as humans. The consciousness of it should trigger our survival instinct, awaken strengths in us which we do not have in everyday life.” As Jews, “we have bitachon, confidence, that an answer will come.”
Perhaps this is one reason why we say that Mashiach is born on Tisha b’Av.
It’s from the depth of destruction and despair that the new light breaks forth, because destruction and despair can cause us to discard self-deception, let go of false solutions and turn to the true Source of hope and counsel.
Summarizes findings from researchers in Israel as well as abroad, Rabbi Cohen tells us that as a result of the exposure of youth to the abominations available on the smartphone, violence among youth is rising even in “elite” neighborhoods. A youth may be a good student, a leader in youth groups, an officer in a combat unit, and yet be superficial, violent and callous in his personal relations, without real friends, indifferent even to his family, and materialistic in outlook.
Family members are alienated, cut off from one another. “Before our eyes another kind of human being is taking shape.” A recent study in the US showed a 40% decline in empathy among college students over the course of a decade.
Rabbi Cohen quotes Neil Postman, an American thinker who devoted several books to the problem of the media, as speaking of a “social holocaust.” (And he didn’t even live to see the smartphone, just the internet.)
The religious-nationalist thinker Rabbi Shlomo Aviner put it this way:
The smartphone is the number one enemy of the human race. The smartphone deprives man of his most important quality – the ability to think. He loses touch with his environment, loses intimacy with his wife and even with himself.
From the hareidi author Koby Levy comes the following:
When I became a baal teshuvah thirty years ago, the hareidi world was completely different. The concept of “lite” didn’t exist there… When the age of cellular uncleanness arrived, the “hareidi lite” became a frequent sight… The “hareidi lite” (and his wife, of course) treats prayer, modesty, Shabbat, Torah study, and guarding of the eyes – in short, EVERYTHING – with contempt. He disguises himself as a hareidi for social convenience, but it’s just not where he’s at…The hareidi “lite” does everything – travels abroad, eats semi-kosher, and of course dives deeply into the sites of cellular uncleanness…”Don’t preach to me, the world is modern, we need to be open to what’s going on outside the ghetto.”
Rabbi Cohen asks: “The hareidi community was able to erect high walls against the enlightenment, Zionism, modernity – why have the walls come tumbling down before the new media?!”
The content spewed over cellphones, made so readily available without any social controls whatever, is certainly a large part of the problem. (“Why do so many people not filter their internet”? Rabbi Cohen asks.) But the content is not the only problem. The deepest damage is rooted in the nature of the medium itself, regardless of what content it transmits. Rabbi Cohen explores this in his second chapter, which bears the title of the book: “Tools in the Hands of Our Tools.”
The medium is not a neutral channel; it shapes us.
The Canadian thinker Marshall McLuhan, in his 1964 book Understanding Media, coined the slogan “The medium is the message.” McLuhan’s line of thought was continued by Neil Postman in his books. Rabbi Cohen points out that this insight was actually present already in the Gemara: “The words which are written thou art not at liberty to say by heart, and the words transmitted orally thou art not at liberty to recite from writing”. (Gittin 60b)
He writes: “The saying of information, the writing of information, the visual presentation of information, the photographing of information, and the singing of information – these are different ways of transmitting content, and each form of transmission sets its seal on the information.” The content will come out different in each. E.g., smoke signals are not complicated enough to convey ideas about the nature of the universe!
The quality of a society can be told by the medium of communication it uses. “A society built around the book will necessarily be deeper and more educated, while a society that expresses messages through pictures on cave walls will be primitive and superficial.”
Here comes the first bit of input I would like to add to the discussion. Rabbi Cohen, apparently following McLuhan and Postman, misses something about primitive society, or “oral culture.” Primitive societies did not communicate mainly through paintings; those are just the things that have left traces. Primitive cultures communicated mainly through the spoken word, also “body language.”
These things aren’t “media”; they’re the person him/herself. Furthermore, because they couldn’t write things down, they had to rely on memory. And in order to strengthen memory, they developed techniques, sometimes elaborate ones, some of which survive in POETRY (that antiquated relic will be mentioned again). Information memorized and transmitted orally is different from information stored on tablets, sheets of paper or hard drives. It is part of the person, it is known “by heart.”
Oral communication has its advantages and its drawbacks. It mixes verbal transmission with “body language” (arguably the language of the animal soul!). As a result it is hard to lie in oral communication – unless of course the person wants to be lied to (wants flattery or submission, or signals that he or she is not ready to hear what you want to tell them). This may well be the source of legends about blind seers or poets – those unable to ready body language have a better chance of seeing the truth! But at least, in oral communication, people generally knew who they were talking to. And because they relied on verbal communication, many primitive societies laid great stress on keeping one’s word.
Back to Rabbi Cohen. He points out, and this is critical, that the medium of communication “is not peripheral to personality, it touches on the core point of us as humans, defined as medaber (speaking).” (Recall the fourfold division of being: inanimate, vegetable, animate, and speaking.) Unlike other technological developments (e.g. the hammer which extends our muscular strength), communications media are not just extensions of human faculties.
While inventions that extend our physical capacities change our environment, changes in communications media affect our “control center.” “The way a person expresses his inner world shapes that inner world.” While external conveniences may remain tools in our hands, with communications media we are likely to become “the tools of our tools.”
Rational thought itself is dependent on words.
“Intelligence develops within a certain communicative environment. The deeper and more complex the speech a child hears, the more his intelligence will develop. If he hears only superficial chatter he will develop a superficial personality.”
Rabbi Cohen’s third chapter is named “The Loss of Childhood” and describes a process wherein:
the developmental stages that need to appear between the ages of 7 and 17 gradually disappear, and the child becomes a miniature adult whose world is similar to that of the grownups in language, dress and style. Of course, when there is no difference between the child and the adult, this means that the adult is also diminished, so that the loss of childhood is also the loss of adulthood — in other words, the loss of the human image.
Rabbi Cohen describes the symptoms of this disappearance extensively and then proceeds to give a “history” of childhood.
Childhood, Rabbi Cohen states following Postman, is essentially a social construct. In Greek and Roman civilization the boundaries between childhood and adulthood were not yet clearly defined, and still less so in the “darkness” of the Middle Ages. Postman relates this to the disappearance of literacy, which, he believes, had just begun to define childhood in the ancient world.
It was literacy, Postman believed, that really drove the definition of childhood. The existence of a code that had to be laboriously learned for the child to gain access to the knowledge of the adult world, forced adults to form a space in which the child could be protected during the learning process. And this in turn forced adults to become responsible, caring, nurturing. From this necessity, civilization was born.
For the Jewish people, of course, the book and education were central early on, and this was part of the basis for the difference between the Jews and other peoples. With the invention of the printing press, literacy became widespread, and with it all the institutions and attitudes necessary for education. Postman viewed the invention and spread of the printing press as a great and beneficial revolution that has shaped our definition of humanness.
Here, again, a little input from me. Postman’s depiction of the “Gutenberg revolution” skips over the first great “media” revolution, the invention of writing, which, among other things, is so central to Judaism.
According to historians, writing, which has done so much to transform humanity, wasn’t invented with any lofty purpose. It was invented as a tool of commerce and government. This happened at a time when human populations had increased to the point where the small, intimate, tribal societies in which people had lived were, in large areas of the world, no longer possible, and the city and state were born.
The city and state generated quantities of information that exceeded the storage capacity of the human brain, plus the intimate social ties that had made oral transmission possible were disturbed. Writing was needed to keep track. The development of literature – the setting-down of thoughts rather than just inventories and administrative orders – followed only after writing had been around for some time.
This was the first great media revolution. To understand it, a good book to read is Eric A. Havelock’s Preface to Plato. Havelock portrays Plato’s hostility toward poetry as a consequence of the transition from a society dependent on oral traditions to one that ran on the written word.
But it was really Judaism that picked up the invention of writing and made it into a tool for spiritual advancement. Or, to put it another way, it was through Judaism that the Divine purpose of that invention was revealed.
From the spiritual standpoint, writing has several advantages over oral speech. First, it fixes the word, makes it objective, so that it confronts us and thus becomes an aid to introspection. Second, it separates the word from body language, the language of the “animal soul.” Writing is permanent and thus connects us to eternity. It can unite minds scattered in time and space. So it is not surprising that G-d not only spoke to us but also caused His speech to be written down and commanded us to study it!
At the same time, however, the sages who shaped Judaism during the time of the Second Temple took care to preserve some aspects of oral culture. They emphasized that Judaism can’t be learned just from books; you need a teacher, who not only knows the texts but also exemplifies the values embodied in them. And you need friends with whom you can talk about what you are studying.
Rabbi Cohen, after describing all the multifarious ramifications of the “Gutenberg revolution,” concludes: “To a considerable extent it is possible to say that because of the printing press the nations of the world became closer to the Jewish people…whose children at the age of three enroll in the “cheder,” lick honey from the letters of the aleph-beit, and whose service to G-d revolves around the written word….Suddenly the nations seemed close to us, intelligence and wisdom appeared in them too.” Hence the culture of the Enlightenment, which proved so fatally attractive to so many Jews.
But, I would note, the reading culture of the “Gutenberg revolution” did not pick up the remnants of orality which the Jewish tradition had incorporated! The written word was not backed up by a cultivation of mutual responsibility and trust. A German idiom coined shortly after the invention of the printing press may be translated: “That’s such a lie it could have been printed.” Whereas “all Israel are guarantors of one another,” there were and are no bonds among authors, between authors and readers, or among readers.
The Western culture of the book posed many dangers to Jewish readers from the point of content, as is well known. Is it possible that the culture of the book as a product detached from social bonds has also insidiously worked its way into the Torah world, even where the content is “kosher”? Something to think about. In any case, the lack of cohesiveness in the Western print culture has so far made it difficult for that culture to put up much resistance against the culture of the screen.
In Chapter Four, “The Electric Revolution,” Rabbi Cohen begins to discuss the genesis of the “culture of the screen” whose ultimate expression is the smartphone. This discussion will be the subject of my next post.