I didn’t write this sermon – or the one I gave last night, or, the two I will deliver on Yom Kippur; I dictated them onto my computer screen using a programme called Dragon Naturally Speaking 10.0. Although speaking, as the saying goes, is ‘second nature to me’, dictating turns out to be anything but natural – especially when you’re using a clever IT gadget that having read all your documents thinks it knows what your going to say, and then gets it wrong… Suffice it to say, it’s an ‘interesting’ experience; quite unlike the reassuring picture on the packaging of a young woman sitting cross-legged on the couch, a laptop to her right, speaking into the microphone and smiling… maybe, she just doesn’t care that the words running across the screen next to her are gobbledygook… after all, she doesn’t look like she is trying to write a sermon!
Why have I been submitting myself to this strange kind of torture? Well, as some of you know, in the middle of April I developed a condition in my right forefinger and thumb, known as RSI – which means, ‘repetitive strain injury’. Unfortunately, tendons take a long time to heal, and I still cannot use my right hand properly.
So, why am I telling you all this? My experience of coping with RSI over the past few months, and learning to use voice recognition software, got me thinking – not just about the vagaries of having a minor health problem and turning to the NHS for treatment – but also about the increasing role of technology in daily life. There is no doubt that technology has revolutionised our lives – and not just during the past twenty years: Being at school every day, I didn’t get to see how my mother, a ‘housewife’, spent her time; so observing her daily routines during the holidays, when it was too wet to play outside, was a real revelation: I remember ‘wash-days’ – which, indeed, took the whole day; we did have a washing machine, but it was of the pre-automatic variety, so after washing each load, my mother had to put each individual item through a wringer that she operated by hand; the bathroom would be filled with steam as she laboured for what seemed like hours… I’m sure one or two people here remember it well …
For those who can afford it, technological developments, particularly in the domestic arena, have liberated millions of people from daily drudgery – many of them, housewives like my late mother. Technological advances have also transformed the workplace and the workforce beyond recognition. More recently, during the past couple of decades, technology has changed the way we spend our leisure time and how we relate with one another. A recent study by Ofcom, reported in The Times (‘Hooked on Gadgetry’ by Alexi Mostrous,19.08.10), concluded that the average Briton spends seven hours five minutes each day on media or communications activities. Apparently, in 2009, 104 billion text messages were sent; in 2004, the total was 27 billion. As the author of The Times article put it, we have become ‘hooked on gadgetry’, and with technology being all about speed, it is mind-boggling to think what the text messaging figures will be for 2014 – unless, of course, by that time another communications gadget has taken off.
But at least, text messaging – and ‘tweeting’, and visiting ‘Facebook’, and e-mailing – are all about communicating; about people making contact with one another, albeit via technology. What about the time spent each day – especially by the young – sitting alone and entering into the strange worlds conjured up in the mushrooming thousands of computer games? Of course, for many young people, playing these games is just part of their leisure time, which also includes sports, music, seeing friends, even reading. But we just have to think about that singular Ofcom statistic again: the average Briton spends seven hours five minutes each day on media or communications activities…
A few months ago, in the early days of my RSI, while visiting my favourite bookshop, Much Ado About Books – a wonderful, quirky independent enterprise in Alfriston, my eye was taken by a hardback, entitled, You Are Not a Gadget – A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier (Allen Lane, 2010). Jaron Lanier is a musician, philosopher and computer scientist, connected, both, with the University of California at Berkeley, and with Microsoft, whose achievements include ‘coining the term Virtual Reality’, ‘creating the world’s first immersive avatars’ and ‘ developing cutting edge medical imaging and surgical techniques’ – I’m quoting from the dust jacket. I thought that the book would provide food for thought for the New Year, so I read it during August. It is quite hard to summarise – but, focusing on developments in the World Wide Web, Jaron Lanier’s basic thesis is that the Internet is dominated by what he calls ‘cybernetic totalism’ – which is his way of talking about the ‘absolutism’ and ‘singularity’ which characterise how information is presented and used in the universe of cyberspace, with very worrying consequences for creativity. Lanier writes (p.48)
If a church or government were doing these things, it would feel authoritarian, but when technologists are the culprits, we seem hip, fresh, and inventive. People accept ideas presented in technological form that would be abhorrent in any other form. It is utterly strange to hear many old friends in the world of digital culture claim to be the true sons of the Renaissance without realizing that using computers to reduce individual expression is a primitive, retrograde activity, no matter how sophisticated your tools are.
Lanier gives music as an example. Apparently, digital music has ‘flattened’ musical tone. But that’s not the only problem: so much of the music accessed on the Internet is presented in disconnected pieces, rather than as complete works. Looking more broadly, Lanier argues that ‘absolutism’ and ‘singularity’ have resulted in the loss of the individual voice and the dissemination of random pieces of information, demonstrated, for example, by the rise of Wikipedia, which has become the key resource for those researching topics on the Internet. Masking the individual voices that contribute to its bank of information, Wikipedia takes on the voice of singular authority. Why read the work of any individual thinker, past or present, if his or her ideas can be predigested for you? But it’s worse than this: secondary sources have always summarised, explained and re-presented the ideas of individual thinkers; what Wikipedia and other information sites do is extract ideas from their original context, and break down creative wholes into disconnected bits of information.
But the issue is not just how knowledge and ideas are presented – it’s also why this is happening. As one of the key people involved in developing the web, Lanier is acutely aware of the idealism that fuels it – an idealism that seeks to serve ‘the hive mind’, the collective consciousness that the architects of cyber technology see emerging in cyberspace. He writes (p.144):
Typical authors of Wikipedia … implicitly celebrate the ideal of intellectual mob rule. “Edit wars” on Wikipedia are called that for a reason. Whether they are cordial or not, Wikipedians always act out the idea that the collective is closer to the truth and the individual voice is dispensable.
By contrast, Lanier, who remains active in, committed to, and enthusiastic about cyber-technology, wants to see a return to humanism, creativity, and respect for the individual voice. In place of ‘cybernetic totalism’, he wants, as he puts it, to ‘foster an alternative mental environment where the exciting opportunity to start creating a new digital humanism can begin’ (p.23). As Lanier presents these two alternatives, his disdain for the current cyber-culture is palpable. He writes (p.44):
Maybe if people pretend they are not conscious or do not have free will – or that the cloud of online people is a person; if they pretend there is nothing special about the perspective of the individual – then perhaps we have the power to make it so. We might be able to collectively achieve anti-magic.
Humans are free. We can commit suicide for the benefit of a Singularity. We can engineer our genes to better support an imaginary hive mind. We can make culture and journalism into second-rate activities and spend centuries remixing the detritus of the 1960s and other eras from before individual creativity went out of fashion.
Or we can believe in ourselves. By chance, it might turn out we are real.
There is no going back to life before computers, but there are peoples around the world who live without them, and, more important, have no intention of entering the digital age. Can we learn anything from them? I asked myself this question as I watched the four-part series about the Amish on Channel 4 over the summer (Sunday evenings, July 25th – August 15th), entitled, Amish: The World’s Squarest Teenagers. The series charted the once-in-a-lifetime expedition into the world of ordinary teenagers in Britain, undertaken by five Amish, aged 17 to 19 – two young women and three young men. Apparently, all Amish teenagers have an opportunity to experience the freedoms of the wider world before being baptized, but this televised Amish Odyssey into teenage life in different parts of Britain was unique.
Even if you didn’t watch the series, you may know a little bit about the Amish, a Mennonite Christian sect of biblical fundamentalists, whose members originally migrated from Switzerland, France and Germany to America in the 18th century. Preserving the culture of their forebears, the Amish eschew all forms of modern technology, including electricity. They also live a completely gender-defined existence: the women look after the domestic sphere, including growing their own vegetables, and the men support their large families and cooperate together to build their own wooden houses. The Amish live in small, segregated communities, regulated by strict rules, in which wives submit to their husbands, and children learn to be obedient.
It’s all very narrow, and yet, despite a very limited education, in which academic learning is restricted to the basics, reading is largely confined to the Bible, and the emphasis is on developing practical skills, the five young Amish who came to Britain, were not just wholesome and innocent, they were also thoughtful, responsive and engaging. While bewildered, and sometimes dismayed, by the antics of young Brits, they were more perplexed than judgmental, and also ready and eager to explore and enjoy those new experiences, which were clearly and simply, fun – like swimming and surfing. All in all, they came across as likeable, warm human beings, who seemed, quite frankly, to be more mature than most of the young people they encountered in Britain.
Now, as we celebrate the arrival of the New Year, I’m not about to suggest that we abandon modern technology, take flight from all the freedoms we apparently enjoy, and start living the Amish way, but maybe the Amish have something to teach us about what my partner, Jess, calls ‘the art of living’. The art of living is about living fully and deeply and creatively; it’s about finding and being ourselves and engaging with the world around us, including nature, and relating to others as human beings, who are ‘as ourselves’ (Leviticus 18:18), while respecting each person’s uniqueness. Today, on a day that is, according to tradition, harat olam, ‘the birthday of the world’, the anniversary of creation, it is fitting that we reflect on what it means to be human and to be part of the natural world.
Of course, from the outset, from the moment we created fire, human beings have been technologists, manipulating our natural environment to serve our needs. And the making of fire, and all the related technical feats we have accomplished since the first homo sapiens walked the earth, have also, always been harnessed to both creative and destructive purposes: the first human beings fashioned tools and also weapons, and in each successive epoch, human beings have been making increasingly sophisticated tools and weapons ever since. But now we have reached a point in the evolving story of humanity when, whether it is tools or weapons, the products of our labour and our ingenuity, seem no longer to be in our hands and under our control; they have begun to rule our lives.
The most sobering issues to emerge from Lanier’s critique of cyber-technology don’t just revolve around the assault on individual creativity, but also include the way in which the creativity of so many brilliant people has been channeled into weaving the spectacular electronic web around our lives, and how the cyber revolution has been driven by the all consuming thirst for profit. Access to the goods of the Internet may be free on the whole, but just look at all the advertising and the way it insinuates itself onto every web page, and is so carefully crafted to every target audience. Cyber-technology is ‘big business’, and we are its eager consumers. Of course the internet has enhanced so many aspects of our lives – not least, giving us the opportunity to shop online – and is, indeed, a lifeline to those who are disabled and/or housebound, as well as being in the process of transforming the lives of those without access to education in the poorer parts of the world. But hasn’t the time come for us to remember that human beings first developed technology to serve our needs, not to dominate and diminish us – and, so, eclipse the art of living? As Jaron Lanier, puts it (p.154):
My first priority must be to avoid reducing people to mere devices. The best way to do that is to believe that the gadgets I can provide are inert tools and are only useful because people have the magical ability to communicate meaning through them.
Lanier is talking about putting gadgets in their proper place – at the service of human beings. Today is all about recalling our humanity – not simply by gathering together, not simply by sharing this sacred service and reading from our sacred texts, but also by listening to the voice of the shofar. What better antidote to our enslavement to technology than a simple ram’s horn? What can we do with it? We can polish it, so that it looks attractive. We can blow through it, and produce sound. We can even, although it isn’t a specially crafted musical instrument, devise, as we have done, different ways of blowing to produce different kinds of sound. But that’s all we can do. And then, all that is left for us to do, is to listen; to really listen, not just with our ears, but also with our innermost beings, allowing the blasts of the simple ram’s horn to stir us and move us, to disturb our composure and wake us up to ourselves and to our lives, to our relationships with others and to our connections with the earth. As we begin our journeys of reflection and renewal, and prepare for the year ahead, may the voices of the shofar remind us to find our own unique voices, and to listen out for the unique voices of other people, and of the natural world around us. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut
Rosh Ha-Shanah Shacharit 5771 – 9th September 2010