The Impact of Technology on the Religious Personality

In an essay written on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations, Andrzej Szczypiorski, a Polish writer, addressed the question of “What kind of world will the next generation face?”1 In his essay, he asserted that society’s reliance on science and technological advancement to create a better world is mistaken.

From earliest times, he reminds us, the advancement of technology had as its philosophy the idea that Man can change the world at will. It aimed at eliminating human fear—redeeming Man from the dark, from the elements, from wild beasts, from enemies, and from the mysteries of the universe, lulling to sleep “the metaphysical yearnings without which society cannot be complete.”

He writes: “I believe the world needs a conscience more than a new generation of computers . . . no computer can replace ordinary human sensitivity and . . .

“No computer monitor can display either a person’s principles or moral choices.”

In one of his acclaimed books, 2 noted psychiatrist and Jewish Action author Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski outlines the essence of human spirituality, or the exercise of those traits and abilities that are uniquely human. Humans are different from other mammals in that they are free to choose. Moreover, they find contentment through committing themselves to goals and engaging in a responsible use of time, to self control, and to “delaying gratification” in an effort to meet those goals.

Humans are capable of self-reflection and of the self-betterment that results from it. They have a respect for one another, and are aware of their history. Thus, they can think about their purpose in existence.

But how does our constant involvement with next-generation communications (i.e., texting, chatting, micro-blogging, social networks)—and the overall multi-tasking mentality that characterizes such activities—affect our ability to be conscious of ourselves, our actions, and our behaviors?

Research on the effect of new technology on religious or spiritual activities (e.g., meditation, prayer, or contemplation) has, to the best of our knowledge, not been done. There is some research on the effect of new technology on attentiveness (as in driving3 and in students’ ability to pay attention in class4) as well as on Internet addiction5 and its impact on socialization and interpersonal communication.6 We are left to extrapolate from such research and to conjecture from our personal experiences and observations as to how we may be affected by the new technology.

Four basic areas in which technology is affecting us are consciousness/awareness, interpersonal relations and communication, our respect for privacy, and our sensitivity to truth and not hurting others.

Attention, Concentration, Consciousness, Awareness
Driving while talking on a cell phone was one of first areas of new media to be studied, as this practice raises obvious safety concerns. Early studies demonstrated that drivers talking on cell phones reacted more slowly, were preoccupied, and even remained unaware of having seen billboards they had clearly viewed.7 (More recent studies have revealed even further insight.)8

In a world in which Facebook alone makes up a whopping 9 percent of Web traffic, has an active user base of over 600 million people, and has, in certain countries, 80 percent of the population engaged in social networking, we are all vested, and to a degree, all addicted.

One of the key features of the new media landscape is the tendency to multi-task. Just recently, while in shul, I could not help but notice how the young man in front of me had his siddur, and his tallit and tefillin bags neatly arranged in front of him. Next to his tallit bag, he placed his cell phone. Later, when he stood up and moved into the aisle for the Amidah, he moved his cell phone to the edge of the table, closer to him. I wondered why he did that. Soon enough it was clear.

Toward the end of his Amidah, the phone rang. He didn’t answer it. However, when he stepped three steps back at the end of the Amidah, it was with cell phone in hand! And he was checking his messages before taking the three steps forward. How much of this young man’s attention was available for the Amidah? Just watching him depleted mine.

If a person’s attention is partly dedicated to listening for the cell phone to ring, he will be less aware of whatever else or whomever else he is currently engaged in or with. Unfortunately, this seems to have become the norm.

In classrooms, at shiurim, in the midst of conversations with friends or family, people are either texting, responding to text and cell phone messages, or, at the very least, are listening for, and open to, intrusions. Parents have been observed to be too busy texting to listen to their own children.9 A therapist colleague of mine recently had to stop a client from texting in middle of a therapy session. This superficiality in our actions and interactions is not only becoming acceptable—it is becoming the standard. “Ligen in lernen,” being totally immersed in learning, the age-old expectation, is no longer even an ideal for most. There’s just too much to do!

Since the cost of switching attention from one task to another (a.k.a. context switching) leads to a reduction in productivity, many software engineering companies, such as Google, encourage their engineers to not check e-mail during a select few hours in which they exclusively write software. If highly successful technology wizards reserve time where even they shut off all technology, shouldn’t we consider following suit?

Some of us succumb to “Internet addiction” or “dependency” and are unable to stop and exist for even a few minutes without being “connected.” This may sound bizarre, and perhaps not relevant to many. But in a world in which Facebook alone makes up a whopping 9 percent of Web traffic, has an active user base of over 600 million people, and has, in certain countries, 80 percent of the population engaged in social networking, we are all vested, and to a degree, all addicted.

When after leaving the house we realize that we have forgotten our cell phones or BlackBerrys, many of us return home. Few withstand the urge to do so, and most feel a sense of discomfort or even panic at the thought of being disconnected for even a few hours. How many of us returning home from a trip to the grocery store run to check our e-mail, often before saying hello to our spouses or kids? Does this preoccupation not lower our level of consciousness? Does it not render us only partially involved with what’s important?

In modern Hebrew, there is a saying “Bederech klal hadachuf docheh et hachashuv,” “Generally, the urgent pushes aside the important.” When one is living a life of multi-tasking, there is always something urgent. Such a lifestyle pretty much guarantees that one will never be free to set priorities and concentrate on that which is truly important.

Another highly valued aspect of the new media is its instantaneous speed. Becoming accustomed to this immediate feedback can reduce our span of patience and adversely affect our communications with our friends, and more ominously, with our children. If our children’s response-time to our questions is slower than that of our computers (and physiologically, with young children, it will likely be so), we run the risk of losing patience with our children. The loss of patience, both a symptom and a cause of the “hurried life,” creates stress and can interfere with our children’s proper development and growth. Worst of all, it allows no down time for the mind. Neurologists suggest that this may stop us from allowing ideas to cogitate in our minds, to reflect on them and arrive at deeper understandings.10

Becoming habituated to the immediacy of the responses in text-messaging may also affect our ability to delay gratification, an ability that research has shown to be crucial to success in life in general, and certainly to a religious life.

Interpersonal Communication

There is some good news, though. Dire predictions that having a Web-based community, with Web-based conversations, will reduce communication with friends and family members, result in declines in social circles, and increase loneliness and depression were not borne out by research (DiMaggio, “Social Implications,” p. 316, Eijnden, “Online Communication,” p. 656). (Except for those who had been lonely before they went online, and went online to seek friendship [Eijnden, p. 660].) Research showed that most users did not visit or call their friends any less, and Internet communications were seen as even enhancing and sustaining circles of friendship and bonds of community. We recently experienced the strength of such a connection when a very dear friend was ill and in the ICU for a number of weeks. An international community of friends and family were constantly able to be in touch, mobilize Tehillim groups, receive information, and give and receive chizuk via Facebook, all without intruding on the family’s privacy.

Despite the benefits of using various new styles of communication, there is still a downside. Many of us today would rather send a quick e-mail than call a friend about something. Calling leads us a little “off topic”; it requires preliminaries, some niceties, i.e., a greeting, a question or two about the other’s welfare before we get to the actual “more important” reason for the call. And then, before we can get off the phone, a human conversation demands a proper sign off with best wishes.

The loss of patience, both a symptom and a cause of the “hurried life,” creates stress and can interfere with our children’s proper development and growth.

E-mails require no salutations, no sign-off; there’s no need to pay attention to grammar or proper spelling. In short, none of the niceties, cum manners and formalities that have for generations served to guide social discourse. This not only debases the quality of our communication, it also renders it crass, superficial, and perforce, incomplete.

This kind of communication is no longer acceptable even among the very people and organizations that have brought us these communication forms. The second author of this article, while managing a group devoted to decreasing the need for travel via video-conferencing, nevertheless travels to visit his employees and colleagues in person for certain “sensitive conversations.” Why? Because when the stakes are high, the stakeholders take no risks; they want to capture not only the words spoken, but also the body language (the occasional glance to the boss, the eyes rolling, the bored-looking executive), the atmosphere, and sometimes, even the smell of the room. Should we not learn from this? And yet, we recently heard of an engagement that was broken via a text-message!

The quality of our communication is also diminished by our adoption of a new code of manners in which one can carry on a conversation with another live person while also typing on a laptop. This disrespectful behavior can be extremely disconcerting to someone who is hoping to be listened to. Believe it or not, at Google employees are strongly encouraged to conduct interviews using pen and paper to take notes, not computers?

Privacy, Honesty, Gossip

Much is made of the democracy of, and freedom of, communication on the Internet. Anyone can get his or her viewpoint across. And while there is much truth to that, such freedom does have its downsides, some less benign than others.

On Twitter and Facebook, 24/7 communication is valued. Constantly feeding and filling the communication airwaves—often with banalities like, “going to take a shower” —results in our knowing more about people’s private lives than we might want to. This blurring of the lines between private and public results in a loss of personal boundaries and a lowering of our sensitivity to, and respect for, privacy and modesty, tzeniut.

More ominous even than the silliness of these banalities are issues of honesty and responsibility. One beautiful aspect of the Internet is in its actualization of the freedom of speech so deeply ensconced in our Constitution. However, even staunch advocates of free speech are today calling for safeguards.

E-mails require no salutations, no sign-off; there’s no need to pay attention to grammar or proper spelling. In short, none of the niceties, cum manners and formalities that have for generations served to guide social discourse.

Martha Nussbaum, professor of law and philosophy at the University of Chicago, has written, “The power of the bloggers depends on their ability to insulate their Internet selves from responsibility in the real world, while ensuring real-world consequences.”11 Shooting off anonymously with no feeling of the need to stop and to examine the truth or falsehood of a statement and how it may affect another person is more than dangerous. It is wrong. The defense of “it’s only a blog” is ridiculous. As has been said, “Ki beapom horgu ish,” “One can kill with a twist of one’s nose [i.e., a smirk].” It is basically “gossip gone legit,” and it has had an odious effect on our readiness to accept lashon hara as appropriate.

To be sure, the new technology does have many positive uses, and most of its negative effects are not wholly new. Halachah already states one should not daven extra tefillot12 because we don’t know how to properly concentrate. And even in his day, the Chofetz Chaim found it necessary to criticize anonymous posters defaming various individuals.13 With the power of the Internet, these issues simply become exponentially greater. Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Men have become the tools of their tools.”14 The new technology is potentially a great tool. We must be careful that it remains our tool. We should not allow it to turn us into its tool.

Notes
1. Szczypiorski, Andrzej,“Humanism for the Future,” Swissair Gazette, July 1995, 36-38.
2. Twerski, Abraham J., Twerski on Spirituality (Bklyn, NY, 1998).
3. Lamble, Kauranen, Laakso, and Summala, “Cognitive Load and detection thresholds in car following situations: safety implications for using mobile (cellular) telephones while driving,” Accident Analysis and Prevention 31(1999): 617-623.
4. UNH Study: “Cell phones hurt concentration in class,” reported in the University of New Hampshire Whittemore School of Business and Economics Web site 12/27/2010. Study details can be accessed at www.unh.edu/news/docs/UNHCellPhoneStudy.pdf.
5. Eijnden, Regina, J.J.M van den, Meerkerk, Gert-Jan, Vermulst, Ad A., Spijkerman, Renske, and Engels, Ruger C.M.E., “Online Communication, Compulsive Internet Use, and Psychosocial Well-Being Among Adolescents: A Longitudinal Study,” Developmental Psychology, vol. 44, no. 3 (2008): 655-665.
6. Kraut et al, cited in DiMaggio, Paul, Hargittai, Eszter, Neuman, W. Russell and Robinson, John P.,“Social Implications of the Internet,” Annual Review of Sociology 27 (2001): 307-336.
7. Strayer, David L., Drews, Frank A. and Johnston, William A., “Cell Phone Induced Failures of Visual Attention During Simulated Driving,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 9 (2003): 23-32.
8. Fertazzo, Fabio, Fagioli, Sabrina, Di Nocera, Francesco, “Shifting Attention across near and far places: implications for the use of hands-free cell phones while driving,” Accident Analysis and Prevention vol. 40, no. 6 (Nov. 2008): 1859-1864.
9. Turkle, Sherry, Alone Together, Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York, 2011), cited in New York Times series on technology and life, 28 December 2010.
10. Richtel, Matt, “Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain,” New York Times, 15 August 2010.
11. Cited by Fish, Stanley, “Anonymity and the Dark Side of the Internet,” review of , New York Times, 3 January 2011.
12. Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 107: 4.
13. Yisrael Meir HaKohen Kagan, proclamation cited in his sefer, Zechor LeMiryam (1948 Ed.).
14. Henry David Thoreau, Walden, chap. 1, “Economy” (1849), 64.


Rabbi Aharon Hersh Fried, PhD, is associate professor of psychology and education at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University. He is also maintains a private practice in psychology, evaluating children with learning and behavioral problems, and is involved in teacher training.

Chaim E. Fried is a talmid of Yeshivot Sha’arei Torah of Grodno, Mir Yerushalayim, and Bais Medrash Govoha of Lakewood. He has an M.A. in information systems from Baruch College, and is currently employed as an engineering manager at Google.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Spring 2011.

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