What do we lose from technological advances?
Technology: from the Greek root tekhnē, meaning art, or craft.
Throughout the ages, we have marked human history by noting advances in our art or craft. The Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages punctuate humanity’s evolution, defined by the materials we have used to fashion tools. During recent decades, rapid technological developments have propelled us into the Digital Age, or the Information Age, as technology remains integral to our identity as a species, and continues to shape our everyday lives.
It is undeniable that much of humanity has enormously benefited from technological advancement. Innovations in fields such as medicine, communication, architecture and food help to define us as a culture. But as we take advantage of the benefits, perhaps we should also form the habit of asking ourselves what we may be losing through the use of a particular technology.
Considering a few examples may help us to establish the practice of questioning technology, rather than assuming it to be wholly beneficial. Perhaps the most pervasive technological innovation of Generation Y is digital-social media. We are all familiar with some form of it: Facebook, Skype, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube — the list goes on. We can stay in touch with friends who we haven’t seen in years; we can watch how-to videos and learn skills that are commonly taught on the other side of the world. The benefits of digital-social media are clear, but let’s take a moment to consider what we have relinquished through our ability to be perpetually connected.
We need look no further than our own tradition to help us consider the answer. The Talmud offers a relevant discussion regarding losing touch and staying in touch with loved ones. Tractate Berakhot, page 58b states that one should recite the blessing of Shehechiyanu (“Blessed are You… who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season”) — the same blessing said before eating a fruit for the first time in a year, or welcoming a holiday that occurs once a year — when seeing a friend after 30 days apart. Over time, scholars asked questions to further elucidate this law: What counts as a friend? What about a friend who you are not so excited about seeing? Does a family member count as a friend? What if you haven’t seen each other, but you have exchanged letters?
It can be fun and instructive to imagine the questions that might be asked today. Is exchanging emails considered “seeing a friend”? What about Facebook messages? Are they different from wall posts? What about online chat? What about video chat? Is there a difference between Facebook friends and real-life friends? Given all the new definitions of “friends” and of “staying in touch”, perhaps a more relevant question to ask is under what circumstances today can we meaningfully say this bracha? Have our relationships lost something if we are constantly in touch with everyone we know around the clock?
Consider how we raise, slaughter, and eat meat. Technological advances allow for more meat to be produced more quickly and inexpensively than ever before, and Americans are eating more of it. Again, perhaps we should pause to consider what we might have lost.
Perhaps we can learn something from the laws of kashrut and ritual slaughter, shechitah. Kosher animal slaughter entails not only physical requirements about how and where to cut the animal, but spiritual guidelines as well. For instance, a blessing is recited moments before the first cut of the day: “Blessed are You... who sanctified us with the commandment of shechitah.” In its most ideal incarnation, this process could offer us a moment for deep awareness: of human and animal, of mortality, of the power of a divine presence; perhaps, even of holiness. But could such an awareness be sustained over hours spent killing hundreds of chickens? And as consumers, does eating an abundance of meat dull us to the sanctity of every animal’s life — or even of our own?
Too often, we submit to the onslaught of technological progress, trusting that all newer inventions are necessarily better, and we neglect to think about whether or not they contribute to our reaching our ultimate goals as a society. How can we know which of our technologies are appropriate? For now, let’s challenge ourselves to ask thoughtful questions. Let’s weigh what is gained against what we might be losing. As Jews, our task is even more poignant. We must ask: Will this invention make the world a better place? A more loving place? A place where the sacredness of all life, where the divinity underlying and connecting us all, will be better recognized and cherished?
Because if not, maybe we should Tweet everyone we know and tell them that this new invention is a piece of junk.
Tiferet Zimmern-Kahan originally hails from Boston but has recently found herself covered in snow in the Chesapeake Bay watershed region by way of New York, Israel and Somalia. When not in her formal role as Americorps Volunteer Coordinator at Kayam Farm, Tiferet can be found pickling, kombuching, dancing, singing, and generally being silly yet ever so serious.
Gabriel Greenberg is uncannily good at knowing what time it is even when he's not wearing a watch. This skill has been not so helpful during Gabe's foray into casuistry at YCT rabbinical school. Luckily, his concomitant skill of dunking basketballs has come in handy in his role as an environmental educator working with the Jewish Farm School, Kayam Farm and Education Center, and being a generally itinerant teacher of life's multitudinous scriptures.