Technology & You: Stopping the Unstoppable[1]

It just never stops. How many times while writing this article will I be interrupted by a text, a call or an email? How many times will you be similarly interrupted while reading it? All hours of day and night we hear the pings and feel the vibrations, and we either respond immediately, or our tension and dread mount as we realize that what we have not answered immediately will be waiting for us, mercilessly demanding our attention later. I don’t know about you, but I feel like my life is spiraling out of control, in the hands of a constant pull for more and more communication. And I want to do something about it.

Technology continues to transform society and our individual lives in ways positive and negative, large and small. Given its enormous impact, it is imperative for us to regularly pause and take stock of the role that technology plays in our lives, ensuring that we do everything we can to take advantage of its opportunities without being overtaken by its challenges. But who in the world has the ability to pause and take stock?! We are too busy responding to the next e-mail.

One of our distinctive qualities is human intelligence, a capacity that enables us to act with consideration of the consequences and ramifications of those actions. While utilizing this capacity has always been a challenge, it appears to be an outsized challenge when it comes to technology. The nature of the beast is that it constantly demands our reactive attention, leaving us little space or time to pause and consider where it takes us.

Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato in the Mesilas Yesharim (Chapter 2), when presenting the value of Zehirut, forethought and consideration of our actions, cites Yirmiyahu’s description of people running mindlessly along their path in life without pausing to consider their direction.

Alas this is one of the methods and tricks of the Evil Inclination, to make us work intensely and unremittingly to the point where we are left with no space to think and to consider our direction. He knows that were we to pause even briefly to evaluate our choices we would immediately reconsider our approach and stop doing the wrong things. Indeed this was what Pharaoh was thinking when he decreed that the demands on the Jewish workers be increased. His intention was to leave them no space to think about what they were experiencing lest they begin to plot against him. He hoped to distract their hearts from any such contemplation through constant and uninterrupted work.

Is there a more accurate description of our current challenge? Yet we now have to travel the distance to live up to the balance of his analysis. Because even as we do pause at times to think about how we have lost control over our lives, we have not yet shown the ability to “immediately reconsider our approach and stop doing the wrong things.”

Put succinctly: Technology is an incredible tool. Tools are meant to be held in our hands and used to help us achieve specific ends in a more efficient and effective manner. Yet as time goes on, it seems that instead of our holding the tool of technology in our hands, we find ourselves increasingly in its grip. We need to reverse this dynamic. We need to reclaim control over our lives, wresting it back from the relentless and tightening grip of technology.

Dr. Gavriel Fagin (Klal Perspectives Fall 2015) discusses a model of self-regulation where an individual is to ask himself (or herself) some basic questions:

  • Do I feel in control of my internet and/or technological behavior?
  • Does my internet/technology behavior include viewing images or composing/viewing messages in a manner inconsistent with my beliefs and values?
  • Does my internet/technology activity produce negative consequences, such as harm to relationships, difficulty focusing, or poor performance on the job or in Torah study?
  • Do I need privacy and secrecy to continue my internet/technology behavior?
  • Do I feel overly preoccupied with using my computer or accessing the Internet?

These five simple questions are truly soul-searching, and constitute an excellent beginning for Cheshbon Hanefesh, a genuine self-assessment, in this important realm. And while many struggle with addiction to the time-wasting distractions of the internet and to its dark and filthy corners, we can begin with a focus on the areas that are not at all embarrassing.

Out of Control – and Proud of It!: Indeed it seems that some of what we have to be most worried about is that which makes us feel significant. We take pride in our constant busyness, quick response time, and multitasking productivity, and are strongly committed to fill any lull with a quick reply to another electronic query. Yet these “accomplishments” indicate a loss of control of our technological behavior to the point where it is having a profoundly stressful effect on our lives. Personally I have found this the greatest challenge.

Always “On”: The ubiquitous connectivity has completely erased the boundaries between time on and time off. We are always on, never more than a click away from our bosses, employees, customers and clients. And we are always expected to respond in a timely, virtually immediate fashion. This leaves us with a feeling that we have slowly and sadly become accustomed to: a constant knot in the stomach, as we are always “on” and poised for the next flurry of communications which we must get in front of lest the pile-up build to a point where it overwhelms.

This feeling follows us to sleep. A recent study compared the sleep patterns and biological effects of the bedtime reading of a light-emitting e-book versus reading a traditional printed book (Chang 2014). The results showed a clear qualitative advantage to the sleep of those who had read the traditional book. The author’s scientific focus was on the powerful effects of light on the body’s natural sleep/wake patterns. Yet it also seems that the e-reader experience produces its own kind of tension. Reading from a device usually involves built in interruptions from incoming messages. And even when these are not responded to, the electronic reading we do before bed is often not a relaxing escape into a story, but a hectic read through the many articles and communications we could not get to earlier. That is decidedly not relaxing. And it is incredibly common.

Always Distracted: We never focus on any single task. The constant interruptions have us all multi-tasking, precluding thoughtful immersion in any single task or interaction. And while much can be said about the effects of this phenomenon on productivity, thought patterns and attention span, its greatest impact may be on our sense of control of our lives and our level of stress.

In a study titled “The Cost of interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress” (Mark 2008), researchers demonstrated that even where interruptions do not impact efficiency, multi-taskers inevitably experience “more stress, higher frustration, time pressure and effort.” It is indeed the case that stress is not the result of hard work, but rather the result of being pulled in different directions. Thus, hours of block time dedicated to working on a single project may leave us tired, but not nearly as stressed as an hour of multi-tasking, jockeying between different activities without giving full attention to one, always feeling that I really need to do something else.

Exposure to Negativity: Another profound stressor is the flood of disturbing information we are exposed to as we follow our newsfeeds from multiple sources. This is coupled with the “talk-backs”, the responses to articles that are so often written with an edge and frustration that degenerates into a shouting or sniping match, and that exposes the reader to a heavy dose of negativity.

A recent study (Eichstaedt et al 2015) found that a social media platform can serve as a dashboard indicator of a community’s psychological well-being and can predict rates of heart disease more accurately than demographics, socioeconomics or health. People who connect to angry, negative or hostile content suffer increased rates of heart disease, and those with more positive, supportive and hopeful content had significantly lower levels of disease. The stress from reading all this stuff is not imaginary!

Loss of Stillness: Yet perhaps beyond all of these active stresses is the loss of a valuable commodity from our lives, what the psychologist Erik Erikson referred to as Stillness. The ability and the opportunity to be alone, to allow the mind to wander and to take its own direction. To be alive and happy without external stimulation.

The story of our bondage in Egypt starts on some level at the beginning of Parshas Vayechi. Rashi notes there that the Parsha is not separated from the previous one by the usual break, the usual empty space in the scroll. This is an indication that around the time of the death of Yaakov – anticipated in the opening words of that Parsha – the eyes and hearts of the Jewish people were closed by the difficulties of the bondage.

Evidently the symbol for bondage is just that: no break. And beautifully, the conclusion of the bondage was marked by the Jews singing the Song of the Sea, a section of the Torah written with the unusual style of including breaks not only between sections, but within each and every verse.[2] To be free means to pause, to have space to think, to absorb. To experience stillness.

And these breaks are not to benefit the feebleminded or those with poor stamina. As our Sages taught, the breaks were given for Moshe to absorb the lessons and to contemplate what had been learned.

In 1999, the year the first Blackberry was introduced and well before the Smartphone was a twinkle in anyone’s eye, Rabbi Emanuel Feldman wrote a piece he called “Abbreviations”. He wrote about a visit to a European hotel, where he stopped in the lobby to watch a baseball game. As he watched it he noticed the game was moving at a very rapid pace, and ultimately realized that he was watching an edited replay of the game, where only the action was shown. None of the conferences on the mound; no pitchers peering in at the catcher, breathing deeply and focusing before winding up; no signals from the third base coach; and no players carefully planting themselves in the batter’s box. Only action seemed to count. What these producers did not realize was that the pauses are themselves part of the game. Sometimes the “action” is not where the action is.

TGIS: We need a break. And we can thank G-d that we get one. Every week we have the blessing of Shabbos, a pause that allows us to shut down this onslaught of communication, this feeling of being always on, the stresses and pulls of multi-tasking. We get to converse and to study, to enjoy the pleasantness of positivity, of Zemiros and Divrei Torah, of family and community. It is a great reset button, giving us a chance to appreciate stillness.

But Shabbos alone will not do it. In fact, a study of Yeshiva students found that those with high amounts of technology use during the week found Shabbos boring and difficult to an extent far greater than their less-technologized peers. And it is natural that for all of us, an appreciation of stillness needs to be nurtured and cultivated far beyond the seventh day.

We recognize the problem. How can we move from that recognition to “immediately reconsider our approach and stop doing the wrong things”?

A Plan of Action: We can and must take action, making conscious decisions that will effectively put us back into the driver’s seat, getting a grip on technology and loosening its grip on us. And we must do it in a way that will have a good chance of succeeding in the longer term.

The usual rules for effecting lasting change are to undertake specific, modest and manageable changes, and to have a support system for implementing and maintaining those changes.

We can start with three simple changes:

  1. Off times: We must have set times when devices are off and out of reach. This would include dinner time and beyond, as well as work, study and leisure hours when email and texts are not received. Start with dinner time, and make it a family commitment, where everyone undertakes it together and reinforces each other’s commitment.
  2. Do not take your devices into your bedroom. Check those last emails, read those articles, before you begin your preparations to retire. Charge the devices overnight in the kitchen or den, so that they will not be the last thing you see before you go to sleep and the first thing you see in the morning. This too should be a family commitment that everyone undertakes together.
  3. Allow yourself a break. When pumping gas, waiting in line at the store, waiting for Chazaras HaShatz to begin at shul, waiting for whatever: just wait. Keep your phone in your pocket and think about what you just did or what you are about to do. Or just dream.

None of these commitments will be easy to maintain. I would think we need both family buy-in and support between friends, where we encourage each other and are accountable to each other for sticking to them. We can, for example, have an understanding with our neighbor in shul or learning partner that we will remind each other about not checking our phones while in shul or while learning.

There is no doubt that we will be thrilled with any such break we succeed in carving out for ourselves. We will not regret having established this space; we will only regret that it took us this long to do it. And as we succeed in creating these spaces, these moments of stillness, we will experience a taste of Geulah and a fresh breath of renewed life reclaimed from the insatiable jaws of technology.

  1. This article is Part I of a three part series on our relationship to technology. The complexity and multi-faceted nature of the subject precludes even the possibility of an exhaustive treatment. As such in this essay we will focus on one aspect of how technology is affecting our own being. The choice of this particular aspect is because of its immediate and sharp relevance to the writer’s own life and struggles.This article draws upon much wisdom gleaned from others, most notably the thoughts and research cited in the Fall 2015 issue of Klal Perspectives, dedicated to the subject of technology. The reader is encouraged to read the entire issue, and to accept this general citation for much of what is included here.
  2. I am grateful to my dear friend Chanina Reischer for this beautiful observation.