February 22, 2020

Am I an e-slave?: The pressure of human interaction

I am not the right person to preach on electronic servitude, given my tons of incoming mail and messages and a touch of OCD. As I’m writing this, in between tweets and Facebook updates, I have stopped to answer e-mails. More than once. They pile up, you see, and I like a clean inbox even more than a clean desk. 

The essence of slavery is to be unable to make a choice, and so we use the word loosely when we say that we are “slaves” to our appetites or drives. But the expanse of our will is narrowed by powerful pushes in a given direction. People are not quite slaves to alcohol because they can quit, but it is much closer to slavery when you’re an alcoholic than it is when you have no impulse to overindulge. Addiction is not full-on slavery, but it can feel uncomfortably close.

I sit in meetings and, knowing it is not entirely graceful, sneak peeks at my e-mail and texts. Discreetly, I tap responses. All the while I succumb to the great Internet illusion that what exists on the screen is more compelling than what exists in the world. Yes, someone is talking, but that little red circle is showing on my iPhone, with all its faux urgency, pleading with me to check. (Hold for one second, if you will — I have a text …)

Where was I? Oh yes, texts. They ding, or ring, or honk, you see, or click, or thunk, and one can only imagine the urgency of the communication. Here is where the insidiousness creeps in: I know from experience that almost all e-mails and texts can wait. “Did you see GOT last night? OMG!!!!” is not a piercing observation requiring instant response. But add a ding to that message, and I’m full-on Pavlovian. “Dopamine” rightly begins with “dope.”

I recently completed a book, a biography of King David. While writing, I had to turn off my phone. So long as it was making insistent noises (or in silent mode making those disturbing “I might be making noises, but you don’t even know” noises) I could not possibly summon the sustained concentration necessary to write a book. 

In the olden days, that is, a decade ago, when you were having lunch with someone, it was unlikely that everyone you knew would walk into the restaurant to talk to you. But now, everyone you know is in your pocket. They are with you at all times. Your entire social circle, (along with a huge chunk of the totality of human knowledge) is waiting for a “hi” or “lol.” The pressure of human contact is unrelenting, and the result is avdut (slavery) of the Internet = e-slavery.

Shabbat is a break, but use of electronic devices is common among even the observant. I am blessedly free at shul, but I come home and find myself thinking that my phone might be trying to reach me to tell me of some crisis, or catastrophe, or family communication from the East Coast. The possibilities are endless of what that black, blank screen might be hiding, available at the seductive push of a button. The justifications fly thick and fast, all in service of impulse. 

Passover teaches the only genuine escape from slavery. It is not an act of will alone, but a change of place and circumstance. To hold your phone in your pocket and resist looking at it is a good start. Leaving your phone at home is even better. Liberation often means being able to renounce, and, by renouncing, to unshackle oneself. “No” is the word that gives you freedom. The Torah depicts the Israelites yearning for Egypt, but they could not turn back. You may sit at lunch, or in a meeting, and imagine the delights your phone would bring, but if you don’t carry it along with you, there is a momentary liberation.

Let us, therefore, declare phone-free sedarim. Observant or not, the people at the table should be the people you are there with, alongside our ancestors, who escaped slavery to liberate us to the very different slavery of abundance.  

We have too much — information, access, food, entertainment — everything. Don’t let Elijah catch you on your iPhone. He might not come back.

David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple. You can follow his teachings at facebook.com/RabbiWolpe.