‘Tech Shabbat’ and the Benefits of Unplugging

December 11, 2019

If you are already keeping the Sabbath, then you’re on the way to fulfilling the challenge issued by Tiffany Shlain in “24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week” (Gallery Books). When she uses the phrase “Tech Shabbat,” she is referring to “a twenty-first-century interpretation of the ancient Jewish ritual of a weekly day of rest,” and she likens it to the practice of yoga or meditation.

“Going offline one day a week for nearly a decade with our daughters has felt like an epiphany on how to fill the day with the best parts of life, and a radical act of protection against the always-on, always-available world,” Shlain writes. “Your day away from screens and off the network will rejuvenate your mind, your body, and your relationships, whether you do it on Saturday, Sunday, or a weekday.”

Indeed, the premise of Shlain’s book is that Tech Shabbat is not a divine commandment but a coping mechanism for mortals whose lives have been overwhelmed by technology, which both “amplifies” but also “amputates” our experiences. She quotes the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Shlain is the daughter of the late Leonard Shlain, a surgeon and the best-selling author of “The Alphabet Versus the Goddess,” among other titles. It was her father’s death in 2009 — and the birth of her second daughter — that prompted her to reconsider the priorities of life and, especially, the price we all pay for the privilege of living in “the digital vortex.” Her father, she recalls, refused to answer the phone when it rang during a family meal. Her own family, by contrast, had taken “the iPhone plunge,” and she now calls the distinctive white boxes in which Apple products are sold as “Pandora’s boxes.” 

“The fact that his death occurred just as our smartphones began to take over all our waking hours is more than just significant,” she explains. “[I]t felt like that’s when ‘being present’ died — for all of us.”

“Going offline one day a week for nearly a decade with our daughters has felt like an epiphany on how to fill the day with the best parts of life, and a radical act of protection against the always-on, always-available world.” — Tiffany Shlain

Shlain, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, is the creator of the Webby Awards, a program of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences that serves as the “Oscars of the Web,” as The New York Times puts it. Her active and intimate experience in the world of digital technology informs the argument that she makes so convincingly in the pages of “24/6.” What started out as an tool of communication and connection is now something much different and much more dangerous.

“When it changed from a decentralized network to a behemoth centralized through a few corporations wanting to monetize every moment by playing to our animal nature,” Shlain writes, “the Web really got beastly.”

A day of rest, as Shlain points out, has been shared in common by various faiths and civilizations over the millennia. Thinkers as diverse as Abraham Joshua Heschel and Karl Marx recognized that “time is the ultimate form of human wealth on this earth,” as Unitarian minister Ana Levy-Lyons has written. And a Tech Shabbat, Shlain proposes, is an idea whose time has come: “Every tradition was once an innovation,” she writes. “Let’s use this modern twist on an ancient idea to make a new one.”

The human need to “rest and reboot,” as Shlain puts it, is not merely a moral aspiration; it is also a fact of science. A process called “synoptic homeostasis,” which takes place during sleep, “makes room for the brain’s level of cerebrospinal fluid to rise dramatically, washing out the damaging proteins that have built up over a day of thinking” — a literal brainwash, to borrow Shlain’s phrase. Rest and reflection, sleeping and dreaming, promote the functioning of the human brain while awake: “After a full day of rest, it’s like a dam breaks: recharged and reinvigorated, I’m at my most productive and creative.”

Shlain is no Luddite. She concedes that technology has helped to make us “better educated and heathier than ever before,” and that powering down our electronic devices for even a single day is much easier said than done. But she offers a set of tools and techniques for breaking the digital habit, if only a few hours at a time, and she holds out the promise that the effort will be richly rewarded.

“You become skilled at any work — carpentry, music, or gardening — by practicing,” Shlain explains. “Tech Shabbat gives you the opportunity to practice whatever it is you want to get better at, even if it’s just being.”

To be sure, Tech Shabbat is not equivalent to Shabbat in the traditional religious sense. For example, Shlain encourages us to use “a big pad of paper and black Sharpie pens” in place of screens and keyboards, a practice that is forbidden by Jewish law on Shabbat. Even so, her advice is offered in the spirit of practicality and good humor that characterizes her book in its entirety: “It’s much more satisfying to write anything down with a Sharpie,” she quips. And she even provides a family recipe for challah for readers who want “to do things old-school once a week.”

Some of Shlain’s insights took me entirely by surprise and yet, at the same moment, struck me as entirely true. When a question of fact comes up in conversation, I am apt to say aloud, “Why wonder when we live in the age of Google?” But Shlain points out the downside of such easy access to information, using a word that I encountered for the first time in her book.

“On our screen-free days, we’re constrained in a lot of ways,” she explains. “When we have a question, we can’t just ‘wonder-kill’ it, i.e., Google the answer. We have to wonder. And debate, Postulate. Sometmes we even look it up in a book.” 

For me, the most sobering line in “24/6” is Shlain’s observation that “[a] person has an average of thirty thousand days on this earth.” Tech Shabbat is an opportunity reclaim one-seventh of the days that are left to us, whether we use them for study, prayer, rest or, as Shlain puts it, “the

space to think about how you want to live your life.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

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