Had you ambled through some of Jerusalem’s more stringently Orthodox neighborhoods last month, you would have come across a slew of strongly worded pashkvilim—publicly posted ads informing the faithful of the latest rabbinic declamations—targeting a mighty foe: the smart phone. “They will bring about a spiritual Holocaust on all those who use them,” read one ad. Another, specifically targeting iPhones, called users of the world’s most coveted gadget impure beings who are “immersed in filth 24 hours a day and spawn their stench on all those around them.”
It’s easy for us moderns to laugh at such archaic language and portray the rabbis as addled reactionaries. But they aren’t wrong. Smart phones, now used by more than half of Americans, may not be as cataclysmic as Jerusalem’s bearded sages suggest, but their affect on our souls, largely unexamined, is far more detrimental than most of us care to admit.
The most damning argument against smart phones is also the most obvious one. “You’re holding a small device,” Rabbi Mordechai Bloy, the secretary of Israel’s Rabbinical Court, recently told a television interviewer, “and you make a touch here and a touch there, with an iPhone or an iPad or any smart phone, and just like that, he’s in another place. You can be in the synagogue, but you won’t really be there anymore.”
You needn’t stray further than a restaurant or a park to realize the merit of Rabbi Bloy’s claim; chances are you’ll see a good number of people sitting and staring into small screens, unaware of their surroundings and inattentive to their companions. With smart phones offering us the opportunity of communicating with an endless parade of absent friends and strangers—plus a windfall of distractions—we are rarely ever in the here and now: Some other place and time always beckons. Our technologies, as MIT professor Sherry Turkle suggested in her brilliant book Alone Together, determine the architecture of our intimacies; give us the capacity to replace the fear and wonder involved in unmediated human contact with controlled bursts of information, and we won’t be able to resist.
But the greatest calamity heralded by smart phones, perhaps, has to do not so much with how they’re used but with how they’re built. Use a computer to get online, and you are, to borrow Eric Raymond’s famous metaphor, in a bazaar. It’s noisy, chaotic, and full of seedy fellows trying to lure you into their dark corners, but it also allows you a tremendous amount of freedom. Consider the following: Most of what we do online involves using a graphic browser that enables us to surf from site to site; 76.3 percent of Americans use either Chrome or Firefox as their browser of choice; and both Firefox and Chrome are open-source browsers. This means that anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of programming can access the source code and apply it to make new and useful things. And HTML, the language with which websites are created, is simple and intuitive enough to allow almost anyone establish a presence online.
Smart phones, on the other hand, are cathedrals, confined spaces governed by a distinct hierarchy. They run apps, and apps are much more difficult to create, allow for no unsanctioned usage, and are sold through centralized and capital-intensive distribution systems tightly governed by the phones’ makers. Even if you possess the considerable skills required to create the next great app, you have to play by Apple’s rules to get it into the tens of millions of iPhones squirming in pockets across the country.
Such strictures make for a very different experience of interacting with technology; the evolution of electronic games is a case in point. As the gaming industry dawned, in the early 1980s, games were played on personal computers, and anyone could simply type a command and view the game’s code. If you were curious, you could mess around and rewrite it, run the program, and observe the changes, until you figured out what each line of code meant and did. This is how generations of nerds were introduced to computer programming. But their younger brothers and sisters weren’t so lucky: By the late 1980s, electronic gaming occurred mainly on video game consoles, which were walled gardens—unless you were an electrical engineer and could physically rip the box open and rewire it, you had no way of tweaking the content of the cartridges you fed into your Sega or Nintendo.
A similar thing is happening now with smart phones. Kids curious about how the machines work find themselves in a highly restricted environment governed by a handful of corporations. Fewer and fewer of them know the intense pleasures of learning by trial and error and inventing something new just for the heck of it. And if such an approach is detrimental for technological progress, it is also bad for the soul. The more we depend on smart phones as the organizing paradigms of our lives, the less control we have over how we communicate, consume information, and forge bonds with other humans.
The rabbis, then, have it right. Their reasons for banning smart phones may be different—they are primarily concerned that device owners will use them to access corrupting content like pornography—but their hearts are in the right place. We may not want to follow their advice and banish our iPhones altogether, but we should heed their warning and realize that our new shiny forms of connectedness come at a steep spiritual cost.
Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.