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Why the Internet Is Bad for the Jews

And what to do about it

Liel Leibovitz
September 12, 2017
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

Earlier this week, I was walking to work when I heard the loud beat of a drum. I looked up and saw dozens of men and women dressed in white, moving about solemnly. They were holding dinner plates, and their movements corresponded with the kettledrum’s syncopated thuds. A man playing the flute circled them somberly, injecting the occasion with a sharp sense of sadness. You hardly needed to consult the leaflets being passed around to realize that the performance, by the Buglisi Dance Theatre, was a memorial to September 11 and that it sought to provoke a sense of peace and remembrance.

That is, if you actually paid attention to the beautiful dance. Which, I was dismayed but not at all surprised to witness, was beyond the capacity of the folks rushing up and down Broadway at 8:30 on a Monday morning. For the most part, they were attached to their smartphones, some chatting, some scrolling furiously. If they heard the drum at all—many, their headphones on their ears like barnacles on a whale, did not—they stopped for a moment, instinctively raised their phones to snap a photo, and walked on. This haunting moment of memory and community was lost on them, felled by a technology that celebrates solipsism and has no room for the uneasy bonds of civil society.

Nothing about this observation is particularly new or particularly original. We’re now nearly a decade and a half into the age of social media, and almost a decade into the era of the sharing economy, which means that our thinkers, from the fine to the dim, have already had plenty of opportunities to thunder at the shortcomings of the plugged-in life. It’s also rarely a good idea to take the essentialist point of view about any tool or technology and argue that our data determine our destiny. And yet, as we approach the high holidays, and as we engage in the round of introspection the Jewish calendar demands we attempt during the month of Elul, there’s no escaping one somber conclusion: The internet is very bad for everyone, but it’s especially terrible for Jews.

Why? The question is too daunting—and too important—to answer, well, on the internet. You could begin by exploring what social media has done to its aged forebears, the newsrooms, promising the democratization of information and delivering instead a chaotic hellscape in which nothing is true, everything is permitted, and Donald Trump is president. You could look at all the studies suggesting that the sort of atomization accelerated in the dawn of the digital age is weakening the center, empowering the extremists, and putting the most vulnerable Americans in danger. Or you can do something simpler and much more terrifying and just listen to what tech’s best and brightest have to say.

In a recently published paper, researchers at Stanford University shared the results of an extensive survey completed by more than 600 of the tech industry’s most influential founders and funders. The point of the study was to find out exactly what the people who run the most influential sector of the American economy believed about politics. On the surface, the results are not surprising: Silicon Valley’s finest claim to hold progressive views. They support gay marriage. And they definitely don’t support Trump.

Here’s the wrinkle: These self-professed champions of equality also don’t believe in unions or any other mechanism for worker protection. They don’t believe their own businesses should be regulated in any way, and that their businesses should be allowed to devour every other American industry in sight. They believe that businesses should have the right to act as they please, raising prices at will and firing anyone—or everyone—with or without cause.

You hardly have to be a political scientist to understand what this means: The men and women who make the platforms on which we do anything from buy shoes to find love don’t really believe what Democrats believe. Nor do they believe what Republicans believe. In fact, they seem to believe nothing at all—nothing, that is, except the craven idea that once some taxes and some lip service have been paid, society’s guiding principle ought to be self-interest.

Keep this in mind next time you log onto Facebook, say, or go on Amazon, and you’ll see how everything about the services and applications these masters of the universe has created mirrors the exact same ideology, putting immediacy and convenience and self-involvement above accountability, communion, and compassion.

No matter what strand of Judaism you happen to consider your own, everything about the religion stands in opposition to this cult of the self. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Jewish survival throughout the last few millennia owes much, if not all, to the communal machinery that propelled us ever toward others. All of Israel, the Talmud teaches us, are “arevin ze ba’zeh,” responsible for one another. This includes the driver now entirely dependent on Uber for her livelihood, or the shopkeep who is going under because Amazon has cannibalized his business, selling the same thing at razor-thin margins and depending on economies of scale to make sure that only the very big survive. We used to have antitrust measures to protect us from these terrors, but don’t expect these to be enforced; as long as the new barons keep saying the right things about climate change and immigration and send generous checks to the right candidates, they’re free to promote their rapacious policies even among political parties that once knew better.

It’s up to us, then, to take a stand, and Judaism offers us good advice. Just as we’ve kept our capacity for introspection intact by pausing for one day a week and reflecting on what matters most; just as we’ve rejected the allure of assimilation in part by refusing certain foods; just as we’ve kept an ancient language and ancient traditions alive merely by insisting that they mattered much more than any distraction the world outside had to offer, so must we now resist the onslaught of the self-centered storm. Most of us could probably not afford a complete breaking of the ties—to unplug would likely mean, at the very least, losing our livelihoods—but many spaces still can and must be reclaimed. Begin with a digital Shabbat, banishing screens from sundown Friday until Saturday night. Do away with Facebook and Twitter, or delete them from your phones as the wise rabbi known as Aziz Ansari just did. And when you walk down the street and hear that drum, just stop, look up, and listen.


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Liel Leibovitz is Editor at Large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.