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Saturday, October 10, 2015

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Purim tech: the good, the bad and the cyber

Tags: Columnists

Happy i-Purim! With apps on my phone that can recite the Megillah, show me the text, or drown out the name of the nefarious villain, I’m set. Who needs a scroll, a book or a gragger? For that matter, who needs community? I can video into a cyber-minyan, or watch one on YouTube.

And while doing that, I can pull up some rabbinic commentaries, along with blogs offering contemporary takes on the ancient story. Imagine the travails of our long-ago ancestors, crowding around the precious few handwritten documents, or our not-so-long-ago ancestors, lugging books and scheduling travel to be near a shul when Purim comes around.

If you follow articles and blogs about Jewish cyber resources, you know what I mean. In the digitized world, we carry our connections and values, Jewish or otherwise, everywhere. We live in a world no less miraculous than that of Shushan around the 14th and 15th days of the month of Adar so many centuries ago.

But in the spirit of Purim, I feel compelled to turn this paean to technology on its head. After all, our sages urge us to drink to the point of ad delo yada – not knowing – the difference between Mordecai and Haman. Or, put differently, between the good guy and the bad guy, or the good and the bad.

And that, I believe, is where we are with the miracle of technology.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not a Luddite. I embrace technology as much as the next guy – in fact, even more than the next guy, especially if the next guy is my husband. We have twice as many computers as people at home, and my phone is way smarter than I am. I Google, doodle and tweet. I upload, download, and sync with the clouds, and cavort in the blogosphere.

And yet.

The wonderful Jewish American writer and poet Marge Piercy wrote a marvellous science fiction novel, He, She, and It, that grapples with the implications of technological advances and artificial intelligence through the prism of a futuristic Jewish community and the development of a postmodern golem. No longer separate from the electronic devices that connect them to vast storehouses of knowledge and to one another, folks plug bodily into computers. They experience and define themselves through technology and cyberspace. The self and the chip become almost inseparable.

Oh, brave new world!

The thing about science fiction writing, though, is that it projects us into the future in order to examine problems of the present. And one issue that Piercy’s novel foregrounds is our relationship to powerful technology – the good and the bad.

We professors see it in our classes and in our research. Want more information? Students pull it up instantly on their laptops and smartphones. Research that once took laborious hours in distant archives happens at home, instantaneously on our screens. But can we shut it off?

Social interactions these days always involve more guests than you bargain for – hello Mr. Droid and Ms. BBerry. As for classroom dynamics, even though I tell my students to turn off anything that rings, vibrates or lights up during seminar discussions, our community of learning is quickly unravelled by the apparently irresistible pull of Facebook, messaging, e-mail, cyber-shopping and even Netflix. One student who texted all through a the screening of documentary film about the Holocaust later apologized for her “addiction.” I think she got it right – it is an addiction of sorts. And like all addictions, it changes the addict in ways that the addict cannot see.

Recently, a professors’ listserv was occupied for days about how to handle the “problem of technology” in our classes. And, as my colleague Eric Lawee recently observed, the pedagogic challenges are the least of the issues. Tech use starts young. How does it affect social skills, sensitivity, tenacity, the ability to focus, to hold onto and think through matters longer that 140-character tweets and more complex than “OMG ur my BFF LOL”?

Purim is easy. Even if we momentarily lose track of the good and bad guys, we sober up and things fall back into their proper categories. But in our evolving digital world, the good and bad can’t be so easily separated.

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