Panel explores role of ancient wisdom in the Internet age

Deborah Schultz could reach only one conclusion as she surveyed the audience of 70 people.

“I don’t think Twitter has ever seen this many yarmulkes in the room before,” said Schultz, drawing chuckles from the crowd.

The technology consultant was the first speaker on the roster for “Jewish Ethics and the Internet: How the Internet is Changing Human Relationships,” a first-of-its-kind conference held Feb. 11 at Twitter headquarters in downtown San Francisco. Congregation Adath Israel and New York’s Yeshiva University co-sponsored the forum.

Noting the expanding influence of technology on the way people interact — with information and with one another — the evening’s speakers suggested looking to ancient Jewish wisdom and ethics for insights about modern Internet practices. It is an intersection of thought that until now has not been widely considered.

Panelists (from left) Auren Hoffman, Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz, Bruce Taragin and Heshy Fried discuss Jewish ethics and the Internet. photo/stacey palevsky

“Our hope is that this is the beginning of a new conversation that will take place over and over again,” said Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz of Adath Israel.

The audience was diverse in age, observance level and profession — some worked in the tech world, others in Jewish education. Some came because they heard about the conference on Twitter; others learned about it during Shabbat announcements at Adath Israel.

Over a kosher dinner, conference attendees were treated to two speakers and a panel composed of Jewish leaders and tech professionals.

Schultz works as a consultant to startups and large corporations on the impact of emerging technology on society, culture and business. Kicking off the evening with a PowerPoint presentation, she maintained that the Web is not so much changing human behavior and relationships as much as it is contributing to their growth and evolution.

“Today you can socialize across all geographic and demographic boundaries,” Schultz said. “Are these friendships real? Can you be friends with 5,000 people on Facebook? I say yes — they’re very real, but they’re very different.”

As such, these new (but authentic) friendships require us to view them through a different lens, Schultz said. Judaism’s written and oral traditions can help.

The Talmud “is the first blog,” Schultz said, and is a prime example of how conversation about an “artifact” (in the past it would be a section from the Torah; today a blog post, newspaper article or YouTube video) can deepen its meaning and build community.

The panel that followed Schultz’s presentation focused on safety, privacy, transparency, communication and family life in the Internet age.

Panelists talked about how companies are more transparent and thus more ethical today than they’ve ever been, and noted how many Internet businesses have employees whose sole responsibility is to think about the ethical, privacy and safety implications of their company’s Web sites.

But not everyone is so conscientious.

Because of the phenomenon known as the “online disinhibition effect” — which causes people to be bolder online because of the anonymity and distance it affords — individuals often do or say things in a virtual space that they regret, things they would never do or say in an actual space.

David Pelcovitz, a psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University, said the disinhibition effect is not always negative. The Internet may “be a source of greater connection,” Pelcovitz said, “especially for people who feel the most vulnerable, isolated or alone.”

Many in the audience had questions and comments about how the Internet is affecting child development and education.

“Parents are like digital immigrants, and kids are the natives,” Pelcovitz said. “It’s the first time in the history of man that children know much more than their parents about a major social, ethical and cultural force.”

Desmid Lyon, a longtime teacher at Midrasha in Berkeley who attended the conference, said even though many Jewish educators are connecting with their students online, it’s still unclear if it’s the most effective way to communicate.

“Here’s this brave new world that educators have decided is the only way to reach kids, and yet I feel that there are inadequate or no guidelines,” Lyon said.

Another educator, Rabbi Cheryl Weiner of Emeryville, said from the audience, “We have to figure out a way of reconstructing our [Jewish] ethics to apply to an Internet environment.”

Speakers also talked about the pervasiveness of the Internet: how even on days such as Shabbat when the BlackBerry may be turned off, users may feel a phantom vibration in their pockets; how children are using media an average of eight hours every day, according to a recent study; and how a social and professional culture has emerged to cater to the constant stimulus of the Internet.

“There is a lack of mindfulness that concerns me,” Pelcovitz said, “when I see a father pushing a child on a swing at the playground — and also talking on his cell phone.”

But Jewish tradition and wisdom, Pelcovitz said, can help us “bring interpersonal mindfulness into this new era.”

For updates about future events about Jewish ethics and the Internet, visit www.adathisraelsf.org.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.