In 1983 I was the only kid in my neighborhood who didn’t have a television. In fact, I was such an anomaly that our local newspaper, the Cambridge Chronicle, profiled my family in a piece about growing up TV-free. It ranks among the better decisions that my father made in regards to child-rearing, and it is, in part, why I became a writer. While other kids were watching “Chips,” I was reading “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
Not surprisingly, I was also among the last of my friends to join Facebook. I did it reluctantly, and only in the wake of a breakup that had left me feeling bereft and in need of connecting. At the time I was living in Los Angeles, where I served as West Coast correspondent for the Forward newspaper, and between being new to L.A. and suddenly without the boyfriend who had become my best friend, it seemed like a decent idea.
The irony was that it only added to my undoing: Through Facebook, I learned that my ex-boyfriend had a new girlfriend, after she posted photos of them on a camping trip not two weeks after our relationship had ended.
That was three years ago.
In the intervening years, the social network has expanded its reach such that if you’re not on Facebook, you’re liable to miss out on party invitations, birth announcements and the latest social causes you should be up on. Or at least that’s how the ever-changing Newsfeed function makes you feel. If you’re not on Facebook, do you really exist?
The obvious answer is yes, but Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg would have you believe otherwise. Their multi-billion dollar company would have you believe that if you’re not checking status updates 24/7 you might miss … something big!
And how about Twitter? Between email, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and the list is only growing, you could spend all day making sure you’re up on the latest news, and to boot, you’d feel like you were actually doing something. When, as we all know, you’d be wasting time you could be spending with your kids, reading that great new Jewish book, going for a hike, or simply giving your brain a rest.
As Matt Richtel, San Francisco technology correspondent for the New York Times, wrote in a 2010 Times article, scientists have concluded that “when people keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting downtime that could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new ideas.”
The “new ideas” part is the scariest. And it’s even scarier for our kids. With all this digital technology foisted on them before they can spell the word “focus,” will they know how to be creative, to generate not only new ideas but also great works of art? And will they know how to look someone in the eye when they’re speaking to them, or will they bury their face in a screen, seeking a facile substitute for human interaction?
The answer is: We don’t know. But in the meantime, we can do us and them a favor and put ourselves, as well our children, on a digital diet.
To be sure, Facebook, Twitter, Google and the like have plenty to offer when used wisely. For my part, I will inevitably post this column on Facebook, making it widely accessible to my social network beyond the Bay Area, and as I plug away at my first novel, Google has made historical research and fact-finding that much easier. The problem lies in overdosing; as with anything addictive — sex, alcohol, food — it’s not the thing itself that’s problematic, it’s our unbridled consumption of it.
From a Jewish perspective, there’s a simple way to exert some control over our digital consumption. As proposed by the Sabbath Manifesto, a project launched in 2010 by a group of artists affiliated with the Jewish nonprofit Reboot, we can start by powering down for the Jewish day of rest, whether or not we are religious.
If it’s Jews who are leading the way in terms of the technology — not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but it’s no secret that Zuckerberg, Sandberg, Google founder Sergey Brin (and the list goes on) are all Jewish — then let it be Jews who lead the call to get our digital lives in check.
Otherwise, well, otherwise … who will write the next great Jewish book?