Forty thousand Orthodox men recently gathered at Citi Field in Queens to ponder the ill effects that the Internet may be having on their spiritual lives. You may disagree that it was recent — May 20 is the dim past to anyone whose sense of time is shaped by the idea of breaking news in real time, as we call it. So many pixels of information have washed over our eyes since then.
“No one lives in the moment anymore,” writes event organizer Eytan Kobre in the New York Post, meaning we don’t savor the moment, which would require that we dwell on it after it’s passed. Our grandparents were more likely to savor and dwell on, for example, this or that event that had happened several thousand years before they were born and that was recorded for them (as it is for us, for that matter) in the book of Genesis. They could afford to. The rush of new information coming at them wasn’t so massive and forceful that they had to devote all their energy to keeping up with it so as to avoid being swept up by it.
Even as the men at Citi Field were sending the message to beware the collapse of the signal-to-noise ratio under the crush of social media and the Internet, the pope, as it happens, was singing to us from the same hymnal in Rome. May 20 was the Catholic Church’s 46th observance of World Communications Day. The title of Benedict’s message for it is “Silence and Word.” He writes there:
In silence, we are better able to listen to and understand ourselves; ideas come to birth and acquire depth; we understand with greater clarity what it is we want to say and what we expect from others; and we choose how to express ourselves. . . . When messages and information are plentiful, silence becomes essential if we are to distinguish what is important from what is insignificant or secondary. Deeper reflection helps us to discover the links between events that at first sight seem unconnected, to make evaluations, to analyze messages; this makes it possible to share thoughtful and relevant opinions, giving rise to an authentic body of shared knowledge. For this to happen, it is necessary to develop an appropriate environment, a kind of ‘eco-system’ that maintains a just equilibrium between silence, words, images and sounds.
Covering the Citi Field event, Jennie Rothenberg Gritz of The Atlantic does a fine job of advancing the conversation beyond stereotypes of religious men confessing that pornography tempts them — which was the gist of the comparatively shallow report in the New York Times, for example. In her interview with Kobre, Gritz sums up the central concern of the organizers and participants: “The way the Internet presents information is fundamentally at odds with the way religious Jews want to process it.”
Kobre: Absolutely. You go into any Yeshiva — secular people would be astounded at the mental and the emotional stamina required to decipher those texts. My son is 14 years old. He’s in 9th grade. He has to sit every morning for two to three hours at a time studying the Talmud. And he’s only a high school kid — full-time Torah scholars spend every waking moment doing this. And then you think about the way the surfing and twittering culture is scattering our attention. I don’t think those two paradigms are compatible. Or at least, this is a challenge that has to be addressed.
Gritz: Have teachers at yeshivas actually complained that their students are less and less able to focus on Torah study because of the Internet?
Kobre: It’s the talk of the rebbes’ lounges — the teachers’ lounges. There’s been a precipitous drop in kids’ ability to read, process, remember, recall, and produce quality work.
Kobre mentions Nicholas Carr, whose concern that the Internet is diminishing our capacity for deep (or slow) reading he shares, and he notes Ross Douthat’s comment that “the web is very good for certain forms of writing — and very bad for others. . . . The Google effect makes it harder to write War and Peace, and harder to read it.”
Kobre is alert to how the Internet tends to discourage, in Carr’s words, “prolonged, focused concentration.” The Atlantic ran Carr’s article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” four years ago, so it’s fitting that, in this look at Orthodox concerns about what the Internet might be doing to our brains, it builds on that earlier work and provides genuine insight — or, rather, fairly represents the insight that the Orthodox, who have a strong relationship with the past, are predisposed to have into this issue.
The ephemera-focused nature of social media reinforces our bias toward a distortion of the present moment. We slice it ever more finely to exclude more and more of both the past and the future. The Left’s natural impatience with tradition, history, and the past in general is thereby served.
Until about a century ago, education in the West involved a good deal of immersion in the past, particularly ancient Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. Latin and Greek were built into the curriculum. A student content with a “gentleman’s C” might have half-heartedly muddled through his Aristotle and Vergil, but everyone had to at least acknowledge the ancients’ point of view — not their infallibility, which they never possessed, of course. But their point of view.
Increasingly, however, public debate about the big issues of the day takes place in a temporal vacuum. Put aside for a moment the argument for same-sex marriage and marvel, if you can, that those who advance it actually put the lie to Solomon’s observation that there is nothing new under the sun. Until yesterday, no human society that has left a record for us to consider ever thought to institute such a practice. And now we hear from those who say they’re shocked, shocked that someone might not find the wisdom of their proposal to be self-evident. It’s important to travel to the past and spend time with its inhabitants — to give, as Chesterton memorably phrased it, “votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors.” Only then do we begin to appreciate how ignorance of them can leave us blinkered and provincial.