Dear TEE community,

Every summer I do what I call my “High Holiday reading” – take the time to read books that will inform my teaching and sermons in the fall. Several years ago, I read How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell. The thing that made the most impact on me from the book was learning how social media and other internet sites make their money by keeping us scrolling. Odell calls this the “attention economy” and it made me consider how I was using my attention – my time, my thought, and my creativity. It also made me think about the symbolism of the shofar’s call for us to pay attention to what is really important in our lives. My Rosh Hashanah sermon that year addressed these issues, and working on it convinced me to leave social media as much as I could and to notice which sites on the internet engaged me through outrage rather than information.

During my vacation earlier this month I read another book, Stolen Focus by Johan Hari, which underscored what I’d learned previously, as well as providing additional insights into the issue. Several points had the greatest impact on me. The first was that we are flooded with what Hari characterized as a fire hose of information. We can’t possibly take in all that is coming at us and the more we try, the less substance there is to what we learn. Related to that, the more time we spend on our phones or websites, the less we spend doing the kind of extended reading required for in-depth knowledge. Additionally, we make less time for the free-flowing, creative thought which comes when we let our minds wander without distraction.

Another point Hari makes is that the flood of information never stops and so we live with the constant anxiety of never feeling like we have finished. When we had only physical mail, letters arrived, could be answered, and the task of responding was finished until the next day. When we had only printed newspapers, they could be read and that task completed until the next day. Now email and information never end and we can never have a sense of completion unless we create our own framework for doing so.

Third, social media and other online content providers have learned that anger and outrage are the best ways to keep people on their sites so they have created algorithms to highlight items that will arouse those emotions. This, in turn, helps to create and sustain an increasingly polarized world view, the effects of which are all too obvious in our society.

While these aren’t Jewish issues per se, I find them particularly relevant for a culture, such as ours, that values books and learning so highly. What do we lose as both individuals and a community when we pay more attention to celebrities than we do to texts? What do we lose as both individuals and a community when we spend more time interacting with screens rather than human beings?

Since returning from vacation, I’ve been thinking a great deal about how to right size technology in my life. Technology, like any tool, is not good or bad in and of itself. It’s how we use it and whether we just use it or let it use us. If these issues are of concern for you as well, please join me at 7 pm on Wednesday March 6th for a conversation about how we might better align our values with our use of technology.

Hope to see you then,

Rabbi Drorah Setel