Thursday, March 6, 2008

Betting on the Wrong Horse

There are all kinds of sayings in English, such as "Cutting off your nose to spite your face" and "biting the hand that feeds you," which have to do with actions that are injurious to one's self. As frum Jews we are forbidden to self-mutilate or to cause ourselves deliberate harm. And yet, there is a small portion of frum Klal that is not only hurting themselves but who are instructing/commanding the rest of us to do so as well. Where am I going with this? Straight into the land of computers.

At the dawn of the computer age there were plenty of people who scratched their heads and asked "Who's every going to need/use this?" The answer, it would turn out, is "Everyone!" Computers are not only firmly entrenched in our society, but I'll go so far as to say that our society could not function any longer without them. Computers have become so integrated into the world we live in that to remove computers from our world would plunge us into unmitigated chaos.

By computers I am referring both to the specific computers that we use sitting at our desks as well as to the technology inherent to those computers which has been integrated into other items that we use that we don't think of as computers. A bank ATM is computerized even if we don't think of it as a computer. Our home thermostats, our built-in shabbos clocks, our cars, our kitchen appliances etc. all carry computerized elements today.

Okay, you're reading this online so I'm preaching to the converted. But there are large groups in Klal who are not "converted" and they can have influence on us, or at least try to have influence. They cause tumult where none should be.

There are rabbonim who have straight come out and banned computers. They have banned the Internet. They see these as great evils in our society and particularly to frum Jews. They rail and they rant and they put out bans. And then they crack open the window just a little and make some exceptions. If you must use a computer because of your job then you can have it but it must be locked up and may never be used for anything but the job. And heaven forfend if you teach your children how to use one. And wouldn't it be better if you got a job that didn't require you to use a computer?

Which job? What world are these rabbanim living in? The basic word of those who know is that if you can't manipulate a computer, at least the basics, you are unemployable. "So he'll be an electrician " they answer. "They make good money." Have they looked at the integrated circuitry that exists today? At the tools used by these people?

I have cleaning help once a week. I had to go through each and every one of my appliances with the woman who cleans for me because they all are digitized. They all are computerized. Turning on the washing machine is no longer a matter of push in the button and leave. Defrosting the refrigerator or freezer doesn't require just elbow grease--it requires an ability to use sophisticated electronic equipment. And the ability to program the various functions.

My bank no longer sends back cancelled checks and a monthly statement. If you want to know the status of your account you have to get online. My gas and electric and phone bills are all paid online and no monthly statement is sent. In fact, almost all our bills are paid online. This is where all the utilities are heading--to a paperless environment. Cucumber, the phone service provider, charges $4 for sending out a paper bill and statement; it's free online.

The rabbanim who ban the Internet because of the "shmutz" that can be found there are clearly in need of glasses. Have they seen billboards and ads on buses lately? Have they seen people walking down the street? have they seen what is available in the "real" world? The technology exists already and is being fine tuned to block out certain types of sites on the Internet. It's a question of knowing how to use the blocking programs. And of parents actually knowing what goes on in their own homes.

The fear, I'm afraid, is because computers and the Internet are not things these rabbanim can control. And it would seem, the Internet is not something these rabbanim understand too well either.

I was told by a national tzedaka organization that while they have a website they don't post to it because just having it has caused them untold grief from the rabbis of the right who are yelling "treif." Going paperless for many of their activities would save untold amounts of money but would alienate some of those who give to the tzedaka. They are between a rock and a hard place, and they shouldn't have been forced into this position.

I teach responsible Internet research and usage as part of my classes. There is a wealth of information available that our frum yeshiva kids don't know how to access. Everyone just hits "google" and assumes they have gotten all there is to get. Not true. High schools need to be preparing our children for the world that is already here--a world where computers are not an option but a necessity. Instead, they preach against computers and the Internet. Or at least those schools to the right do.

Why bring this up just now? I met a parent of an ex-student at a simcha recently. Not realizing that I was the teacher that had done so, the parent was complaining that the college wasted the students' time in teaching them about computers and the Internet. Didn't we have more important things to cover, he wondered? Instead of just shaking my head and agreeing with him, I launched into a bit of the history of the Internet. That the original ARPANET was set up specifically so that Universities should be able to share vital research information in a timely fashion. He looked at me in a puzzled fashion. "Didn't Al Gore invent the Internet?" he asked me. Given where this father gets his information from, I suppose Gore did.

Those rabbanim who ban the Internet are not backing the winner in the race--they're betting on the wrong horse. They assume that because they say so the world will take a turn backwards. When parnoseh becomes impossible to produce down the road these rabbanim will be forced to deal with the issue in a responsible fashion, but it will be too late for most of the people who follow them. Would it really signal the end of the world if Lakewood et al were to give computer classes to their talmidim including how to avoid the pitfalls? I guess to these rabbanim it would. Who knew that Gog and Magog would come clothed in wires and chips?


mlevin said...

I think there are a few reasons to ban internet and computers.

1. Lack of understanding of what exactly they are banning.

2. Age. These rabbeim are old and like majority of old people afraid of new technology.

3. Control. If you limit information people have access to, people will follow you and won't question your every step.

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Elitzur said...

Of course I agree with what you're saying but I think you're a ban or two behind the times...

ProfK said...

Yes, there seems to be another ban around every corner. But in reacting to the newest ban we need to keep in view the past bans as well. Otherwise they seem to become part of the fabric; uncomfortable but not as important as keeping the wasp that is hovering over us now at bay. As long as shadchanim still ask the Internet questions, as long as yeshivas still ban it, as long as organizations still work with the ban in place, then we still need to talk about it.

d said...

This is a Jewish blog, so someone has to have a (somewhat) different viewpoint, so here goes.

I use this newfangled technology as well, so I am not totally on the other side, of course.

However, I do think that it should be pointed out that the matter is more complicated than equating computers and computerization with progress and light and the alternatives with backwardness and darkness, across the board.

There are significant potential or actual problems with excessive dependence on technology, whether they manifest themselves in form of (G-d help us) virus bugs, hostile action or natural disasters taking down atm, phone or blackberry networks, personal information stolen by online hackers or worse.

In terms of education, many students nowadays do not use libraries the old fashioned way, they just go straight to google. The problem is that google doesn't have everything. Some things are not online at all. Yet, since they are not online they are ignored, leading to deficiencies in knowledge and understanding.

With regard to Jewish learning, some have predicted a new golden age of Torah study due to huge databases with thousands of seforim being widely available. However, learning is not just having many citations at hand. It involves weighing and deliberating, comparing and contrasting, deep analysis and thought.

There is a limit to what computers can do.

Just like singles websites have not made shadchanim, such as yourself, obsolete, so too, will these computer Torah databases not make talmidei chachomim obsolete (at least not on Shabbos or Yomtov. ;-).

We need to retain the ability to do things in simple and old-fashioned ways, even if only as a back up, in case the new technology fails, as it sometimes does.

Sometimes low or no tech beats high-tech (cf. the tortoise and the hare).

Bas~Melech said...

Now, I'm right here, so obviously I'm closer to your viewpoint than to the opposite. But I have two comments:

1. I've never heard of a blanket ban on computers/technology. Only the internet. And I don't live in such a deep hole. So if such a ban indeed exists, it must only be among a smallish, extremist sect. There is a BIG difference between banning computers and the internet.

That said, I do think that many religious institutions do not place nearly enough emphasis on learning proper computer skills, possibly out of fear that this will lead to internet exploration. This is a disservice to members of those institutions, who will find themselves at a disadvantage in the world at large.

2. While it is true that as much tumah can be found by walking down local avenues or traveling the subway as on the internet, I believe there is a difference. What you see on the streets is practically forced upon you, and it's "them." The internet brings it into your home, and you have to consent to it before it can do so. The Jewish home should be a haven from the world outside.
(But my bottom line is still... here I am, and I don't regret it)

Anonymous said...

One of the worst things about all the new crazy bans is that the Rabbeim are turning many members of Klal Yisrael into liars!

Mark [who doesn't use the Internet :-]