Panel at JCC ponders spirituality vs. tech overload in iPad era

A 73-year-old grandmother worries that her 7-year-old twin grandsons spend so much time playing games on their iPad it might be adversely affecting their brain development. The mother of a 15-year-old is alarmed that her son, who once rode his bike after school, now opts to stay indoors and surf the Internet instead.

These were among the concerns raised in a lively Q&A session following a panel discussion on “Digital Overload,” held Dec. 6 at the JCC of San Francisco and co-presented with Congregation Adath Israel.

Moderated by Jonathan Rosen, author of “The Talmud and the Internet: A Journey Between Worlds,” the panel parsed how the digital revolution is affecting everything from our thought processes to our relationships with our children, with ourselves and, ultimately, with God.

Panelists (from left) Jonathan Rosen, Steven Levy, Matt Richtel and Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz. photo/rebecca spence

“To what extent is this a form of spiritual crisis?” panelist Matt Richtel — a novelist and New York Times technology reporter based in San Francisco — asked his fellow panelist, Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz, 33, of San Francisco’s Modern Orthodox Adath Israel. Strulowitz responded that indeed, the digital revolution and its attendant distractions present an “additional challenge” to forging one’s relationship with the divine.

The disruptions once presented by kids sneaking out of prayer services are now adults fiddling with their iPhones. “It’s not the technology,” he said. “I love the technology. It’s the addiction to the technology that bothers me.”

So is there an upside to the technological onslaught?

Absolutely, said Strulowitz. “The flip side is I have access to people I didn’t before. I can call colleagues and rabbis around the world wherever I am. I can go on the Internet and listen to Torah classes, and look up sources and read newspaper articles I wouldn’t otherwise have access to, so in that sense, it opens whole new worlds of learning and understanding.”

Fellow panelist Steven Levy, a senior writer for Wired and author of “In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives,” struck the most discernable pro-technology stance of the evening, serving as a counterbalance to Richtel, who presented a more skeptical and nuanced view of how digital overload is affecting human social interactions, not to mention brain function.

Having reported for the New York Times on the neurological impact of the phenomenon, Richtel cited the statistic that people check email, switch windows or change computer programs 37 times an hour. “What it says, for better or worse, is that people are not focusing.”

In response, Strulowitz suggested to the nearly 100 audience members that the Sabbath is the modern-day salve for increasingly distracted lives.

“The Sabbath in our generation is not about not working your field or not sewing a quilt. The Sabbath today is about turning it off, not checking your Facebook or your Twitter or your texts.” He added that Friday night is the only night of the week he can actually focus long enough to read a book. “Now what’s the first thing I do when Shabbat is over?” he quipped. “I turn on my cellphone.”

Rosen framed the question as one of finding balance.

All three panelists agreed that striking that balance — what Richtel termed a “digital diet” — is key to using technology to our benefit, rather than falling victim to its insatiable demands on our time.

Audience member Michael Jutan said he came to the panel specifically to talk about balance. “It’s an issue for me and everyone of my generation.” Jutan, 29, said he’d grown up glued to his computer, ultimately turning his obsession into a career as a software engineer at Lucasfilm. Jutan maintains his own version of a “forced Shabbos”: On Saturdays, he’ll often turn off his cellphone and sip coffee while sitting by water, contemplating his week.

“There are times when I want space to recharge my mental, social and spiritual batteries,” he said. “The only way to do that is to actively stand up against the immediate-response culture that the cellphone encourages, and just let people wait for a bit.”

Rebecca Spence
Rebecca Spence

Rebecca Spence is a freelance writer and editor. She is currently at work on her first novel.