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iPhones Are Bad for You

What the ultra-Orthodox campaign against smartphones as “a spiritual Holocaust” gets right about technology

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(Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty Images)

Had you ambled through some of Jerusalem’s more stringently Orthodox neighborhoods last month, you would have come across a slew of strongly worded pashkvilim—publicly posted ads informing the faithful of the latest rabbinic declamations—targeting a mighty foe: the smart phone. “They will bring about a spiritual Holocaust on all those who use them,” read one ad. Another, specifically targeting iPhones, called users of the world’s most coveted gadget impure beings who are “immersed in filth 24 hours a day and spawn their stench on all those around them.”

It’s easy for us moderns to laugh at such archaic language and portray the rabbis as addled reactionaries. But they aren’t wrong. Smart phones, now used by more than half of Americans, may not be as cataclysmic as Jerusalem’s bearded sages suggest, but their affect on our souls, largely unexamined, is far more detrimental than most of us care to admit.

The most damning argument against smart phones is also the most obvious one. “You’re holding a small device,” Rabbi Mordechai Bloy, the secretary of Israel’s Rabbinical Court, recently told a television interviewer, “and you make a touch here and a touch there, with an iPhone or an iPad or any smart phone, and just like that, he’s in another place. You can be in the synagogue, but you won’t really be there anymore.”

You needn’t stray further than a restaurant or a park to realize the merit of Rabbi Bloy’s claim; chances are you’ll see a good number of people sitting and staring into small screens, unaware of their surroundings and inattentive to their companions. With smart phones offering us the opportunity of communicating with an endless parade of absent friends and strangers—plus a windfall of distractions—we are rarely ever in the here and now: Some other place and time always beckons. Our technologies, as MIT professor Sherry Turkle suggested in her brilliant book Alone Together, determine the architecture of our intimacies; give us the capacity to replace the fear and wonder involved in unmediated human contact with controlled bursts of information, and we won’t be able to resist.

But the greatest calamity heralded by smart phones, perhaps, has to do not so much with how they’re used but with how they’re built. Use a computer to get online, and you are, to borrow Eric Raymond’s famous metaphor, in a bazaar. It’s noisy, chaotic, and full of seedy fellows trying to lure you into their dark corners, but it also allows you a tremendous amount of freedom. Consider the following: Most of what we do online involves using a graphic browser that enables us to surf from site to site; 76.3 percent of Americans use either Chrome or Firefox as their browser of choice; and both Firefox and Chrome are open-source browsers. This means that anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of programming can access the source code and apply it to make new and useful things. And HTML, the language with which websites are created, is simple and intuitive enough to allow almost anyone establish a presence online.

Smart phones, on the other hand, are cathedrals, confined spaces governed by a distinct hierarchy. They run apps, and apps are much more difficult to create, allow for no unsanctioned usage, and are sold through centralized and capital-intensive distribution systems tightly governed by the phones’ makers. Even if you possess the considerable skills required to create the next great app, you have to play by Apple’s rules to get it into the tens of millions of iPhones squirming in pockets across the country.

Such strictures make for a very different experience of interacting with technology; the evolution of electronic games is a case in point. As the gaming industry dawned, in the early 1980s, games were played on personal computers, and anyone could simply type a command and view the game’s code. If you were curious, you could mess around and rewrite it, run the program, and observe the changes, until you figured out what each line of code meant and did. This is how generations of nerds were introduced to computer programming. But their younger brothers and sisters weren’t so lucky: By the late 1980s, electronic gaming occurred mainly on video game consoles, which were walled gardens—unless you were an electrical engineer and could physically rip the box open and rewire it, you had no way of tweaking the content of the cartridges you fed into your Sega or Nintendo.

A similar thing is happening now with smart phones. Kids curious about how the machines work find themselves in a highly restricted environment governed by a handful of corporations. Fewer and fewer of them know the intense pleasures of learning by trial and error and inventing something new just for the heck of it. And if such an approach is detrimental for technological progress, it is also bad for the soul. The more we depend on smart phones as the organizing paradigms of our lives, the less control we have over how we communicate, consume information, and forge bonds with other humans.

The rabbis, then, have it right. Their reasons for banning smart phones may be different—they are primarily concerned that device owners will use them to access corrupting content like pornography—but their hearts are in the right place. We may not want to follow their advice and banish our iPhones altogether, but we should heed their warning and realize that our new shiny forms of connectedness come at a steep spiritual cost.

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Sounds like the rabbi is offended at the touching part and not necessarily the part that pops up after the touching is perpetrated.

Liel Leibovitz’s argument is illogical. First, Smartphones access the same web as the computer bazaar he refers to. Safari on my iPhone gets me to all the html sites that Chrome, Firefox, or Safari do on my laptop. What is this vast difference that Leibovitz is referring to?

Second, as for apps, there are plenty of free apps out there written by average people. Kids curious about apps are out there creating apps! It is no more difficult writing an app for the iPhone than it is writing an app for a computer. Again-what distinction is Leibovitz trying to create?

Third, claiming that Rabbis advocating banning smartphones because they allow access to content the Rabbis don’t like are correct for an entirely different reason is, in itself, an absurd argument. Agreeing with a conclusion based on an entirely different argument doesn’t make the other argument correct.

I’m looking for logic in this article – and I can’t find it. Be real – the rabbi wants to control his flock. Completely. Heaven forfend they should find out that some of what he says is completely bogus, and thus question his authority. (Never mind the arguments about porn – those that want to will find it regardless.)

There are reasons to be aware and thus wary of smartphones, but they primarly relate to their impact on civilized discourse and the absurdity of texting the person across the room. Of course, you don’t need a smart phone to be involved in that nonsense.

So let’s just paint the rabbinic prohibition for what it is. Which is rather like covering your women in burkas with stovepipes on their heads because the men can’t control themselves.

    surfer_dad says:

    “Our technologies, as MIT professor Sherry Turkle suggested in her brilliant book Alone Together, determine the architecture of our intimacies”

    The architecture of our intimacies … that’s crux of the logic.

    It isn’t an either/or argument. Some Rabbis MAY just want to control, but is there anything wrong in suggesting slowing down and getting our heads out of our ‘idiot bricks?’

      No question that we should get our head out of our ‘idiot bricks’ – if that is where they are. At our house, our daughter never had a TV or computer in her room, and her cell phone (she is now a college freshman) remained on her homework desk downstairs when she went upstairs to her room. With those rules in place she never even tried to take her phone to the dinner table, or her iPod to bed, and the only electronic device in her room (after the baby monitor) was an alarm clock-radio with a CD player in it – she went to sleep each night with her Suzuki piano CD playing, right up to the day she left for college.

      She is at college with her ‘feature’ phone, having turned down (herself) anything more advanced as too distracting.

      By the logic in the article, a computer is safer for users than a cell phone. Say what? And the author’s logic is you should ban smart phones because you won’t learn as much about technology as you did when only computers were available. As I said, there is no logic in this argument.

      Even way back in the old days, when you loaded software onto laboratory equipment with a cassette recorder, people could delude themselves. There was the technician who claimed that he ‘programmed’ the computer when he executed this operation. Oh, yeah, he was learning a LOT.

      And like me, if our daughter had her phone at some event or gathering (I have Android), it was off and in her jacket pocket or purse, or left in the car.

      But the no-smart-phone guys? Do they also preach against gluttony and excessive schnapps and beating wives? Or are they aligned with the rosh yeshiva in Israel who has pronounced that women should neither vote nor run for the Knesset? Except for the one he gave an ‘indulgence’ to.

      http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4296854,00.html

      It is the duty of adults and parents to make use of technology and supervise its use appropriately – they are parents, not pals – and saying that the only way is to ban it entirely is a cop out. Yep, the guys can’t control themselves, so lets put bedsheets over the women. And we should not manufacture cars that can go over 25 mph. (And just in case someone doesn’t get it, the prior two sentences are sarcasm.)

Come on, Liel, you’re going off the deep end with this one. Using this logic, we shouldn’t drive modern automobiles, either, since they’re so complex in their structure that only a handful of car freaks on the Daytona circuit can pop up the hood and tweak the engine and tinker with them the way anybody could with a 1935 Studebaker. And we certainly shouldn’t fly in a jet plane! Yes, it’s nice to be nostalgic about how technology “used to be”–when any clever geek could learn the ropes by taking someone else’s work apart and and making his own–but there are always new frontiers for doing that, in smart phone apps as well.
The only reason the rebbes are anti-smartphone is that they offer the easy opportunity to experience the world outside the self-imposed cultural shtetl. Some may agree with that, but I don’t, and I don’t think you do, and romanticizing a different explanation is counterproductive.

Some people like SmartPhones because they are shy anyway, and this gives them a prop. Gregarious people get along as well as they do with or without phones. Look, you can blame lots of things for people zoning out: comic books, TV, books, whatever. Although SmartPhones are more likely to be robbed from you. So beware! BTW, I hope to read Turkle’s book. She’s a Lincoln HS grad (1960s) and her name is painted onto a plaque on the 3rd floor of ALHS, in southern Brooklyn!

I
am unconvinced by the writer and tend to think that the problem is not
the technology. The problem is the users, it seems to me. I am a big
fan of technology, going way back. For example, I got an answering
machine not too long after they first came
out, once I saw that some bugs were worked out. I wanted one for
specific reasons, and I bought one…loved it! I was a busy young
single guy. I had a full-time job and 2 part time jobs, and an
answering machine was a perfect solution for me to keep up with
communications challenges I experienced at the time.

At
the same time, I’ve never allowed technology to determine my life or
how I use it. I decide first if it’s something that will be useful to
me and improve my life in some way, as well as how I would use it. Then,
I jump in and enjoy the benefits.

Alvin
Toffler, in his book Future Shock back in the mid 19070s, predicted
exactly what is happening today, if I remember correctly. He argued
that technology is developing so fast, and more quickly year after year,
that we don’t have the time we had in the past to consider it and its
impact, how to use it best, how to adapt it to our needs, etc., and that
the past and its lessons also are lost much more quickly. This already
was a problem then and would create more societal problems in the
future.

Today,
we have to make the time consciously and wait if we really want to be
masters of the technology rather than the other way around. Many of us
don’t, and then, it seems the technology becomes the end instead of a
means to an end.

So,
while the writer warns of some very real potential consequences, I
think he misses the core issue…us! Even the open source issues could
be solved if we took the time for thoughtful consideration. If memory
serves me correctly, PCs also were closed systems like smartphones back
in the 1980s until enough people pushed for and created open sourcing so
that producers had to listen to the market. Linux is an example.

Geoffrey says:

I would have hoped that someone writing on technology would understand the technology they’re addressing. Internet browsers like Chrome and Firefox are just as present on smartphones as they are on desktops or other devices. The iPhone itself has more of a walled garden approach to apps, but 1) this isn’t a smartphone issue, it’s an Apple issue, and 2) it’s not that hard to make an iPhone app either.

Smartphones are not different from computers, they are their extension ,in a way.
The problem is that this technology is created by corporations, meaning your communication with others is a form of product meant to sell and therefor is created to be addictive, consuming your time and eventually other physical and spiritual resources.

This technology is used to control you and keep you as a consumer, don’t delude yourself .Looking at the(undenied) usefulness of these “Smart” phones, The companies are very proud of themselves, but of course, will not take responsibility for the harmful results of their products on society. Sad as it may sound -that is your responsibility, to implement critical thinking and unchain yourself, free yourself from being a slave to Technology *OR* Religion.

Luddite Liel Leibovitz is right but irrelevant. He is not the first to complain about new technology, nor will he be the last.
For an alternative take, see http://thetalmudblog.wordpress.com/2012/09/13/the-talmud-in-the-digital-age-fragments-from-the-cutting-room-floor-shai-secunda-and-elli-fischer/

Sabato says:

Gil is spot on.

What is so wrong with being “unaware of their surroundings and inattentive to their companions. With smart phones offering us the opportunity of communicating with an endless parade of absent friends and strangers—plus a windfall of distractions—we are rarely ever in the here and now: Some other place and time always beckons. ” ???

Yes, but they may be aware of other surroundings and attentive to other companions! Why is your sense of the “here” and “now” so limited! The web places us in an expanded here and now. It places us in a big, big world. Those people you object to on their phones are living a larger more connected life. They are weaving together a world of peace, in touch with family and friends wherever they go. Social networks are strength. Isolation is the enemy. They are not barred from interacting with their immediate environment – it’s just that they are not limited by it anymore. They can attend to the immediate, or participate in the universal… or alternate as freely as they like.

Now I can see an argument for taking a break now and then. We could call it Shabbat. Yes. That would be nice. But to object to the size of the world that cell phones make possible is to miss all the hope and possibility of modernity that they represent. If you object, give us some reason to worry about that, because I don’t see one.

    Rebecca Klempner says:

    Things I have seen firsthand:
    People in car accidents while using their smartphones.
    People at restaurants completely ignoring their companions (including their spouse on “date night”) while using their smartphones.
    People at museums/the zoo/the park who spend the whole time on their smartphone instead of bonding with their kids.
    That doesn’t sound like “weaving together a world of peace” or “participating in the universal” to me. It sounds like being around a bunch of addicts.

      As if people didn’t have the capacity to be jerks before the cell phone… To blame the technology seems silly beyond words.

This article is a great example of the phenomenon of non sequiter.

How is this different from culture who’s leaders tell the congregation what books to read, what prayers to recite at what specific times? Who the can communicate with and what topics are suitable for men or women.? Smart phones are really dumb devices, electronic phone books to be consists. The user must use self control just like in every thing from food to words, the phone only does what the user wants.

swellguy says:

This is a great article. I SMS’d it to my brothers who work in IT.

Sent from my Samsung Galaxy IIIS

They aren’t afraid of porn as much as they are afraid of blogs, knowledge and enlightenment.

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iPhones Are Bad for You

What the ultra-Orthodox campaign against smartphones as “a spiritual Holocaust” gets right about technology

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