The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
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Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Friday, February 8, 2013

Asking for Direction(s)

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Parshat Mishpatim • 08 February 2013

Asking for Direction(s)

I read an interview this week between the Atlantic’s James Fallows and Google’s Michael Jones, the Chief Technology Advocate. (Jones founded Keyhole, which put hi-resolution satellite images of Earth online and was acquired by Google to form the basis of what we now know as Google Earth, which 1 billion people globally have installed on their computer.)

The title of the interview is, “The Places You’ll Go,” borrowing from a beloved Dr. Suess book. It's a conversation about the future of digital maps. The biggest change in map technology is already here: personalized, customizable maps in the palm of your hand. You can zoom, swipe, and get directions anywhere you want to go.

Jones spoke also about what the future holds: that we'll have a wearable computer that will provide a “continuous stream of guidance and information, and no one else will even know you’re being advised.” Instead of walking around looking at our smartphones phones in our hand, there might instead be words or sounds in our ears, or visual cues projected onto our glasses. You'll feel, as Jones says, “Like a local everywhere you go!” Imagine a trip to a foreign country, where the street signs will be translated before your eyes.

And then there’s this smartphone app, Field Trip. You launch it on your phone and first tell it how often you want it to “bother you” (often, rarely, etc.). Then you just leave it in your pocket. And as you walk around, it will buzz and say things like,
A few hundred feet away is the best Pizza place in town...
or, You’re not far from a popular science museum in that direction...
or, “Around the corner behind you is where a scene from your favorite movie was filmed.”
Over time the app learns what you like, and so it gets better at knowing what to point out to you. It's like “getting to walk around with local experts who know your tastes, wherever in the world you go.”

This is all very cool, no question. It opens up the globe to us in radical and exhilarating new ways.

But it’s also a little bit scary, or a lot. And not in the sense that all those movies from the 80s and 90s, like the Terminator, would have us believe, that we are on the path to the computers becoming aware, and then evil, and then rising up to destroy us. It’s scary in the sense that we are becoming so irreversibly attached to our technology. Jones says that people’s IQs are 20 points higher because of Google search and maps, and that’s why we get upset when they don’t work, or give wrong information -- because we “feel like a fifth of [our] brain has been taken out.”

I see it in our b’nai mitzvah students, some of whom walk around glued to their phones like it’s an additional appendage. I see it in parents and friends who are paying attention to their smartphone rather than each other. If I’m being honest, I see it in myself, a little too connected all the time, a little too unwilling to disconnect.

But beyond these concerns, which you’ve probably heard me raise before, is another, more striking issue. It’s what we might call “false hope.” Toward the end of the interview, Jones says this about the power of the mapping revolution:

“No human ever has to feel lost again.”

I know he meant it in a strictly geographic sense, but it struck me as a sad overstatement of the power of technology. I believe we are too easily seduced by shiny, flashy objects, by the works of our hands. That’s probably part of why God in the Torah is so insistent that we not worship idols -- because we have an innate tendency to do just that. So my worry is that we start to worship this revolutionary technology, these works of our hands, and start to fool ourselves into thinking that they can not only give us directionsbut also give us direction, that is, purpose, meaning, guidance.

But they can’t.

For that, we must look elsewhere. And the Torah, and our tradition, is a good place to look -- as it has been for several millennia. Mishpatim, this week’s portion, is the first that is majority law, rather than story. And sometimes we think those portions are less interesting, or that we relate to them less. But these laws are precisely the life directions that I’m suggesting our tradition can provide.

We heard verses already tonight, chanted so beautifully, about letting your land go unsown every 7 years, so the needy may eat of it. We heard a command about Shabbat, that we rest so that our animals, and those who work for us may rest. There are laws about lending money, about fair payment of wages to workers, about fair treatment of strangers. There are rules about idolatry, about liability for damages, and there are also laws about celebrating Pesach. So it’s about justice and morality, responsibility and community, spirituality and family.

And of course our tradition demands interpretation, to apply it to our modern lives, but the core value is there, in that ancient text, offering us what even the “next big thing” in technology can’t provide: A guide to what it means to be human, a sense of where are you headed, and how to get there.

What it offers, if we are open to it, is direction.


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