Monday, February 17, 2014


by Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, Principal

In a recent book, The App Generation (Yale University Press: 2013), Howard Gardner (of Multiple Intelligences fame) and Katie Davis explore the impact of technology on the “App Generation”, as they have dubbed today’s youth - the generation for whom technology has always been a part of their lives. They research the impact of technology on the identity, intimacy and imagination of the current generation. Of the many issues that they explore, I would like to highlight two of the ways that technology in general and social media in particular shape the psyche, the mindset, of those of us who are always connected.

Identity creation - In a recent conversation, an SAR graduate currently in college intuited one of the authors’ insights. In the social media world, one is always constructing an online identity. We choose events, pictures, songs and many other things that, together, define our online persona. What we select is significant in constructing that identity. Equally significant is what we leave out. And the psychological impact is profound. The graduate noted: When you see another person’s page full of great fun, you begin to wonder about your own life. I don’t seem to be having as much fun as they are. Am I ok? Am I missing out? What do I need to do to keep up? In fact, however, the constructed identity itself leaves out so much of what life is - the ups and downs, the challenges in addition to the successes. Our posted life is very partial and often, rather superficial. The cumulative effect of all of this encourages psychological fragmentation and uncertainty unless we are careful and reflective about how to use social media in a healthy way. There is no question of the positive power of social media - it can bring people together, it can topple dictators. But it also impacts and shapes our day to day mindset and expectations, our patterns of thinking, in a very deep way.

Social isolation - Data gathered from the General Social Survey (GSS), an annual survey of Americans’ lifestyle choices and values, from 1985 and 2004, suggest that Americans are becoming increasingly socially isolated from each other. This trend predates the digital age. It is rather ironic that the trend continues despite the prevalent use of social media. The explanation: we are constantly in contact with each other; what is on the decline is deep and meaningful social interaction. In her book, Alone Together (Basic Books, 2011), Sherry Turkle notes that the brevity of tweeting and texting does not lend itself to relating and truly responding to the complex feelings of another. Perhaps more importantly, Turkle claims that crucial to deep relationship is opening oneself up, making oneself vulnerable to another. It is hard to look a person in the eye and say certain things; it is easier - and more distant - to do so via email. But when we make ourselves vulnerable to another and have the conversation, we have deepened our relationship. That is how relationships grow. And a profound insight: even on skype or facetime, where the discussion is face to face, it is virtually (pardon the pun) impossible to make eye contact. To “look into the other person eyes”, one must look at the camera and not at the conversant.

Their overall point: Gardner and Davis do not claim that technology is bad for us. The book seeks to make a distinction between technology as enabling and technology that makes us dependent. Apps can enhance identity, intimacy and imagination; but it can also foster app dependency, where we are less capable of firmly establishing our own identity, strong relationships and personal creativity. Our job as parents and educators is to think carefully and act to help our children - and ourselves - strike the right balance.

(watch beginning with minute 8:00)
Our goal: to strike a balance between ourselves and our technology that encourages healthy identity, intimacy and imagination. The key ingredient: a sense of interiority. We must exercise our internal being, practice closing out the external forces so that we can better develop our internal selves. Doing so strengthens our self understanding, our ability to bring our complete selves to engage with others and to use our own ideas and imagination when engaging a project or challenge.

I propose three exercises and I suggest that we practice them just as we practice a sport, a musical instrument or our writing.

1. Disconnect - imagine that we, as a family, have set times (aside from Shabbat) where we must all be off technology and media. If I have a difficult time knowing what to do without technology, I am app-dependent. If we are able to use our time productively, we are cultivating an independent sense of self that can choose to use technology in a purposeful way.

2. Engage - Set a time each week to talk with a friend or family member. Think of a person who did something that deserves your appreciation; think of a person who has done something that bothered you or made you feel bad. Think of someone with whom you should probably have a conversation - but with whom the time is just never right - and talk. You will be exercising your capacity to share your interior self with others. And it will feel right.

3. Pray - seriously. Prayer opens a remarkable space in our day when we look inward, focusing our energies toward a deep inner space, as well as outward, beyond anything that we can imagine. Prayer is the authentically Jewish balance to our very concrete technological involvements.
It takes some work on our part. But it is well worth it.