As someone with a well-honed sense of wonder, who delights at the sight of a blue jay (even though several of them regularly greet my wife and me outside the window during autumn breakfasts) and who, walking to Maariv each night, surveys the constellations and planets with awe (and feels a frisson at the occasional shooting star), I might be expected to marvel as well at modern communications technology.
And I do, at least to an extent. The rapid advance from dedicated word-processing machines (How futuristic was that StarWriter I bought in the 1980s! It had a five-line screen!) to computers, and then to more powerful computers – and the invention of e-mail and the Internet (thank you, Mr. Gore!) and smartphones – has been nothing short of astounding.
And yet, unlike blue jays and shooting stars, the state of personal tech today often leaves me grumpy. E-mail, for instance, for all its convenience and efficiency, seems to have only increased workloads. The Internet, for all the good that it may have to offer, presents so much that is the opposite of good – not just fraud and panderings to the lowest human instincts but avalanches of ill will and cynical slander purveyed online by disturbed, malevolent individuals. And smartphones are too smart for their own good.
As I discovered a few months ago. As if I weren’t already sufficiently wary of communications technology’s larger challenges, I was accosted by something more subtly irksome, in the form of the message I received when I turned on a new phone. The device introduced itself to me as my “Life Companion.”
Okay, now, I said to it, that’s quite enough. I appreciate (somewhat) the fast and efficient mail-on-the-go, the high voice quality of the phone calls, the reliable music player, the weather and travel apps. But even if this new model could cook supper, wash clothes and proofread articles, it would not be my “life companion.” I already have one of those. And she doesn’t even need a battery.
The device’s presumptuous self-introduction got me thinking about how, really, all of technology is presumptuous. The aforementioned StarWriter (like its great-grandfather before it, the IBM Selectric electric typewriter) was once “the future” of writing. “Super-8” film was supposed to be the ultimate in video recording, here to stay (until it went and left). And, to roll the film (remember film?) ahead to more recent years, does anyone even use a Segway anymore?
Just as the sartorial styles of the 1960s and 1970s look so embarrassingly silly in photographs from those ancient times (yes, we had photographs then – taken by actual cameras!), so will the computers and smartphones of today one day strike our descendants as primitive. “What? You used to have to actually touch a screen or speak into a device?” many a child will ask a wizened grandparent, with a condescending snicker. “Didn’t you have brainwaving?”
All of which points to one way of understanding Shlomo Hamelech’s eternally timely words in Koheles, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Of course there are new things, all the time. They just don’t stay new.
The Talmud teaches us that what isn’t “under the sun,” however, Torah, can yield newness, new insights, new ideas, new understandings. But perhaps the simplest understanding of the limitation “under the sun” is that, when it comes to what the Creator, who transcends the universe, has bequeathed to us in what we call “nature,” the shine, so to speak, never dulls.
Blue jays, comets and constellations may be old things, but somehow they remain fresh and awe-inspiring every morning and every night. They will never go out of style, and won’t ever be improved upon. Things in the natural world are, one might say, engineered to last. In the world of technology, though, no matter what its engineers may imagine, what’s present will one day be past, in fact passé.
And yes, after enough poking around, I finally figured out how to change the greeting my phone offers when activated. Now the screen declares: “This too shall pass.”
© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran