By Corinne E. Yourman
Special to WJW
This fall, in the midst of a pandemic that has marked an uptick in our reliance on tech to keep us learning, working, connected and entertained, a group of former tech executives in Silicon Valley released a cautionary documentary called “The Social Dilemma.”
The film has received critical acclaim for exposing the ways that tech companies monitor our online behavior, then use that information to feed us the very ads, videos and news that they calculate will keep us on their platforms for as long as possible — not for our own benefit, but to maximize their profits. The film advances the claim that the result of all this monitoring and interfering has been a host of social ills, from impaired teen mental health to increased political polarization.
Just one year earlier, in the fall of 2019, Webby Awards founder and Emmy-nominated filmmaker Tiffany Shlain released her book “24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week,” a personal, spiritual and intellectual journey through her family’s decade-long celebration of a 24-hour “Technology Shabbat,” beginning at sundown every Friday. In her book, she mines Jewish and other sources (including Abraham Joshua Heschel’s lovely volume, “The Sabbath”) to recommend the Tech Shabbat as a human-centered approach to managing the tech in our lives.
Jewish but not observant, technologically savvy but able to cast a critical eye on the tech industry, Shlain makes the compelling argument that everyone — Jewish or not, religious or not — stands to benefit from a day’s respite from their digital devices each week. Shlain credits her Tech Shabbats as enabling her to carve out much-needed offline time to devote to family, self-reflection, creative pursuits and rest.
Shlain’s book stands in bright relief against the dark dystopian glare of “The Social Dilemma.” While the Silicon Valley executives interviewed for the film visibly struggle to suggest ways we can take back our autonomy from the relentless pull of notifications, streaks, autoplays and clickbait, Shlain clearly believes it’s possible. As she puts it, if we are able to take regular breaks from our tools, including our digital devices, then it signifies that we have the ability to control them (rather than be controlled by them).
And while it will take far more than a weekly screen sabbatical to revolutionize the business model of big tech and make it more humane, the Tech Shabbat is an empowering step in the right direction.
Shlain’s idea isn’t new, of course, since many in our community already take a weekly 25-hour respite from all forms of work, including use of digital devices, every Shabbat. But Shlain aims to make the practice of a weekly tech sabbatical universal and, for naysayers and doubters, even doable, meaningful and necessary. Her book is therefore also a practical how-to for those who have never experienced a tech sabbatical, particularly a weekly one, with tips for surviving and thriving offline each week. Her reliance on an ancient Jewish practice to manage the contemporary problem of technological overuse and overdependence is extraordinary in its simplicity.
Judaism to the rescue again!
In the fall of 2018, a year before Shlain’s book was released, a friend forwarded to me an article about a different Jewish tech sabbatical — a 30-minute screen-free Chanukah challenge. The challenge was simple: celebrants were encouraged to put down their smartphones for 30 minutes after lighting Chanukah candles, to more intentionally celebrate the holiday.
Proponents of the challenge recognized the incompatibility of sacred time and tech, Chanukah candles and smartphone use. Watching the flames and enjoying Chanukah treats, songs, and dreidel games require us to look up and out toward candles and, if present, family and friends. In doing so, we adopt a physical stance and conscious mindset that triumphantly commemorate miracles small and large, historic and present day.
Conversely, smartphones and other personal digital devices set invisible partitions between us as we hunch over and look down, creating a sense of isolation and imparting an impression of loss, retreat and defeat that is incompatible with the spirit of the holiday.
As this is the year of Zoom, we may find ourselves joining loved ones near and far to celebrate Chanukah collectively, by screen. Which is fine. But what if our community accepted the Chanukah challenge this year and dedicated time to be with family and friends, present or pixilated, by setting aside personal use of digital devices for a brief 30 minutes, even for just one night of the holiday?
And then perhaps we might be inspired to do it again, every week, from sundown Friday until nightfall on Saturday, to elevate the holiness of Shabbat or — depending on one’s needs and personal point of view — to break loose from big tech, reconnect with family and friends, foster creativity and autonomy, experience human flourishing, be more present and mindful or restore moments of rest and meaning that, since biblical times, have been our Jewish birthright.
Corinne E. Yourman, a resident of Potomac, is a screen time advocate at the Children’s Screen Time Action Network.