How long will you focus on this article? Will you interrupt reading it to answer your cellphone or check your e-mail?
Attention spans have been dramatically shortened. A horde of digital devices emitting beeps, bells and buzzes demand our deliberation. There’s no time to think when there’s urgent text messages and e-mails.
Even though I’m a rabbi, I’m an authority on digital disruption. I’m a BlackBerry toting, Internet blogging, cellphone conferencing kind of guy. For a while, I kept my BlackBerry on “buzz.” Eventually, I started to feel phantom buzzing on my hip, even when I took my BlackBerry off. My brain continued to buzz on it’s own. My BlackBerry was driving me crazy, one buzz at a time.
I was suffering from “BlackBerry Brain.” In fact, researchers in several countries have documented cellphone and personal digital assistant (PDA) addictions. These devices demand our constant attention. Eventually, you feel empty unless you’re typing, tapping or texting something to somebody.
Our electronic masters take advantage of a design flaw that we humans have: a propensity to fixate on details.
Even in the area of religion, overzealous attention to detail can be destructive. The Talmud refers to the “foolish pious man” who refuses to save a drowning woman because it would be a breach of modesty. Details, in this case, get in the way. The pious fool ends up being blinded by petty pieties.
We may not be pious fools, but a lot of us are PDA fools. We fixate on this buzzing busybody of a BlackBerry and forget the people standing in front of us. I must admit there are times that I arrive home to my family, and instead of saying hello, I type away on the BlackBerry, knocking off the last e-mail of the day. At that moment, when “just one more e-mail” gets in the way, we experience the first symptoms of BlackBerry Brain.
As BlackBerry Brain worsens, we completely forget how to focus on other people. Old friends go out for lunch, and instead of catching up, they feign listening to each other while tapping out quick e-mails. With BlackBerry Brain, our friends get replaced with shiny new gadgets, soulless devices that just make a lot of noise.
To my mind, the affliction of BlackBerry Brain underlines the ever-increasing importance of the Sabbath. More than ever, we need a night when we turn off the BlackBerry and close our cellphones. More than ever, we need a night when the TV and computer remain dark. Our technology-drenched age needs tranquil moments when authentic, person-to-person connections can flourish.
Shabbat is the perfect time for that to happen, because true connections come from your soul, not your cellphone.