What, Me Worry about the Internet?

There was a massive ultra-orthodox Jewish symposium Sunday (over 50,000 men in the NY Mets’ stadium) on how to deal with the ways the Internet is affecting strict Jewish practice. This full interview with the organizer may be interesting only to Jewish people, or to those inordinately fascinated by very, very religious people.

But one part of it really struck me as stunning. Stunning for all of us, not just for Jews and the Jew-curious.

This is what I’m talking about (interviewer’s questions in bold):

When you look at Talmud study, the study of Jewish ethics and philosophy, there’s a lot of complex stuff going on there. The ability to study those works can be undermined by Google and the Internet.

So you’re saying that the way the Internet presents information is fundamentally at odds with the way religious Jews want to process it.

Absolutely. You go into any Yeshiva — secular people would be astounded at the mental and emotional stamina required to decipher those texts. My son is 14 years old. He’s in 9th grade. He has to sit every morning for two to three hours at a time studying the Talmud. And he’s only a high school kid — full-time Torah scholars spend every waking moment doing this. And then you think about the way the surfing and twittering culture is scattering our attention. I don’t think those two paradigms are compatible. Or at least, this is a challenge that has to be addressed.

Have teachers at yeshivas actually complained that their students are less and less able to focus on Torah study because of the Internet?

It’s the talk of the rebbes’ lounges — the teachers’ lounges. There’s been a precipitous drop in kids’ ability to read, process, remember, recall, and produce quality work.

Every so often, we get the chance to look at a highly insular/insulated culture for insights about how mainstream culture works. Too often this process is overly exoticizing or otherwise disrespectful to the people we study. Ethnography is complicated, difficult work.

But this little snippet is really powerful proof that Internet culture really does make us, well, not stupider. But less capable of sustained concentration and thought.

I’m usually really skeptical of the “kids these days” arguments, no matter what they are about. And I think that certain truths about human life will not be changed by the Internet. You know, our desires for love, growth, connection, warm blankets on cold nights, cookies.

But certainly the way we experience our lives has changed. And once I agree that yeah, things HAVE changed since the digital revolution, I usually tend to stay moderate. Like, these changes are just as good and bad as the last technological epoch. We just have to cope with them. Enjoy their many many wonders and stay cautious about their potential dangers.

And I think you know, life is life and we’ll all keep doing our best and trying to be happy. The google and facebook and interface and screen, they’re peripheral to all that.

But then I read something like this. An ancient tradition preserved rigidly by hundreds of thousands of dedicated people. Interrupted by the flitting, tabbing, liking, scrolling and clicking of contemporary culture.

And it seems that the Internet is actually changing us. Changing our brains.

I’m guessing (hoping?) that all those yeshiva boys will figure it out. At least, those that want to stay in yeshiva. They’ll get a little older, a little more able to sit all day and contemplate ancient texts, just like their fathers and grandfathers. They and we will all keep on keeping on, like we always have.

But I wonder.

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