Over the past few weeks, I’ve tried to pay attention to the habits of fellow daveners in a number of shuls I’ve attended. I don’t claim to know the extent to which my neighbors are connecting with Hashem or how much kavanah they have during Shema. I assume that everyone is doing their best. But I have noticed that during chazarat hashatz, a high percentage of my fellow congregants pull out their phones and seem quite focused on their screens, even while saying “baruch hu uvaruch shmo” and “amen.” I assume that people are being productive during the “downtime” of chazarat hashatz: responding to a quick email or text, checking their calendar for what they’ll be doing after davening, or perhaps even looking at some Torah content. I do not assume that my neighbors are checking sports scores or getting caught up on the latest social media outrage.
This constant urge to check is more significant than the actual content being checked. As Marshall McLuhan writes in his 1964 book “Understanding Media, the Extension of Man,” “Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot. For the ‘content’ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.” McLuhan’s words feel very relevant in today’s context of the smartphone even though, in its original context, he was discussing the medium of television. McLuhan’s line about the medium being the message may be more famous, but the image of the burglar and the steak says a lot about our current situation.
New York Times columnist Ezra Klein recently made this point in an article that everyone who harbors nagging concerns about the creeping influence of technology would do well to read: https://nyti.ms/3SonRbp
While it is true that there is excellent Torah content on Twitter, TikTok and Instagram, that content may just be one of the juicy pieces of meat that social media companies carry to distract the watchdogs of our mind. As Modern Orthodox Jews, we have trained ourselves to be good watchdogs. If we see value in general culture, we know that we need to be careful consumers of that culture, embracing the best that edifies us, tolerating that which seems harmless, and rejecting that which would make us coarser and diminish our tzelem elokim. So while we have been busy creating, curating and critiquing content, the burglar seems to have stolen something valuable from under our noses. We’re never bored anymore, and that’s a problem.
We often express concern about smartphones: that they distract us from giving people the attention they deserve. Checking email at the dinner table is disrespectful to the people with whom I’m sharing a meal, and scanning social media while in class or at work distracts me from learning and being productive. While this concern is worthy of our focus, it misses an important point. The problem with smartphones is not just that they’re preventing us from being attentive and productive. It’s that they’re preventing us from ever being bored.
When waiting in line at the supermarket, I might as well be responsive to the person who emailed me that morning. I sometimes think to myself how wonderful it is that technology allows me to be so quick to respond to the needs of others. That responsiveness though, comes with a hidden cost. We no longer have any down time.
Last week, I noticed a strange habit that I seem to have developed when indulging in the guilty pleasure of watching a football game on TV. After each down, when the team huddled and the play clock counted down 40 seconds, I quickly glanced at my phone to see what people had tweeted about the previous play while also taking a moment to respond to a WhatsApp message or a colleague’s email. Time is the most valuable commodity, and that countdown clock was 40 seconds of precious time. I can’t afford to waste it! Ezra Klein mentioned that he was struck by this phenomenon when he walked into a public restroom and noticed that every single man at a urinal was busy reading something on his smartphone!
Research has shown that boredom is something to be cultivated, not overcome. Manoush Zomorodi, an expert on technology and media, recommends watching a pot of water boil without your smartphone in the room and then writing down all the thoughts that occurred to you during that time. It’s during periods of boredom and reverie that new creative ideas arise and that we think about who we are and who we want to be. Doing that work is especially hard when you’re constantly productive and never bored. However, cultivating boredom is, understandably, not popular. In fact, Zomorodi’s book was originally published in 2017 as “Bored and Brilliant” but republished as “Spark” in 2020. Consumers would apparently rather buy a book about sparks than about boredom, and that may be part of the problem.
My point here is not to lament the current state of affairs. This is not a rant about “kids these days.” My point is to bring to our attention that our attention has been taken by a burglar we have welcomed into our homes. A first step in addressing the problem is to recognize what the smartphone is taking from us in addition to all of the benefits that it has given us. When we realize that boredom can be a virtue, we will be more open to the idea of setting certain limits on our smartphone usage. The setting of limitations should be embraced with relief when we realize what we will gain. I try my best to focus on the words of the chazan, and I find tefilla b’tzibur to be among the more powerful experiences of my religious life. At the same time, I will admit that some of my best ideas have come when my mind wanders during chazarat hashatz.
Rabbi Jonathan Kroll is principal of SAR High School.