Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Welcoming our Machine Overlords?

Back in 2003, as a 'newly minted' rabbi, I was chatting with a board member about prayerbooks. We were both lamenting the slow progress on Mishkan T'fillah and how they'd backed off an electronic version to be distributed to congregations along with the books themselves. I opined that in the future we wouldn't need books at all; our PDAs (I think I may even have said palmpilots) would download the day's liturgy as we walked in the door (or we would scan an IR scanner) and have the liturgy we needed right there.

I know I wasn't the first to think of such a thing (if I bothered I could probably find something in a Lawrence Hoffman book that looks pretty similar, as that's what he does), but it in that moment not quite a decade ago, it seemed like madness. MADNESS! This was before the iphone, ipad, Droid, everything-I-need-plus-angry-birds-in-my-pocket, but we could see it was coming.

Of course, it's not madness. This week, the CCAR released Mishkan T'fillah as an ipad app (with more to come for iphone, droid, etc.). Orthodox siddurim have been available on smartphones as apps (along with seforim like the Shulchan Aruch, Maimonides' writings, etc.). More and more congregations (as well as camp, large gatherings, etc.) are emulating the megachurch approach to project the service on a wall, sometimes interactively. More and more synagogues are livestreaming their services. We have seen the future, and it's 'itefilah'.

Part of me thinks this is fantastic. In fact, part of me thinks this doesn't go far enough. It's not enough to have the siddur in my phone for convenience. There should be a social media element to it as well; a way of sharing one's own personal meditations, Twitter-style, while in the moment (this past year's NFTY convention had exactly that; a live Twitter-feed projected along with the liturgy at T'fillah). Certainly to have something like that with seforim to allow for fully engaged social commentary and study, broadening the realm of a study community beyond the self or the four walls or even the need to find a local chevruta and learn, comment, reply to and study with a whole host of folks through Social Media (JPS is starting to experiment with that with their "Tagged Tanakh" ). Why not 'check in' to parts of the liturgy or Torah reading (or a daf yomi, perhaps) Foursquare-style, to signal to friends that you're this far along in your study, in order to encourage others? What about integrated media? You can't make it to services? Don't just 'watch' on the livestream: participate with your itefilah following along, 'synced' with the service you're livestreaming? We have seen the future, and has social media integration.

It sounds exciting--and terrifying. I know of one colleague who loves technology (blogs and tweets, so she's ahead of me) who's bemoaning the distractions that will come from bringing your tablet to services as your siddur. Services getting boring? Don't like the tune? stick your headphones on and tune into a different service! Or just check twitter, the scores, play some tetris etc. And what is there to say about the financial and social stratification: if you don't have a smartphone or tablet, and have to use a prayerbook, does that convey something negative to your fellow worshiper? Does the competition of the parking lot (who's got the better car) now migrate to the sanctuary? Finally, what happens to the sense of praying as a community? We've all seen cartoons lamenting/laughing at youths 'having a conversation'; that is, looking down at their phones and saying nothing to each other. Does this technology bring people together, or push them apart? We have seen the future, and it's...well, kinda lonely.

In Ernest Cline's book Ready Player One, the main character, and indeed all the characters, have escaped a dystopian future world without hope by immersing themselves in a video game world full of pop-culture nostalgia. But at the end, in true 80s movie fashion, the protagonist learns that this escape has led only to a solitary and solipsistic existence, that the world is worth engaging and saving. I marvel at these developments and know that meaningful, engaging Jewish prayer is evolving in directions I couldn't possibly imagine even two years ago, never mind 10. And so long as it's meaningful, engaging, communitarian and prayerful, I welcome our new machine overlords. And if its not, what are these things except new idols demanding are attention?

If you have thoughts on technology (good or bad) I'd love to hear them!

1 comment:

  1. Just because something is possible -- and now available -- doesn't mean it is desirable. I am saddened by the new definitions of "community.". Online community to me is an oxymoron. So is individualized communal prayer. It saddens me that even here in this post, I am part of the move toward "communal isolation.". Alas ...