n a recent piece in City Journal, former Time essayist and current Ethics and Public Policy Center fellow Lance Morrow zeroes in on the essence of the smartphone:

The smartphone is… an absorptive miniature self and a megaphone and magical extension of the user, a Swiss Army knife of the mind: a genius, it must be admitted, compared with the dope who holds it in his palm. The self plunges into the little screen, Googling or texting with double thumbs, posting away, begging to be liked or shared.

Yet the transaction is not what it pretends to be. You’re not using the phone; the phone is using you. The smartphone is a Trojan horse, and you are Pavlov’s dog. The machine studies you with an alien’s eye, serving you with injections of warmth and affection (grandchildren, frolicking dogs) in order to suck out information, assembling a dossier — noting where you have been, what you have said, what you have bought and thought, your very footsteps and heartbeats — reproducing you as a useful commercial or political object, as if in a 3-D printer.

You’re a customer, a thing: fodder for algorithms. It is ruthlessly done. A suspicion of the fraud — since you were seeking love in the “likes” and “shares” and emojis — is why you come away vaguely depressed after a Facebook session. Your Facebook “friends” may or may not be your friends, but the intelligent machine is, in a deeper sense, your enemy: a predator with a repertoire of flashy metaphysics at its disposal, a hall of mirrors. The sleek machine is in the business of harvesting souls.

For me, at least two important points emerge from these paragraphs. The first is about the deeply engrossing nature of the experience. Watch others immersed in their phones for long enough, and an observable pattern emerges: the facial expression, a faint half-smile, equal parts beatific and entranced. It’s not anything like what one sees on the faces of people reading books or newspapers or conversing on the phone or in person.

It’s the look of someone who’s not really here, having been mentally transported away from this life and this world. When Chazal wanted to convey to learners of Pirkei Avos the extent of the damage wrought upon us by three cardinal bad middos — kinah, taavah, and kavod — they chose the phrase “motzi’in es ha’adam min ha’olam,” they remove a person from the world (Avos 4:28). These three traits of jealousy, pleasure-seeking, and pursuit of honor all have the capacity for creating alternative mental universes where those possessing these traits live, detached from reality. For Chazal, there was no greater indictment, because to detach even temporarily from real life and enter an imagined one is, simply put, death in installments.

Morrow’s second point is that technology users need to wise up to the way in which they are being manipulated to their great detriment and the concomitant enrichment of people and entities for whom their welfare isn’t even a remote consideration  — their emotions and thoughts played with, their privacy invaded, their pockets picked.

In fact, the very word “smartphone” misleads about what it really is. Smart? Are we going to impute human characteristics to contraptions of metal and plastic, like zoologists who extol the so-humanlike intelligence of chimpanzees? To a self-respecting individual’s mind, he’s smart, and his gadgets do his bidding.

Phone? Is that really its primary use for us, and if not, why not call it what it is — a pocket computer, movie, and TV screen rolled into one, and a portal to everything the world has to offer, from the sublime to the indescribably degraded. By comparison, “smartphone” is so much more psychologically comfortable to use.

Jews are by nature so sharp, so good at identifying business opportunities and pitfalls and avoiding being taken advantage of — how have we surrendered that healthy skeptical sense to join the society-wide reflexive embrace of technology without limits? It ought to infuriate us, but we just smile and dive back into our tech-induced reverie.

“You’re not using the phone; the phone is using you.” Now there’s an appropriate refrain for our times.


OVERDUE OVERTURE It’s well-known that there were gedolei Torah — Rav Moshe Feinstein ztz”l comes to mind — who would observe with some consternation that people often came to them with their tzaros but not nearly as often with word of their subsequent deliverance from those travails. Individuals would seek a tzaddik’s tefillos and brachos, yet fail to return to apprise him when things took a turn for the better, thereby giving him relief from his concern over their predicament.

This may be human nature, but it ought not to be that way. And that’s all the more true when the tzarah is one that nearly befell an entire community.

It was just a few months ago that a major threat to the viability of the entire Orthodox Jewish educational system in New York State materialized almost overnight and from almost out of nowhere. Our communal leaders, recognizing very clearly the grave danger the State Education Department guidelines posed to our religious and communal autonomy and the very continuity of our children’s chinuch, mobilized media coverage, organizational efforts, and grassroots activity to a heretofore unimaginable extent. It was an unprecedented display of unity of purpose in response to an equally unprecedented challenge to what we hold dear.

And, b’siyata d’Shmaya, those efforts succeeded. Although governmental-relations shtadlanus seemed to largely fall short, once matters reached the judicial system, the dedicated askanim representing our broad community quickly prevailed.

Yet strangely — or so it seems to me — in the aftermath of the successful resolution of the crisis, something has been lacking. Perhaps I missed it, but in the weeks since news broke of victory in court and the rescission of the SED guidelines, I’m not aware of any large-scale effort to have the Orthodox community as a whole, or any of its various constituent communities, join together in an expression of thanksgiving to HaKadosh Baruch Hu for that which He has done for us. Nor, for that matter, have I seen any public expressions of thanks to the individuals and organizations that were at the forefront of the efforts to combat this extraordinary attempted encroachment on our rights.

Perhaps this can be partially explained by the fact that the resolution of the crisis, in the form of the New York State Supreme Court ruling striking down the SED guidelines, came a mere three days before Pesach. The news of our extrication from danger came, then, during what is arguably the single busiest week of the Jewish year, and at a time when our various media organs had already published their Yom Tov issues and gone on a holiday hiatus.

And maybe, too, it has something to do with the fact that when beset by troubles from without, we have a tendency to be quick to identify the flesh-and-blood culprits — whether the UN or the SED or any other — yet much slower to see beyond these actors to the Hand of Hashem that, the Torah teaches, is the Real Mover behind unfolding events. And when we haven’t seen the initial tzarah through that uniquely Jewish lens, well, that makes it much more likely that we won’t see the yeshuah from that same perspective, either.

It’s only weeks ago that frum publications suddenly, and justifiably, shifted into full crisis mode, running stories week after week bannered with two-inch-high headlines warning of the impending menace of governmental infringement on our schools. And just as suddenly, the entire issue disappeared from view, as if it was all but a bad dream.

We’re well along the road to Shavuos, celebrating the giving of the Torah whose study was at the heart of this recent near-calamity. Isn’t it time that as a community, we went back to the Ribbono shel Olam to share the good news, so to speak, thanking Him and his shluchim for the outcome?

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 761. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com