Stepping Out Of Time
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Stepping Out Of Time

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

We are bombarded daily by images and data. You could hardly call the plethora of numbers and text “information.” That would imply that some utility attaches to it.

Undoubtedly the most annoying and most carefully counted of such material comes in the form of advertising. According to people in the advertising business who get paid to keep track of such things, in the 1970s one could expect to see about 300 ads per day; by 2006 that number had risen tenfold.

The visual detritus is not limited to profit-making ventures. With the rise of the mobile phone camera, more photos are taken than ever. In 2014, Resource Magazine predicted that one trillion photos would be taken in 2015, and that by 2017 there would be over 4.9 trillion photos stored. If they were stretched out in space as 4-by-6-inch prints, they would stretch to the sun and back 2.5 times.

And that’s not counting television, radio, print publications, billboards, stickers on subway turnstiles, the sides of buses, sandwich board men, wall posters and whatever method of “communication” I’ve forgotten.

A thoroughly sated Yiddish speaker might say, “Genug.” Enough already.

As a writer, particularly one who covers popular culture, I find myself an active participant in the proliferation of verbiage and imagery, albeit an unwilling and often unhappy one.

Unsurprisingly, I’m not alone in my disquiet. Indeed, what brought the subject to mind was a series of recent e-mails from Tiffany Shlain, author, blogger, filmmaker and Webby winner, extolling the virtues of unplugging regularly. As befits an artist with a strong, proud Jewish identity, Shlain places her tiny mutiny against the post-modern world in a specifically Jewish context, calling her weekly ritual of decompression a “technology Shabbat.”

On the website for the Moxie Institute, one of Shlain’s vehicles for her creative work, she explains:

“My family and I completely unplug from all technology one day a week. Every Friday night, we all unplug from all of our technologies and don’t turn them on again until Saturday evening. Unplugging for a day makes time slow down and makes me feel more present with my family. I not only appreciate this quality time with them, but it has also made me appreciate technology in a whole new way. By Saturday night we can’t wait to plug back in.”

If Shlain’s lifestyle decision and its rhetoric have a familiar ring, perhaps that’s because it replicates the routine of observant Jews over the past four millennia, and does so in terms reminiscent of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s magisterial “The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man.” That book was published in 1951, long before the Internet, cell phones and 500-channel cable television. But as Heschel knew well, the pressure of quotidian concerns impinged on even the simpler live Jews lived then, as it has for as long as there have been human beings and calendars.

He wrote, “Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious. Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time; to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.”

The central pillar of the Jewish understanding of sacred time, of course, is the Sabbath, which Heschel famously called “a sanctuary in time.”

I would be lying if I said that I am traditionally shomer Shabbes. I go to shul frequently for the Sabbath, but not every Friday/Saturday. I will answer the phone if it rings, turn on a light if a room is dark, use an electric appliance if needed.

But I don’t do anything that remotely constitutes paying work. And in recent years, like Shlain, I stopped using the computer, cell phone or TV during Shabbat.

It’s possible that my work has made me hypersensitive to the ever-accelerating pace at which the images and numbers are hurled at us. Moving images are cut ever faster on film, video and digital media. It has become impossible to ignore, and hard to endure, the sheer trivialization of everything that can only achieved by the randomness of contemporary news-gathering: the juxtaposition of the latest death tolls from terrorist violence in Europe/the itinerary and one-liners of the presidential candidates/profit-and-loss statements from Wall Street/the box-office figures for the week’s movie releases/the Olympic medal count, the Mobius strip that scrolls endlessly across the bottom of our computer and television screens.

If only for 25 hours a week, a “technology Shabbat” maybe the least we can do to avoid a certain disastrous end, to postpone being swept away by a tidal wave of second-hand imagery and indiscriminate “facts” real and imaginary, commodified for our supposed pleasure. To consciously choose to step back from the torrential flow may be our only hope of maintaining perspective and sanity.

George Robinson’s column appears the second week of the month.

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