The Head of Change

For this month’s OC Jewish Life Magazine, I reflected on technology and change at Rosh Hoshanah:

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The Head of Change

by Rabbi Elie Spitz

OUR SMART PHONES are a powerful tool and distract us from the immediate moment. Whether used for good or bad, we are hooked. Consider the results of a recent international survey of people asked: Which of the following things would you give up for one year rather than give up personal use of your mobile phone? A majority said that they would relinquish dining out; their pet; or one day off a week. More than a third said that they would give up sex.

The first iPhone was only released on June 29, 2007. Combining an iPod, phone, and internet browser, the device was revolutionary.  There was no camera. Flash memory density was not advanced enough to store a single photo on the iPhone. Today’s new cell phone camera offers 16 gigabytes (or 128 billion bits) of information on a flash memory chip. Consider the use of that camera. In 2000, Kodak announced the taking of a record number of photographs, 80 billion. This year the projection is 1.3 trillion. And those still and video images are instantly sent to friends or posted online for all to see. We live in a time of accelerated change. As Yogi Berra quipped, “The future is not what it used to be.”

Rosh Hashanah literally translates as “head of the year.” But, the Hebrew word shinui,  which means change, shares the same root as shanah. When we wish each other a shanah tovah, a good year, we are simultaneously saying, may you be granted good change.

Change is a constant. Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher of 2500 years ago, noted that as the water of a river is never the same when you step into it a second time, so too, “we who step into and out of the river are different beings.” I have an oil lamp of 2500 years ago from Israel. This ancient technology was remarkably similar to the oil lamps of a thousand years before and for the next five-hundred years. The lives of our ancestors changed so much more incrementally than our own. So hold on to your seats. Change is coming and fast. And in most facets of our lives. The iPhone is only an example of the stunning rate of technological advancement. Already, computers can win against our chess, go, and jeopardy champions. Machine learning allows computers to progress in skill at astonishing rates. Some muse that the factory of the future is a room full of machines, plus a human and a dog. The human will feed the dog and the dog will make sure that the human does not touch the machines.

On Rosh Hashanah we are prompted to pause and to reflect. Questions abound: As machines become more intelligent than people, what does it mean to be human? Are we collectively using technology to nurture mother nature or degrade her? Are we enabling more people to lead lives of nutrition and dignity or reducing the quality of life due to expanding desert and dictatorship? And on a personal level, are we asserting our distinctive humanity by sharing hugs and praise with those around us and delighting in natural beauty or instead becoming more personally self-absorbed and defined by our possessions? What are the enduring Jewish values that define us?

We Jews love questions, for they serve as a guide and goad for improvement. As we wish each other a Shanah Tovah, a “Good and Sweet New Year,” may we simultaneously bless each other with a “Year of Good Change.”