Is Technology a Tool I Use?

Or is it controlling me?

Compliments Rabbi Lapin,

I am presently reading your book Thou Shall Prosper and came across what you said about how television can affect one’s ability to imagine or dream.

Would that same effect happen with constant use of the computer: be it phone, palmtops, iPads, laptops, among others?

I like downloading eBooks, and once in a while I engage in online courses. I am wondering and worried that constant focus on the computer or phone screen could have a similar negative effect in my imaginative/creative ability…

Nkoyo U.

Dear Nkoyo:

We are delighted that you read our book so carefully and appreciate your question. We wrote that too much television and movie viewing diminishes our imagination. Think about reading an amazing book. The characters come alive in our minds and if we then see a movie version, it may or may not match our own vision. However, if we see the movie first and then read the book, the characters in our mind are going to look just as they looked on the screen.

Furthermore, when we are reading, we can reread a particularly moving paragraph and dwell on it. We can pause and think about a scenario. What do we hope happens? What are the possibilities? Theoretically, we could pause a video and do the same, but realistically most of us don’t do that.

Watching movies on computers and phones leads to the same problem, but there are additional dangers. Many of us have become uncomfortable with silence and stillness. Are we in a doctor’s waiting room? Whip out our phone, read emails, play a game. Is there a fifteen minute break between appointments? Check What’s App, look at Instagram, scroll between screens. Sitting and contemplating is becoming a lost art. Those quiet times that we now compulsively fill, were often the source of our greatest creativity and self-growth.

Now we’d like to provide you with the tools to help you answer your own question, Nkoyo. The chief point is to be able to distinguish between getting information from words and getting it from pictures. Pictures bypass a critical cognitive process wherein we move between abstract and tangible. Letters, words, and sentences are abstract representations, often, of tangible things. This picture of the word “LION” doesn’t reveal a large, fierce, wild feline animal unless you are using that part of your mind which translates between abstract symbols like “LION” and this:

This is why our mothers insisted that we read books rather than comics and other picture books. The more information we absorb through pictures, the more we damage our creative abilities. (This means in EVERY way–for instance, watching a lot of television lowers male testosterone)

The second important point to grasp is that picture images enter our minds via our eyes, but words enter our mind through our ears. Yes, we first see the word with our eyes obviously, but the conversion from abstract symbol to tangible reality is via the ears just as it is in everyday verbal communication. Thus the Biblical verse “…and you shall not go astray after your hearts and after your eyes…” (Numbers 15:39)

It follows that the main issue is not whether you gain your information on paper or digitally, but whether you gain your information mostly via your ears or mostly via your eyes. In other words, is it words or pictures? Shopping catalogs and other silly distractions are heavy on pictures and light on words because they intend to capture your emotions. Serious books are heavy on words and light on pictures. Seek serious, not silly.

We obviously see the benefit of online courses and proudly produce our own Scrolling through Scripture and Financial Prosperity ones. We also appreciate the convenience of downloading books, especially as our bookshelves groan under their existing physical burden. However, we are fully aware that there is no comparison between an online course and one that takes place in person. The connection between teacher and student and the group energy cannot be duplicated. Personally, we find that we do not retain the material in what we read as well when it is online as when it is in real form. (Thank you for buying the hardcover version of our book!) But these days there is so much more valuable information available online than in person, not to mention the convenience factor. So by all means, gather information wherever you can but find most of it in words not pictures. And don’t forget to give yourself enough time without screen stimulation in order to give your mind an opportunity for contemplation and creativity.

In our case, Nkoyo, we relish the 25 hours of our Sabbath when we detach from all of our electronics. We encourage you to create your own, disciplined electronic-free time zone. It might be a certain time period each day or it might be one day a week as it is for us. Let’s make sure that technology is a tool we use rather than a tool that controls us.

Enjoy the quiet,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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