I can’t say that I live in a smart home. For one thing, I’m not smart enough to figure out half of the gadgets that can answer my queries like some kind of maidservant savant while monitoring the freshness of my refrigerator.
Another problem is that all these devices that promise to save money actually cost a lot of money themselves. Two hundred dollars for a doorbell that sends pictures of the person at the door. I’ll stick to the window, thanks.
I suppose I have officially joined the older set that no longer sees every new invention as proof of our species’ superiority and begins noticing the cracks in technological culture.
Twenty years ago, I was working in a new media incubator at the University of Georgia where web companies were being launched and students were being taught how to be wildly successful entrepreneurs, the next digital doorbell makers even.
Now, I long for the pleasures of non-screen-based activities. And I’m not alone.
Over the past couple of years, young people have been quietly leaving social media sites. Social networks like Facebook are losing millennials and filling up with people my age and older. In a weird reversal, young people are handing on the popular culture to their elders.
And yet, there are a few hidden examples where technology and tradition intersect in some interesting ways.
For some time now, some Orthodox Jews have been using home automation systems to control their electricity on the Sabbath. These systems have been around for more than 30 years and, in this case, are installed for purely religious reasons.
Sabbath rituals in traditional Orthodox Jewish communities prohibit engaging in household labor. Even flipping on a light switch is considered off-limits or “muktzah.” Automation systems handle everything from turning on lights at night to closing the skylight if it starts to rain. Refrigerators are equipped with a Sabbath mode so that the lights and fans do not turn on when the door is opened.
These sound like extreme measures, but they are all oriented toward one thing, the ability to stop and rest as God did on the seventh day of creation. There is no tending to and interacting with appliances and screens that devour time and attention.
The Sabbath is freed of such burdens, ironically, by a system that automates them. In the place of chores, there is going to synagogue, spending time with family and friends, studying religious materials and practicing contemplation.
I have developed some envy for this practice as I shuttle my kids from one Sunday sporting event to another and try to help my wife cook dinner and finish the laundry so our four kids have clothes for school the next day. If we are not stopping to rest and contemplate on Sunday, when are we doing it?
The contemplative life doesn’t mesh well with the active and accelerated life that technology provides. That is unless we look at technology in a new way and for a different purpose than a means of escape from just sitting still for a moment.
What if we used technology to redirect our attention and memory to the mundane or what the world considers mundane?
Try this next Sunday. After Mass, take a walk with your family or a friend. Bring your smartphone. Try to identify the trees or birds that you see. If you don’t recognize them, look them up on your phone. Read a little about the black-capped chickadee or the elm.
Consider the diversity of sensory experiences already available in nature. Remember who created it. Then stop and rest with him in it.
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Robinson is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life.