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Background

A hot topic in the Israeli news – as well as in the lives of quite a few people in the “slums” of Tel Aviv – is the issue of people from various countries in Africa who have made a new home for themselves in Israel. The short version of the story is that there is a disagreement as to whether these people are work immigrants who crossed the border into Israel illegally, or refugees who seek asylum in Israel from the persecutions in their homelands. Regardless of which answer is true, it is quite clear that these people are extremely poor, and therefore seek homing in the cheapest areas of the country that can offer jobs to the unskilled. Ergo, they reside (primarily) in the cheaper areas of Tel Aviv and in Eilat – both cities having many hotels that can offer many jobs in house cleaning, dish-washing etc.

As is with many other streams of migrating people in the history of mankind, there tends to be a disagreement between the people of hosting country as to the measure to which they should open their country and extend their hospitality. If we are to boil down the arguments, on both side, to their basic components – we will remain with the underlying fundamental questions of

  1. Can we, morally, disregard the plight from which these people are seeking to extract themselves?
  2. Will this new “type of person” will fit into the fabric of the existing community/nation?

 

Ideals

 

Liberalism

The Liberal, and I am not using that word in a derogatory form (although sometimes it is used as such), essentially says that all people are born equal – a truism that is generally accepted by most people. As such, if one person wishes to better himself in the land of the more-fortunate, it is the obligation of the latter to welcome this person to their midst and to enable him to enjoy the benefits of the welcoming society and land.

This approach is commendable in that it approaches each individual as someone worthy to what any other individual is worthy of. Most modern-day approaches to Humanity preach that the end-goal (or one of them) of Human development is to reach a unity of all mankind. What better a way to promote and expedite this worthy goal than by living according to it?

Nationalism

The Nationalist sees the world, first and foremost, through the prism of how it affects his immediate environment – be that the neighborhood, city, state or country. This approach is well founded in human development, as until fairly recent times (probably around the Industrial Revolution) the concentric circles within which a person resided – would determine the level of safety and conformity that he would feel.

Furthermore, to understand the Nationalist’s point of view, one must ask oneself what is a nation? Is it a group of people who happen to live in geographic proximity? Is it a set of people who share the same ideals? Can any set of people decide that they, as of any given day, are a nation? Does a nation have to have a homeland, or is a nation more of a concept – such as Electronic Money (e.g. Bitcoin) is attempting to make of money?

My personal take on the matter is that a nation is a group of people, who can agree amongst themselves on their core beliefs as a group; if they have a homeland – so much the better for them. Assuming that this definition is acceptable (albeit not necessarily a perfect match) to the reader – then it is clear that when trying to ascertain whether or not to extend hospitality to these people (assuming that they don’t qualify legally according to International Law), the most relevant question is whether they fit in to the existing fabric of core beliefs upon which the State of Israel was founded.

 

More Factors

 

International Law

As I am no expert on Law – let alone International Law – and I don’t perceive it as being mutable merely by the wishes (should they exist) of bloggers such as myself. It is my opinion that there should be no funny business from any State in granting the Right of Asylum to people who should be legally recognized as refugees. That aside, I also think that there should be a balance between the various States and Countries so that all refugees don’t wind up coming to the countries that make it the easiest legally or those that are more easily accessible.

One of the claims raised by the community of African immigrants (be they refugees or work immigrants) in Israel, is that the State is taking its sweet time in checking their requests for asylum. If this is, in fact, the case, I find it to be shameful. As a State founded on the plight of the Jewish Holocaust, we have the moral obligation to be sensitive to the misery of others in similar fear of persecution for the mere reason of who they are.

 

Summary

I wish that I had one. This is one of those cases where no matter what you do, you lose.

  • Take everyone in – the country loses its current national identity within a few generations. Keeping in mind that Israel is only Jewish state, that’s a problem.
  • Leave everyone out – not compliant with International law.
  • Let the bureaucrats decide – nobody is happy.
  • Only accept real refugees – probably the best solution, however still leaves the door wide open to portrayals of Israel as the aggressive country which expels children from where they were born.

Thank God this is not my decision to make.

The book of Leviticus, at least in its first part, is dedicated to describing the different offerings and sacrifices made in the Jewish Temple. By simply reading the book, one might reach the conclusion that a sacrifice is expected for each and every occasion.

However, other quotes from throughout the Bible indicate that it is not the sacrifices that are important, rather how one conducts oneself and how one relates to G-d that is truly important.

And now, Israel, what doth the LORD thy God require of thee, but to fear the LORD thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the LORD thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, to keep the commandments of the LORD, and his statutes, which I command thee this day for thy good” (Deuteronomy 10, 12-13).

And Samuel said, Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15, 22).

 

In fact, the sacrificial act raises a new questions in itself. The first two sacrifices are described in Genesis.

And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD.  And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering. 5   but unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell” (Genesis 4, 3-5).

Both the offerings from Genesis and from Leviticus are from two possible sources: flora and fauna. In Genesis, G-d preferred Abel’s offering (of flora) over that of Cain (of fauna); however in Leviticus, most sacrifices are of fauna.

 

The underlying option of making an offering or sacrificing a sacrifice – emanates from the physical ownership that one has of the sacrificed object. It should be self-evident that one cannot sacrifice what is not his, ergo the human sacrificer must have some form of ownership over the sacrifices, flora or fauna. However, this raises a fundamental question: what is ownership? When can someone claim ownership over another entity, be it a human (slave), an animal or an inanimate object? The (non-legal) definition in Wikipedia is as follows:

In abstract, property is that which is had by or belongs to/with something, whether as an attribute or a component… The Restatement (First) of Property defines Property as any thing, tangible or intangible whereby a legal relationship between persons and the State enforces a possessory interest or legal title in that thing.

However, this definition leaves what to be desired. Based on it, one might define another human being as tangible property and claim ownership. After all, this used to be common practice, and conquering nations would enslave the conquered. This type of ownership can also be found in the Bible:

And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished. Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.” (Exodus 21, 20).

In our time and day, the option to claim ownership over other human beings is considered neither legal nor moral. The best (and most recognizable) statement of this modern train of thought can be found in the United States Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness

Yet, even though the Bible permitted ownership of other humans, it did not allow – in fact it actively forbade – human sacrifice. But, why? What differentiates a human from flora and fauna? Why would the Hebrew (and most other) culture allow for slavery but not for human sacrifice? I would assume that it is for the same reason that Judaism prohibits, under any circumstances (save war), killing – even at the risk of losing ones own life. The reason is brought in the Tract of Sanhedrin in the Talmud:

Even as one who came before Raba  and said to him, ‘The governor of my town has ordered me, “Go and kill so and so; if not, I will slay thee”‘. He answered him, ‘Let him rather slay you than that you should commit murder; who knows that your blood is redder? Perhaps his blood is redder” (Sanhedrin, folio 74a).

In summary, while a man had ownership over his slave, it did not extend to allow the killing of that slave (see the quote from Exodus above) – which means that the slave had an even more important right than the property rights that his master had – the right to life.

 

The question begs itself, in what way is a human better than flora and fauna? Why should it be obvious that a man has a fundamental right to live, why is it now self-evident that a man cannot be the property of another person; yet most of the world unanimously agrees that mankind may own animals – be they farm animals or pets? Furthermore, why should one man own the crop in a certain area, while others who harvest that same area would be considered thieves?

I think, that in case of the flora, the answer is clear. Only the farmer who spent time, effort and money – should be the one to enjoy the fruit of his toils. If one person plowed, seeded, watered and cared for the field – only he can fairly claim the results of his work. But what of cattle, animals, fish and fowl? What is the source of man’s right over fauna?

 

In my mind, the answer is less clear here than before; and this is one of the main reasons, I think, that sacrificing fauna is less common nowadays than in previous times. But before we progress – the answer to the question in the previous paragraph: the right to claim ownership over an animal results from the symbiotic relationship between man and the (domesticated) animal. On the one hand, man provides the animal with water, food, shelter, medical care etc. and on the other hand, he enjoys the animal’s products – eggs, milk, feathers, meat etc. When the exploitation exceeds the norm – man no longer is engaged in a proper quid-pro-quo, rather in an enslavement of the animal. And, similar to the moral awakening of the near past, there is an ever-growing number of people who look for, and are willing to pay for, product that involved less exploitation (such as free range eggs); or even turn to Vegetarianism or Veganism.

On the other hand, the same argument that I made above towards entitling man to the products of animals (the former providing for the latter), used to presented in order to justify slavery. Does this mean that we are moving towards a time where mankind will stop exploiting the animal kind much like it abolished slavery? Does this mean that, much like there are laws governing working relationships between men, there will be “working laws” protecting animals?

Given that as the years go by, more and more laws are legislated governing the rights of animals, it is safe to assume that this is the direction in which we are moving. And as each journey has a destination – we should ask ourselves what is the destination? What is morally right?

 

In order to answer that, one must reach an understanding as to man’s place in the world vs. that of the animal. If both are G-d’s creatures and both have an equal place in the world, it follows that mankind will have to live in full harmony with nature in order to not undermine the individual and  group rights of animals. Deforestation would be banned in order to avoid hurting the forest dwellers. The drinking of milk would be forbidden, much like it wouldn’t dawn on us to milk a human female without her explicit consent. On the other hand, just as animals will (presumably) continue viewing humans as fair game, humans will be able to continue eating animals (does this mean that humans should only be able to eat carnivorous animals?).

If the continuous moral development doesn’t reach the point where we see humans and animals as equal, we will probably continue fine-tuning the rules regarding animal treatment, but never reach a realization whether they deserve equal rights. Of course, this doesn’t mean that equal rights is not necessarily the natural norm.

Spirit and spirituality is what is considered the main differentiating factor between man and animal. It is accepted at face value, that there are the kingdoms of inanimate, flora, fauna and (above all?) – man. There are many philosophies, amongst them Anthroposophy (which the author started studying a few years back), which describe the added value that each kingdom has in regard to the others. If you are not interested in Anthroposophy, feel free to  jump ahead to the next paragraph. The following description is originally from here:

  • the physical body as physical-material structure, held in common with the mineral world;
  • the life or etheric body, the source of life and growth, held in common with the plant world;
  • the consciousness or astral body, held in common with the animal world;
  • the ego or “I” of the human being, the faculty of self-awareness unique to humanity

In other words, the preeminence of man over beast is his conscience – the quality that allows his separation from the world and (among other things) his connection to the spiritual worlds.

On the other hand, studies show that individual plants have the capability to communicate with other individuals in a group – i.e. they possess a group conscience. Furthermore, studies of the animal kingdom show that there is genuine attention and care to individuals in a group and that man-like animals possess individual, “I” like, consciences. Does this mean, that as Ecclesiastes says: “a man hath no preeminence above a beast” or does the less-than-fully developed conscience of the animals provide enough justification to continue their exploitation (in accordance with the moral progress)? What will happen in the future, if animals eventually reach mankind’s current levels of conscience while we move on to newer and higher levels?

I leave these questions to the reader’s discretion.

 

I originally wrote this in Hebrew on 15 Mar, 2013. The original can be found here.

 

Why do I think that I’m Jewish?

The answer to the question above is probably the easiest answer in this entire article. I think that I’m Jewish since I’ve been told that by my parents and by my environment since the day that I was born. They have been telling me this, presumably, because their parents have been telling them the same… and so on until the first Jew in the family.

The obvious conclusion of this timely procession, is that being Jewish is hereditary. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Jewish Religious Law (“Halacha“), as one of the only two ways of becoming Jewish is to be born to a Jewish parent (mother, for Orthodox Jews). The other way is to convert into Judaism.

Notice that by stating the above – i.e. that Jewish Religious Law dictates who is Jewish, I have inadvertently bought into the idea that the authority to decide who is Jewish is, inherently, a religious authority. So… what we need here is a short history lesson.

Jewish History in a nutshell

Safely assuming that the Bible (Old Testament) is accepted as the authority on Jewish origins (whether you agree that it’s history or mythology), Jews originated as both a nation and a religion about 3,330 years ago (give or take). At the time, the unison of a religious faith and nationality was a given. The Philistines worshiped the Baal, the Egyptians worshiped the Nile etc. In fact, the notion that there should be a separation of State and Church is fairly new in our collective history.

As with other examples of organized religion, the Jews have also factioned into various groups that had different takes on what is that defines being Jewish. While many people are familiar with the current Orthodox/Conservative/Reform forms of Judaism, the Talmud describes other such factions (which differed in practice rituals).

The Jewish national and religious center was ravaged and destroyed – and the Jews dispersed, initially by the Assyrians and later on by the Romans. After the destruction of the second temple and the conquering of the ancient land of Israel, the Jews no longer had a national center, leaving them (us) with a national calling and an existing religion. The national calling was eminent in that in all prayers Jews face the direction of Jerusalem and that the prayers call for the resurrection of Jerusalem and the Temple.

The important things to remember here, in my mind, are:

  1. Judaism started out as belonging to both a religion and a nationality
  2. Jewish religion accepts at face value, that there is an automatic acceptance to the descendants of Jews – such that they too are Jews.

But what does it mean?

Ok – I’m Jewish. But, what does it mean? I know, for a fact, that I am not practicing Judaism as  Orthodox Jews do – primarily since I was born into an Orthodox family and knowingly decided not to live my life by Orthodox Jewish dictum. On the other hand, I am Jewish – after all both my parents are Jewish which, ipso facto, makes me one as well.

Life was easier a few years back, when I was an atheist (Jew). I actively disagreed with a notion of God and with the concept of organized religion. I thought of God as a way to answer otherwise unanswerable questions (or those for which the answer wasn’t comforting enough). As to religion, I agreed with Karl Marx in that it was “Opium of the People“. My transition from a practicing Orthodox Jew to Atheist was gradual, and was driven primarily by my inability to come to grasp with the never-ending requirements and taxation on daily life. Orthodox Jews have rules as to what they may or may not eat, where they may or may not bathe, days on which one is forced to rest etc. Taking into consideration my dwindling faith in God (as I understood the concept at the time) – the practice became superfluous and aggravating, and eventually I dismissed them both in my transition from Religious to Atheist.

God

These days I grasp the notion of God differently than in the past. I no longer think of an omniscient and omnipotent entity with an almighty plan that governs, directs and affects the daily lives of people. Instead, I grasp God as the invisible fabric that binds us all together – Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists etc. Furthermore and much like the old concept, this new concept of God represents the fabric uniting humankind with the animal and plant kingdoms; the life on earth with the rest of the universe – i.e. the invisible connection between any two points in the vast universe. In a word, I attribute the wholeness of the universe to the notion of God. But there is more… science believes that we live in one of many mutliverses. Regardless of whether that is true or not, our conditions of living are governed by the physical world that we live in. This world can be described by formulae which, in turn, rely on a bunch of physical constants (this notion was recently presented to popular science enthusiasts in Sir Martin Rees’s book “Just Six Numbers”). Had the physical constants been different, the resulting world would have been different. Thus, the collection of constants that define our physical world are also, in my mind, a manifestation of God.

Religion

As to religion, I think that we should make an important distinction between ritual and belief. The Abrahamic religions believe in a very similar, if not identical, notion of God – yet they differ immensely in ritual. Jews pray 3 times daily, whereas Muslims pray 5. Muslims observe their day of rest on Friday, Jews on Saturday and Christians on Sunday. The differences go on and on – yet the notion of God is almost identical. I conclude therefore, that worshiping and believing in the same God doesn’t necessarily mean belonging to the same religion. The question remains open as to whether belonging to the same religion means believing in the same God. For example, I am Jewish, yet I believe in a drastically different God than that of the environment that I grew up in. So… am I a Jew or not?

So really, what does it mean?

On the one hand, I am Jewish since my parents are Jewish and it is hereditary. On the other hand, I don’t believe in the Jewish God that I was raised to believe in. To make things worse, I do think that there’s a lot of wisdom in Jewish (and other religion’s) scripture. The knowledge of our ancestors is what brought us to where we are today; and while some of their wisdom is not proven to be wrong (the earth is the center of the universe etc.) – when it comes to the interaction of Man and God or Man and Man, their insights are invaluable. Some of it can be read and understood as-is, other points require interpretation to a language accessible to today’s people.

But the question begs itself, am I really Jewish just because my parents were or is it a choice that one has to make for oneself? If the latter, can someone else, born into a a family of another religion, just decide that he is now Jewish and become one? Shouldn’t there be an inauguration? Don’t the existing members have a say as to who can boast the title “Jew”?

Well, if there was ever a touchy subject in today’s Israel – that would be it. The question of “Who is a Jew” has been settled legally, yet it is far from agreed upon. The reason is that all Jews are automatically accepted as Israeli citizens, while non Jews are accepted to an extremely lesser account. Of course, this is because Israel is a Jewish state (see bold paragraph in the Israeli Declaration of Establishment of State of Israel) – but is Judaism still a nationality or has that been superseded by the nationality of Israel?

 Conclusion

I think that we should understand that the meaning of the word “Jew” means different things to different people. To some it means religious heritage, to others nationality and to others a spiritual connection. The real problem is that these separate groups of people don’t agree on what it means.

As to me, I think that one owes it to oneself to understand what it means to belong to any group that he belongs to (in this case – Judaism). And while a person is formally a Jew simply by being born into it, it is not sufficient. Much like the American Nationalization process requires the applicants to be able to pass a short test regarding the principals of American democracy; much like Orthodox converts are required to pass a test in Jewish law – so should any Jew be able to explain what it means to him. And, since Judaism is belonging to a group of Jews – the statement should be agreeable to other members of the group.

All that being said and done, once Judaism broke off from a single school of thought, I don’t think that there will ever again be a really good and widely accepted answer to what it means to be Jewish. Therefore, I don’t think that there will ever again be the ability for a person to identify himself as Jewish and have that identification accepted by all other Jews (except for practicing orthodox Jews who are Jewish based on Halacha definition). The best answer that I can come up with for the question of what it means to be Jewish – given the current situation – is that a person is Jewish when he identifies himself with the way of living, the goals and (in most cases) the spiritual inclinations of one of the factions Jewish people and that that group of people accept this person into their midst (Groucho Marx’s famous quote about club acceptance be damned).

Introduction

I would like to make a distinction that I think is not emphasized enough in today’s society — the distinction between Information Availability and Information Accessibility. Information Availability can be defined as “the information being in a location (either physical or virtual) where it can be found”. Information Accessibility can be defined as “the ease at which this information can be retrieved”. In other words, Information Availability pertains to the information being readily available, whereas Information Accessibility refers to the amount of effort that has to be put into retrieving the information.

I think we can all agree that it is vital for people to have access to information, evermore so if it is information that belongs to them – be it their emails or paid digital content. One of the primary functions of the Internet is to make information available to end-users. It facilitates a medium for sending information without the need for expendable resources and provides a means for retrieving information without being dependent on the physical availability of the information provider. In fact, all that one needs in order to send and receive information is an electronic endpoint with built-in Internet access. And herein lies the tragic trap into which we have fallen.

I am referring to the trap of constant connectivity via tablets, smartphones and recently, the more intrusive Google Glass. At first glance, these portable computational devices provide us with a means to realize Information Availability. After all, as we agreed to the importance of Information Availability and the information in online, what can be better than carrying a portable form of access around with you?

 

The Problems

After owning a series of ever-evolving smartphones, I can safely say that there’s more to this issue than meets the eye with regard to constant connectivity. In fact, there are quite a few facets of this allegedly desirable state that undermine the good it initially set out to achieve. These facets are (in reverse order of importance to the author):

  • Privacy
  • Health
  • Instant gratification and addiction

 

Privacy

To be blunt, your smartphone is (among other things) a tracking and homing device. Even if you disable implicit location-based services, your phone still knows where you are in order to ensure that your calls and data can be efficiently routed to you through the wireless network. Furthermore, your phone shares this information with various sites and servers. There are situations where your location can be derived from the network or where you forget to disable GPS location sharing (or were unaware that it was enabled), others where you are connected to a WiFi router that has a known location (in which case you are within 100 meters of the router). In addition, there are instances where the site actively asks your phone where you are and your phone responds. And if that’s not enough, the newer smartphones maintain logs of your positions over time (articles about how to access these logs can be found online – of course). To cap it all off, as an example of where the industry is going, Verizon Wireless set up a business model in which they actively peddle your location. Search the web for “Precision Market Insights” for more details. Another troubling study on the topic is this one, published by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner in Canada. And last, but far from least, the United States NSA is now confirmed to having an active surveillance program, codenamed PRISM.

Aside from your physical location, companies dealing in information are also keen in ascertaining the types of information you search for on the web. This allows them to provide you with information especially tailored to match your fields of interest and more importantly (for them), to show you advertisements geared to pique your interest.

As more and more services are made free providing that you sign the 17-page pesky EULA (end-user license agreement) and that you sign up for the service using some sort of identification, the companies that provide these services are able to aggregate more and more information about you, your interests, etc. Taking the blatantly obvious example of Google (which I use frequently), your personal correspondences (Gmail) are cross-referenced with your search terms (Google search), your location (Google maps, Android positioning), music and books that you own (Google Play), your schedule (Calendar) and your friends (Google+). While when working from the privacy of your home PC or Mac, you can log out of your accounts and instruct your browser to kindly ask sites not to track you (this is a request for cooperation, not a legally binding contract), on your cellphone, your accounts are always active and therefore, information that relates to you can always be traced back to being about you and not some John Doe logging on at an Internet café.

Of course, there is no good reason to single out Google when Facebook, Apple and other content providers are also out there silently stalking you for the information that you willingly provide in return for the “free” services they offer in return.

My personal take on this is that the damages to privacy can be minimized; however, the ship has sailed on this one and without governments stepping up to regulate which information is fair game and which consists of blatant privacy invasion, the only thing an end-user can do is be aware. The first step towards awareness is realizing that the mobile entry point (aka the smartphone) that you carry around with you compromises your privacy.

Health

There is an ongoing debate as to whether cellular radiation induces cancer or not. While I have my own opinion on the matter, it is based on my understanding (as an electrical engineer) of the articles and sound bites that made their way to the media – not an actual case study or formal review of other case studies.

What can’t be debated is my own personal physical feeling as a phone user. To date, I have used different phones, starting with basic Nokia models (in the early 2000s) via the gorgeous (and totally unsatisfactory) Eten M700 and culminating with a Samsung Galaxy SII Skyrocket.

There are two — presumably related — things that I have noticed:

  • As time passed, I spend more and more time using my phone (calls, not data).
  • As time passed, my phone has caused me to feel physically unwell.

It is quite obvious why I spend more and more time on my phone – people know they can reach me by calling it, whereas I know that if I need to reach someone, their phone number is right there – in the phone – waiting to be used. As a result, my cellphone has become my primary means of communication rather than the backup that it was intended to be.

However, together with the cellphone transversing from backup to primary communication device, it has also become a more powerful computational device. First of all, it now knows how to connect to Bluetooth, WiFi, and data plans. While the Bluetooth option is generally turned off, I am usually connected to either WiFi or my wireless provider’s data plan – after all, I paid good money to be constantly connected. In addition to the above, we are all aware that the device’s capabilities have also increased over time to include music, graphics, eReaders etc. On the modern phone, the modem and RF transceiver are only two of the many computational complexes in the internal chipset. There are application processors, voice codecs, video codecs, GPS receivers sensors, external peripheral controllers (memory card, USB, Wifi, Bluetooth), camera controllers, display controllers and (more often than not) a huge display, etc. While the operating systems do a good job at regulating power to the various components and powering down those that are not needed, the term “not needed” doesn’t translate to what the user doesn’t actually need, rather to what the phone isn’t actually using. For example, while I’m on the phone, I generally don’t need Internet access (talking while using navigation software is a counterexample). However, the phone won’t disable Internet access when there’s an active voice call, and as a result, while the phone is up to my head and dissipating heat due to the various components necessary for carrying out the call, it is also synchronizing my email, performing GPS positioning and a myriad of other unnecessary (to me, at that point of time) tasks. All of these tasks require power, and all this power translates to more heat dissipation, which, in turn, causes me to feel physically uncomfortable. The obvious solution to the heat is to use a speaker of sorts and to move away from the phone, however that only solves the heat issue, not the other physical symptom that I feel when using the phone for extended periods of time – headaches. Put me on a cellphone for over three minutes (with or without a Bluetooth headset) and my head begins to ache. Come the 10-minute mark, my head will be throbbing. Incidentally, this does not happen on my house’s cordless phone. Now I am the first to acknowledge that my personal experience is circumstantial evidence (at best) with regard to the health hazards posed by phones. However, the experience is not unique to me and therefore, I am willing to reach the unscientific conclusion that there is something inherent in the technology that while possibly (and some say probably) not directly cancerous – is definitely not good for one’s well-being.

Instant Gratification and Addiction

The two issues above aside, I believe the most prominent problem that omnipresent Information Availability poses to us as individuals and as a society is the addictive lure that it has and the stripping down of virtues that have held the human society together for many a year. And, while I mentioned addiction and instant gratification as one in the title of this section, they are in fact two intertwined yet distinct issues.

Instant Gratification

Two well-known patience idioms are “Patience is a virtue” and “Good things come to those who wait”. While the preciseness of the second one is debatable, any parent or teacher will tell you that one of the most difficult — yet most important — lessons to be instilled in children is patience. Children, by nature, demand instant gratification – and who can blame them? After all, why sit around waiting for something for which you have a burning desire when, by pestering your parents, you can have it right now? As adults, we know that there is value in delaying satisfaction. In fact, there is more than one reason to do so, of which I’ll list two.

First, postponing something provides time to reflect on the necessity of obtaining it. While I do an abysmal job of not treating myself to chocolate ice cream when stepping into a convenience store, I am well aware that I don’t really need it. In fact, it was there, and since I was paying for something anyhow and I find it difficult to say no to chocolate, plus it “really” was hot – then why not treat myself? On the occasions that I do resist temptation, I can safely state that no harm was done. I remained the same psychological wreck that I always was, the day cooled off and I remained hot.

Second, delaying the decision allows for better prioritization. More times than not, there are multiple issues at hand, many factors to weigh and balance, a tradeoff to consider or simply put – something more important to do. Without delaying the decision, without the ability to delay action and lacking the self-control required to not act immediately, one will frequently find oneself without time to have done the more important thing. As my mother’s, grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s saying went: “First you do the things that you have to do, then you do the things that you want to do”. As a child, I hated hearing that. As an adult, I frequently say it to myself as a means of imposing self-control and avoiding “jumping into action” in order to feed the beast of instant gratification.

Information Availability strips us of the need to maintain this important lesson that was (hopefully) instilled in us as we grew up. With the world at our fingertips, why wait? Why not stop what we’re doing, the conversation we’re having, the personal interaction we’re engaged in, in order to look of the odd tidbit of information that can reinforce something said or that can shed a tiny (and usually insignificant) glimmer of light on the topic at hand? And to make matters worse, our phones are designed to cater to our loss of ability to delay gratification. All modern phones beep, vibrate, ring or flash messages when anyone in our circle of virtually connected friends does anything. Facebook will inform you that your best friend Jane Doe just shared an article that, more often than not, holds no real interest for you. Gmail will let you know that you just received mail – mail which more often than not is no more important than what you happen to be doing at the moment it arrived (even if you’re just chilling out after a long day at the office). Twitter will let you know of tweets, the App Store will push notices of crucial updates to your downloaded apps. And we all know how that pans out… the phone is beeping now, ergo I must check what’s what right now.

There are times when the message is important, perhaps a text message from the parent of a child’s playmate. Most other times, it can be safely ignored until some other time when you’re not engaging in a more rewarding and enriching human interaction.

Addiction

And checking right now leads to the vicious cycle of addiction. We all know (either by experience or by having read the technical specifications) that our phone is not always up to date. There are times — and I call on you to not fall off your chair as you read this — that something happened in the virtual world and your phone has not yet been made aware of it, whether by polling or by the server pushing the information. However, in the innermost parts of our minds, we realize this God awful truth and therefore actively poll the services that interest us by logging into them and “taking a quick glance”. And it usually doesn’t end there. There’s the occasional email from work to check (even though you are off the clock), that important tweet (“Just had chili con carne, yum…”) that can’t wait, lest you withhold this crucial tidbit of information from your friends, thus causing them delayed-satisfaction syndrome.

And so “The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits” (Ecclesiastes 1, 7), where the need for instant gratification causes addiction which, in turn, fuels the need for more instant gratification.

And at this exact point, one should be asking – what’s the rush?

 

What’s the Rush?

Why are we compelled to rush to our omnipresent and omni-alerting portable connection to the outside world?

If you’ve read this article so far, you already know the answer. We are addicted and have (to an extent) lost the patience and attention span required to delay the gratification. However, this isn’t the full story. This loss reflects on our personal lives and actual physical human interactions, as many studies show. It has also reinforced the need to have an “electronic brain” around at all times in order to jot down the occasional necessary piece of information so that it won’t be lost for eternity.

Back in the Stone Age when I was born – i.e. 1975, people had the ability to remember things for long periods of time. I was capable of remembering numerous phone numbers, dates and events, even if these were scheduled for a date a few months into the future. In order to test this statement, I just tried to remember the phone number of the house where my best friend grew up (and he’s still a great friend). Lo and behold, I remembered the number without a hitch. On the other hand, challenge me to remember a number that I started using after I purchased my first cellphone and I’ll fail miserably. I can’t even remember my own mother’s cell phone number (speed dial #6). In sharp contrast, I vividly recall my days in university, a few scant months prior to owning my first cellphone, when I remembered term papers, final exams and other random occasions that were scheduled 3-4 months prior to their actual date of occurrence. What happened?

Well, one could argue that at my ripe old age of 38, my mind is somewhat gone. My kids seem to think this is the case. But, as I said, this happened when my brain was still functioning at full speed – back when I was 24. What happened is that I lost the drive to remember things and therefore the capacity to do so. As many people know and teach, memory is like a muscle and it, too, can become flaccid if not exercised.

However, there’s more to the story. As usual, where there’s a buck to be made, there’s someone willing to make it. Working in the high-tech industry, I hear the vision that industry leaders have in mind and the way they plan to achieve it. That vision is where we have been leading ourselves for the past few decades – constant Information Availability and Information Accessibility. In order to realize this goal, technological breakthroughs are being made so that more and more information will be accessible at any given time. Towards that end, your private information is being utilized, aggregated and filtered so that all sources of this information can be presented to you in a user-friendly manner. Your refrigerator will let you know that you have to go shopping, your washing machine will let you know that you have to take out the wash, your electric meter will inform you of your electricity consumption, your printer will let you know that you’re low on ink and so on. Moving on, your car will adjust itself according to your preferences and play the music that you like – just for you.

Of course, the other side of this coin is that the grocery store can send you advertisements promoting brands of food that your refrigerator knows are missing, as will your friendly printer supplies store. And let’s not lose track of your entire bank of preferences being stored on a single device, kind of like the Identi-Eaze card that Douglas Adams describes in “Mostly Harmless”.

It will come as no shock that companies in the telecommunications industry want to dominate their market. The way to do that is to differentiate the product and sell more units of said product. I have heard on a few occasions that the way to sell more products is to enter the emerging markets in China, India and South America by initially promoting low-tier gadgetry and casually working them up to the higher end devices. I know that this is a sound business plan, but it reminds me of the business plan that drug dealers have. Create the need and then fill it. In fact, since the product is addictive and the higher end devices provide an even greater degree of instant gratification, to me it is exactly like a drug. Keeping in mind the health issues mentioned, the similarity and parallelism steadily increases. Furthermore, there are companies with a declared policy of moving everything to the “Cloud”. One way to look at this is that you are no longer limited by your physical proximity to the location of the information that you want, be it a song, a picture or a document. The other way to look at it is that your Information Accessibility becomes a differentiating feature between hardware and software platforms, one that can be capitalized on. Simply by limiting the amount of memory that your handheld device can manage, you are forced to access the Cloud in order to access your information, and as history has taught us, you are willing to pay top dollar to do it at top speed.

So, while Queen sang “I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now”, I ask – what’s the rush? Do we really need constant Information Accessibility? Can’t we use an older version of a phone, the type that is superciliously referred to as “feature phone”?

I realize that being without a cell phone is an option, but one that has its price. I doubt that living without a smartphone has a real price. The only tangible added value that I have found for my smartphone is as a navigator. Therefore, I have resolved to make my smartphone act as close as possible to a feature phone, without having to fork over more money in order to buy an actual feature phone.

I removed email synchronization, disabled the data plan and deleted all applications that require an active data connection. As far as I’m concerned, my phone can sync my calendar when I’m in the office, connected to the company’s WiFi network. I retained my eBook reader and my music player. I, for one, have decided to regain some control over my digital presence and the amount of time it steals from my life. And when the urge to check my email arises — as it does — I ask myself the question that I ask you – what’s the rush?

10 Oct, 2013: This article was originally written in June, 2013. I am now back to using a feature phone – one which has no ability to connect to the Internet at all.