“Iron sharpens iron, so man sharpens man”
I saw…People talking without speaking, people hearing without listening…
-Simon and Garfunkel
Roughly two hundred years ago a French physician named René Laennec revolutionized medicine when he invented the stethoscope. In Laennec’s time, medicine used to work from the outside in; a doctor relied on the input and feedback from the patient so they could decipher, diagnose and treat an ailment. The stethoscope -which in its original design was just a cylinder- allowed the doctor to listen in on the workings of the body enabling doctors to gain a greater understanding of anatomy, sickness and medicine. This began a gradual but profound paradigm shift; medicine would work from the inside out.
Today, sonograms, MRI’s, and blood tests help doctors treat patients and discover abnormalities and ailments otherwise undetectable. There is a dwindling need for many doctors to interact physically or even verbally with their patients; many feel they can get everything they need from readouts, test results and monitors. Bedside manner has suffered as the way a patient is feeling seems less important than what the doctor observes. This is the downside to our modern medicine, the days of doctors making house calls are essentially gone (so is the practice of bloodletting, using unsanitary equipment and trepanning by the way) along with a certain personal touch overlooked today by many doctors.
The stethoscope is just one isolated case of how technological advancements have a way of improving lives while still triggering unexpected, even unwanted results. When we create something it’s hard to fully understand the impact it will have on the future or if it will be used in the same way it was intended. Today, each year feels like another wave of the industrial revolution and our reliance on technological advancement widens exponentially. We are adapting to each technological upgrade faster and faster, sometimes forgetting to ask ourselves if that is a good thing.
Smartphones, tablets and personal computers for example, are regarded as saviors but are also starting to feel more like shackles but we still line up to get the next upgrade. Today we are prone to having our phones on us at all times and each vibration, ring, tweet, or alert, beckons us further and further from reality but we just can’t seem to stop. It’s not our fault, they are designed that way.
According to Adam Alter’s book “Irresistible- The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked”, the designers of our phones, computers and the various platforms operating alongside have a keen understanding of the human condition and deliberately make it harder and harder to resist them. We thrive on reaching goals, receiving feedback, feeling progress and resolving uncertainties and they know this. Games, streaming media sites, social networks and news outlets employ contrivances based on those elements that bait us to keep coming back. Anyone who plays a game far longer than expected, gets drawn in by “click-bait” or habitually checks their phone for no pressing reason is testimony that these mechanisms work.
The technology industry is so successful at cracking the human code and bringing these highly addictive devices to us that tech insiders eschew tech and in many cases deliberately keep their children as far away from it as possible (Steve Jobs did not allow his kids to use the Ipad). This leaves us caught in a pattern of pleasure seeking and complacency that is very, very difficult to pull out of.
As a religious Jew, I at least have Shabbos (the Sabbath), where from Friday to Saturday sundown to sundown we have this wonderful time where we can disconnect from the world and reconnect with each other, we turn the volume down on life and enjoy the silence, a detox from the past week that refreshes us for the week to come. ( I wrote more about it this post)
We live in a time of hyperconnection and stimulation, dopamine rushes and hollow relationships leaving many feeling empty, powerless and unhappy. A common result of having a phone that I have witnessed is the growing mass of introverted extroverts. I see a kind of public seclusion where people stand side by side but seem separated by galaxies. People are developing behavioral addictions to technology that is designed to be too attractive for us to resist but I think we all crave meaningful interaction rather than the artificial stimulation so many people are pulled into.
This coming Wednesday night/Thursday is the Jewish Festival of Purim. On this holiday, we do four important things as part of our observance of the day:
- We hear the reading of the story of Purim from specially written scroll called a megilla.
- We give care packages (called mishloach Manos in hebrew) to friends, neighbors family, acquaintances or whoever.
- We give gifts to the poor.
- We have a special meal-kind of like a Thanksgiving meal to celebrate the day.
If you think about these four things, it would seem that this holiday called Purim is here to the rescue, designed to generate authentic happiness and guide us toward genuinely connecting. The day is stacked with activities that target activity, togetherness and friendship; we celebrate in ways that draw us together and ensure we don’t drift too far apart.
We will gather in one place and listen to the same words being read to us from the Megilla. We will leave our homes and go out greet others and spread cheer and love. We will not exclude others who are less fortunate and take care of their needs before our own. We will sit together with family and friends, eat a meal together. It will be all the more enjoyable if our phones were all on airplane mode or just put away.
Technology is not bad, it all comes down to how we use it and recognize how it is being used on us. The stethoscope grows more and more obsolete but that cold sensation of its stainless steel receptor still provides for an intangible experience. The podcast 99%Invisible ( in the episode: “The Stethoscope) argues that it has come to symbolize that the doctor is still there to listen and that is an important opportunity for intimacy between doctor and patient. The very object that distanced us is holding us together.
The podcast’s host, Roman Mars sums it up this way:
“Two hundred years ago Renee Laennec ‘s invention ushered a new medical era, one where the patient’s own understanding of their disease gave way to more objective observation of the body. This, in turn, put a certain amount of distance between doctors and patients. Today maybe the stethoscope lives on to keep physicians and patients from drifting too far apart to make sure doctors keep close to their patients and keep listening.”
Too many forms of technology- our phones especially- are accomplishing just the opposite. We were once promised that we would all be connected but the more we use them, the less this is so. Perhaps coming together this week (or finding a way to do so if you are not Jewish) we’ll realize how much we need to be present when we are around people and ignore whatever might flash across a five-inch screen.
For me, the day of Purim rescues me from what seems to be consuming so much time, energy and quality of life in that it provides a far better alternative to the ways people are interacting today. We are social animals who need to feel loved and be touched emotionally and physically. There is no comparing a text and an emoji saying “I ‘heart’ you” with a real-time “I love you” complete with eye contact and a warm, long embrace. Purim provides the opportunity to channel our need to connect into authentic experiences of interaction, love and togetherness. Maybe the day after, I’ll see if I can go another week without my phone. I wish everyone a rejuvenating and connecting Purim.
To learn more about Purim here’s a video that sums up the holiday pretty well.