The Challenge of Technology Shabbat


About a year ago, I came across a documentary about the Barbie Doll, entitled The Tribe. The film links the history of Barbie to the question of what it means to be Jewish today. I was intrigued not only by the content of the film but also by its composition, a mixture of old and new, short cuts and longer sequences, and a narration by the memorable voice of Peter Coyote. The fil sparked my curiosity to look for information on who was behind the film and if the producer had embarked on other, related projects. 


It didn’t take me long to find the website to the film and to that of its producer and director Tiffany Shlain. Apart from having directed and produced this fabulous documentary Tiffany also is the founder of the Webby Awards and the co-founder of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. Most recently she has produced the highly praised and award winning “autoblogography” Connected.


The various communications about Connected distributed on Twitter and elsewhere enticed my curiosity about Tiffany’s larger project further. Whilst still not having seen Connected – when do you come to London, Tiffany? 😉 – the documentary (seems to) advance(s) her interest in the opportunities and challenges we face in a social world pervaded by technology designed to connect us all with each other. This technology and the social media that we increasingly use everywhere on our mobile devices allows us to connect with people across the globe. As an illustration of this interdependence between people Tiffany and her team set their Twitter followers and Facebook fans the task to translate the text of “A Declaration of Interdependence” and read out in front of a running camera. The result is short film produced in collaboration between complete strangers. 

Maybe mesmerized by the possibility to connect with so many people around the world we find it increasingly difficult to put the phone to the side and connect with those nearest to us. We take out our phones in the middle of conversations or disappear to the toilet during dinner to check up on Facebook notifications and Twitter updates. Technology interrupts our daily interaction. “Who have I become?”, asks Tiffany, and comes up with the idea of a Technology Shabbat. She switches her phone off on Friday evenings, for 24hours, and encourages her friends, fans, and followers to do it like her. Apart from notifying us all about her unplugging on Friday nights together with her husband Ken Goldberg she has produced another short film, “Yelp! With Apologies to Alan Ginsberg’s ‘Howl'”. 

With the film Tiffany encourages her audience to unplug as well from time to time. Do it like her, switch off your networked devices and gain the time and focus to engage with your friends and family, at least one day a week, without being interrupted by blinking and beeping devices notifying you about the arrival of new messages and updates.

Having resisted her request for a few months last weekend I decided to give it a go and unplug. Gosh! No idea had I how difficult that would be. Apart from the habit to reach for my phone whenever I sit down and check on nes, the unplugging brings with it some practical issues. A complete phone blackout was out of the question as my weekends are organised in ways that involve phone use at various occasions to coordinate meet-ups with the rest of the family. So, the only thing I did manage was to unplug from social media. Effectively I switched off my Facebook, Twitter etc. connection from Friday evening to Sunday morning. This worked out okay and gave me time to do other things without staring at the phone in the middle of a game or while reading a book. Also, rather than spending some time on Twitter on Sunday morning, I read a newspaper and then finished a book, The Digital Scholar. Overall, the Technology Shabbat has been an interesting experience for me and I will do it again, hopefully to greater effect, at the end of this week. 

While refraining from accessing social media I also remembered a paper presented at the 2007 CHI Conference in San Jose, CA, namely Allison Woodruff and colleague’s “Sabbath Day Home Automation: ‘It’s Like Mixing Technology and Religion“, that seems pertinent to the issue. Woodruff discusses her observation in orthodox Jewish homes who because for religious reasons they are not allowed to operate technology, rely on on automated systems to help them out. She sees these automated systems as examples for technologies that are neatly embedded within the lives of people without interrupting or disrupting their social arrangements. Maybe over time we will find ways to embed our mobile phones and our social networks equally neatly into our lives. 

Putting my half-failed attempt of a technology shabbat to one side, I am looking forward to seeing Tiffany’s project which a bit clumsily might be summed up as an exploration of the technology induced tension between interdependence and identity, develop. 

Connected is in the cinemas in the USA and elsewhere since this autumn.