(Esther Vargas Aug 29, 2013)
Western civilization died on March 6, 2015. This day will forever mark the beginning of the decline and fall of the West, not because this was the eve of the first Sabbath during which I would serve as a substitute rabbi—though that fact alone is reason enough for us to fear that the apocalypse is nigh—but because, while on a Peter Pan bus traveling from New York to my hometown in western Massachusetts, I spotted a blue road sign on Interstate 91 that read: “TEXT STOP: 5 MILES.”
It was a bright, sunny, frigid Friday morning. The Northeast had just endured its latest snowstorm, a medium-sized blizzard that once again pelted the well-plodded pathway between Maryland and Maine. The tight bus was crammed with college students who had been visiting New York and who would be transferring at the Springfield station to buses that would take them back to their schools in Amherst, Northampton, Williamstown, and Boston. We were not yet in New Haven when I read the writing on the roadside wall that foretold our civilizational doom.
The students in the bus who weren’t dozing were using their smartphones to talk to their friends, to queue up a Kanye song (this is what the girl in the purple sweater to my left was doing), to scroll through Facebook (what the scruffy, black-haired boy in blue corduroys to my right was doing), and to—of course—surf the web (does anyone even use this term any more?).
And they all did so with eyes cast downwards, firmly fixed on the small flickering screen at their fingertips, applying the now ubiquitous forward-and-upward flicking motion of the index finger or thumb that has become the universal symbol of “nothing in this world could possibly interest me more than this puny, potent, omnipresent appliance in my palm.”
I am a member of the generation that has been dubbed “the Millennials,” or “Generation Y,” “the babies of the baby boomers.” I was fortunate to have gone through college just prior to the dawn of the smartphone age. I graduated from Yeshiva University on May 17, 2007; the first-ever iPhone—now quaintly called “iPhone 1st Generation”—was released on June 29, 2007.
When I was in college, a few of my friends could text with their flip phones, but, like the suicide squeeze in baseball, this was a seldom-seen spectacle. Twitter had just been born, Instagram had not yet been conceived, YouTube was in its infancy, and my friends were to be found in libraries and study halls, on basketball and tennis courts, not on Facebook and Snapchat.
I cannot imagine what college must be like now. Oh, wait—yes I can, if my experience in rabbinical school was any indication. In a Beit Midrash (study hall) filled to capacity and ringed with thousands of thousand-year-old sacred texts, the loudest cries were not the eureka! of a new spiritual insight, but the cri de cœur that is eerily emblematic of our mass electronic addiction: “Hey! The Wi-Fi is out! Somebody help! Somebody check the internet cable!”
Really? Is this what we have come to? Is this what even our (supposedly) future theologians and religious leaders have come to? This was precisely my reaction upon seeing the blue road-sign that read “TEXT STOP”: “really!?” Is this what Western civilization has come to? Has our compulsion to text become so uncontrollable that we have had to create rest stops to satisfy this irresistible urge, just as we created rest stops for actual necessities like food, fuel, and bathroom breaks?
“TEXT STOP”: these eight ominous letters mean that our days are numbered. For when again will we have the social capacity to create an environment that is conducive to developing our next great thinkers and writers? How, in this age of relentless electronic distraction, will our civilization sustain the sense of solitude that is necessary to produce the next Brontë or Bellow, the next Augustine or Alighieri, the next Nabokov or Niebuhr, the next Heschel or Hesse, the next Maimonides or Milton?
How will this ceaselessly distracted society sustain the capacity for undisturbed quiet that is necessary for studious scientific prodigies to become our future nuclear physicists, biomedical engineers, and pioneering astrophysicists?
I fear that our future Einsteins and Keplers and Hawkings and Hubbles will be lost in the swampy smog of digital quicksand. I fear that one day, each of us will look back on this moment in history and say, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by the e-crack of the internet, starving for wisdom, dragging themselves through the nefarious technological streets looking for an info-byte; angel-headed thinkers and writers thirsting for an ancient heavenly connection, but lost to the interminable trolling and tweeting and tumblring to sacred Saint Text.”
Our future dynamic stars are perishing, their minds rotting in the vast audiovisual wasteland of our vacuous Vulgar Age. The ancient heavenly interstate highway Authority has counted our daily texts, and has weighed us on the scales of the intellect; it has tolled our toggling between our Twitter and our Tumblr; it has taken our accounting, and we have been found wanting.
But the bus rolled on; the rumbling machinery of that Peter Pan coach was carrying us forward into this frightening future, a foreboding dark night of the mind and soul. I looked down at my hands and stared at the slender white paperback copy of Calvino’s Le Cosmicomiche. I turned to my left and glanced at the girl in the purple sweater. I couldn’t help but notice the way her right index finger so confidently manipulated the touch-screen applications of her black-encased smartphone.
She held her left hand under the phone as her nimble right hand bestrode that narrow world like a miniature Colossus. Her supple fingers so skillfully sauntered across that small spiritless screen that I was forced to slip the Calvino back into my backpack. I needed something stronger, something more robust to prevent my concentration from wandering into that tempting, soul-sucking virtual world.
I reached into the depths of my backpack and unearthed my own mystical machinery, that starry dynamo of a novel: Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain), a thick, heavy, 1,000-page mammoth that is anything but hollow-eyed. At the time, I was reading it rather slowly because my German was not yet proficient. It took me about an hour to read two pages—but this was as it should be.
Nothing worth doing is quick and easy—even the most skilled scholars cannot get through one page of Talmud in under fifteen minutes, and even the best writers cannot write a substantial novel in under a month of sustained, unbroken concentration—and yet the smartphone has made easiness part of the fabric of our reality.
How will we Millennials be able to write great works of literature, philosophy, science, and theology when we’ve been conditioned to do everything with one mere flick of the finger? Will the great novels disappear? Will the transformative philosophies become a thing of the past? Will the groundbreaking works of literary criticism and political theory go the way of the horse and buggy, fated to become quaint relics of a slower, less efficient, pre-technological age? Will future humanities syllabi simply be blank after the year 2007? I fear so, but I hope not.
So I put my head down into The Magic Mountain and plowed ahead, beating with my books against the ceaseless distracting currents that carry me and my contemporaries closer to oblivion, borne ahead in that Peter Pan bus back into the neverland of our all-too-real banal, bookless age.
And when we arrived in Hartford, I took my iPhone out of my pocket and texted my father, letting him know that I was only thirty minutes from home.
Daniel Ross Goodman is a writer, rabbi, and PhD-candidate at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and he is studying English and comparative literature at Columbia University. Republished with permission from The Public Discourse.