My kids’ world is different than mine. They email, text, ichat (though my son told me this morning that skype has better video), facebook, watch tv, play video games and still seem to get their homework done. My wife tells me that they cannot focus as well or break off easily from the multisensory always wired world in which they exist. Yes, this concerns me. Yet I keep wondering if our concerns, while rightly focused on what will become of their lives as they develop these multitasking meta-personalities, are just further evidence the fact that we just might not “get it.” (Are we the parents of the 1960’s, decrying long hair and rock and roll music, things once described as the downfall of civilization as we know it? Or are we pre-Maccabees seeing the downfall of Jewish values?)
My rabbinic colleagues sometimes argue about what online social networking really means. They differentiate between “real community” and “virtual world,” claiming that the former creates actual connections while the latter is, well, unreal. I keep wondering if differentiations they make are meaningless, because people increasingly live lives online, so that if we fail to embrace this new reality, we – synagogues, rabbis, non-networking communities – will soon become “virtual/unreal” ourselves.
Now comes Brad Stone, whose New York Times’ article The Children of Cyberspace: Old Fogies by their 20’s, suggests that the newest generation thinks and experiences the world differently from previous generations. He holds up his Kindle experience to illustrate beautifully his point:
My 2-year-old daughter surprised me recently with two words: “Daddy’s book.” She was holding my Kindle electronic reader. Here is a child only beginning to talk, revealing that the seeds of the next generation gap have already been planted. She has identified the Kindle as a substitute for words printed on physical pages. I own the device and am still not completely sold on the idea. My daughter’s worldview and life will be shaped in very deliberate ways by technologies like the Kindle and the new magical high-tech gadgets coming out this year — Google’s Nexus One phone and Apple’s impending tablet among them. She’ll know nothing other than a world with digital books, Skype video chats with faraway relatives, and toddler-friendly video games on the iPhone. She’ll see the world a lot differently from her parents.
Then he talks about what’s real and what’s not:
And after my 4-year-old niece received the very hot Zhou-Zhou pet hamster for Christmas, I pointed out that the toy was essentially a robot, with some basic obstacle avoidance skills. She replied matter-of-factly: “It’s not a robot. It’s a pet.”
What does this mean to our communities? Listen to Mizuko Ito, a cultural anthropologist and associate researcher at the University of California Humanities Research Institute, who said
that children who play these games would see less of a distinction between their online friends and real friends; virtually socializing might be just as fulfilling as a Friday night party. And they would be more likely to participate actively in their own entertainment, clicking at the keyboard instead of leaning back on the couch.
We synagogues, and religious communities, will want to open ourselves to how the cyberworld reframes the rabbinic dictim al tifrosh min hatzibur – do not separate yourself from the community. If I am not within the synagogue, or even a member of a synagogue, but I read Jewish books, participate in online study sessions, watch/pray with streaming video services, socially-network with other like-minded Jews, email prayers about people who are sick and email prayer to be put in the Jerusalem’s Kotel (Western Wall) … am I one who is tifrosh – separated from the community – or not? Because my kids, and increasingly more of my congregants, and clearly so many of our 15, 20, and 30 year olds, feel so connected.