The emergence of the Internet a decade ago promised to do for media what Judaism did millennia earlier for religion: turn our understanding of the world from a vision received into a vision negotiated. Both cyberspace’s networkers and Israel’s God-wrestlers have sought to turn top-down affairs into participatory ones. Instead of passively listening to the stories of our programmers, they are empowered to write and share their own.
But both of these revolutions seem to have been stalled — and by similar forces. The Internet has become entrenched in e-commerce. Organized Judaism has been stalled by the weight of its own institutions. And what’s needed, in both cases I believe, is more Jewishness.
I’m a media theorist. It’s what I teach, what I write about and pretty much the way I see the world. As a witness to the emergence of the Internet during the early 1990s, I had a front-row seat to its revolutionary impact on the way we create and disseminate meaning. I became one of interactive media’s most outspoken advocates.
Having been one of the first to announce the arrival of the new media age, it’s been a sobering experience, even a humbling one, to see the reality of what the interactive revolution has become. The early Internet offered people the opportunity to speak to one another through technologies that had once been the territory of the wealthy and powerful. Any kid with a keyboard could get online and write in text just as large as a successful businessman or university professor.
Now the Internet has become an electronic strip mall — one more medium of control.
To understand the crisis of the media, start by considering how the new media began: with the magic of television. A television program is a magical act. We sense that intuitively. Whoever has gotten his image into that box, we presume, must be special.
Television programming, like the many one-way media before it, communicates through stories. The programmer creates a character with whom we can identify. As a series of plot developments bring that character into some kind of danger, a sense of tension rises within us. The storyteller brings the character, and his audience, into as much danger as we can tolerate before he invents his solution — the rescue — and allows us all to let out a big sigh of relief.
The ancient Greeks called this solution deus ex machina — God from the machine — a device by which one of the gods would descend from the rafters and save the day. In an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, that miraculous solution might take the form of a super-powered laser gun. In a television commercial it’s — well, the product being advertised. Either way, the storytellers can, given a captive audience, pick the solution they want. We the audience, having followed all the way up into great anxiety, will take whatever pill they’re selling.
New media changed this equation. The first truly interactive device, the remote control, gave viewers the power to remove themselves effortlessly from the storyteller’s spell. Watch your child the next time he “channel surfs” from program to program. He’s not changing the channel when he’s bored, but rather when he’s being put into an imposed state of tension. The television remote control allows him to deconstruct the content and thereby avoid the programmer’s spell. If he does come around the dial to watch the end of a program, he’s no longer in the same captivated state.
Just as the remote control allowed a generation to deconstruct the content of television, the videogame joystick demystified its technology. Remember the first time you ever saw a videogame? It was probably “Pong,” that primitive black-and-white depiction of a ping-pong table, a tiny white circle bouncing between two white squares. The thrill of this experience was not that it accurately simulated ping-pong, but that we could move the image on the screen. It was a moment of revolution: Thanks to the joystick — and later the VCR and camcorder — we were empowered to move the pixels ourselves. The TV was no longer magical. Its functioning had become transparent.
Finally, the computer mouse and keyboard transformed the receive-only television monitor into a portal. Packaged programming was no longer any more valuable — or valid — than the words we could type ourselves. The addition of a modem turned the computer into a broadcast facility. From then on the people would be the content, and new forms of community would be formed.
But this promise was also a threat. Studies during the mid-1990s showed that families with Internet-capable computers were watching an average of nine hours less television per week. What’s more, users of the Internet were proving less likely to believe what they were told on the regular tube. More power to the people meant less power to the masters of content. And they fought back.
Those running the mainstream media, as well as the mainstream media’s own systemic mechanisms for self-preservation, sought to reverse the effects of the remote, the joystick and mouse. Media business experts declared that we were now living in an “attention economy.” Human time was to be known as “eyeball-hours.” TV programs and Web sites were designed to be “sticky” enough to engage those eyeballs.
Increasingly opaque computer interfaces were developed, reversing the demystification of media enabled by the joystick and other tools. Put simply, our computers were reconfigured so that receiving became ever easier, while creating became much more complicated. An early DOS computer user tended to understand a lot about how his computer stored information and launched programs. Now, to install a new program, users must consult “the wizard,” the perfect metaphor for the computer’s remystification.
By the late 1990s, the do-it-yourself ethic of the early Internet community was replaced by the value of commerce. The new mantra for the Internet was “content is king.” After all, content can be bought and sold. The Internet became a poster child for the stock market bubble.
And so a medium that I had seen being born out of the ability to break through packaged stories grew to promote a new, equally dangerous one: the great pyramid.
I decided to write books and give speeches promoting what I saw as the original values of cyberspace: literacy, transparency and community. The Internet meant nothing if the people using it weren’t sufficiently media-literate to understand how to use it. Transparency — the essentially two-way nature of interactive technology — had to be maintained so that people could participate online in a manner that involved more than entering a credit card number. Finally, community had to remain the driving force behind a medium that facilitated interpersonal communication.
But I found it increasingly hard to find allies. Businesspeople were too concerned with short-term revenues. Educators were obsessed with how these technologies might damage the attention span or give minors access to dangerous ideas. In a polarized landscape, I had no place to call home.
It was at my nephew’s circumcision, of all places, that I first considered the possibility that Judaism might offer a community that shared my values. Once it hit me, it seemed obvious: Might the Jewish people have already dealt with the questions I was facing for the first time?
I decided to test myself and my religion by returning to synagogue and spending a couple of years re-reading the essential texts to see how they might be applied to the modern media dilemma.
What I’ve found in Judaism is a religion dedicated to media literacy. The initiation to adult practice, the bar or bat mitzvah ritual, is not an act of faith but a demonstration of literacy. A 13-year-old child reads unassisted, in front of the community, direct from the master file. He or she then delivers a sermon, sharing personal reflections on the text. We must not only read the text, the bar mitzvah experience teaches, but share our perspective on it. That’s how we get invited to the table, where the real argument that is Judaism takes place.
Furthermore, Jewish rituals require community participation. The Torah scroll cannot even be read unless 10 people — a minyan — are present. Study is not a private encounter with some magical content but a group experience in which discussion is encouraged and insights are shared. This has served for centuries as a safeguard against isolation and its destructive impact. If only such priorities prevailed in the mediaspace, where an isolated, self-doubting viewer is considered the most valuable target for marketers.
The more I explored, the more I realized that Judaism wasn’t applicable merely to my own problems as a media theorist. The core values of this religion are quite relevant, in fact, to the broader challenges of our time. They can help a world struggling with the impact of globalism, the lure of fundamentalism and the clash of conflicting value systems.
No doubt, September 11, the Gulf War and the increase of terrorism in the Middle East have resurrected some questions we’d thought were forgotten: “How will this impact Israel?” “Is it good or bad for the Jews?” Others have packed into synagogues seeking reassurance — some way to fit recent catastrophes into a bigger story, to reconstruct the narrative that has been shattered.
But Judaism doesn’t offer pat answers to life’s biggest questions. Our tradition favors open-ended inquiry over unilateral decree. Like any genuinely spiritual path, it just leads to more questions.
Sadly, the Microsofts among our Jewish institutions that could be fueling this inquiry instead cling desperately to the most static and pre-ordained versions of religious and communal doctrine. Obsessing on numbers, intermarriage, assimilation and Israel, they teach something closer to ethnocentrism than pluralism, stressing what we should be doing for Judaism — rather than what Judaism can do for the world.
The challenge to Jews, and to all thinking people, is to resist the temptation to fall back into narrow, xenophobic and, if you will, holy postures of the past. Rather than retreat into the simplistic — if reassuring — belief that the answers have all been written for us, we must resolve to participate actively in writing the story ourselves.
Practicing Judaism forces us to confront the likelihood that we are in charge of this life. We are not living by top-down decree, but by participating together in full collaboration. We, God help us, are the adults here.
There’s much work to be done. For Judaism holds certain keys, whether or not our religious institutions are up to the challenge of turning them. It provides a path to the kind of autonomy and fortitude that are now required of us.
Judaism’s emphasis on iconoclasm, abstract monotheism and social justice make it a potentially valuable resource to a world drifting dangerously in the opposite direction. For all its static manifestations today — the in-grown communal structures, empty synagogues, political slogans — Judaism’s texts and practices contain the seeds of an extraordinarily progressive intellectual process. Judaism inherently strikes out at blind faith and fundamentalist passivity, even those that grow from within it.
In this sense, Judaism is more of a medium than a message. It is the process through which we negotiate reality, together. Judaism is the contention that through dialogue and communal action, we can make the world a better place. We are not merely responding to a story; we are co-authoring it. Just as I applied Judaism to the Internet, it’s time we do Judaism to Judaism.