Technology: Vice or Virtue

Everything G-d created in His world He created to express His glory 
Mishne Avot 6:11

In the early 1950’s, a couple and their young daughter had a private audience with the Rebbe. After the wife and husband had asked for advice on various issues, the Rebbe turned to the six-year-old girl and asked if she had any questions. Her parents tried to hush her up as she began to speak, so as not to take the Rebbe’s valuable time. But the Rebbe encouraged her to go ahead. The little girl, with a concerned look on her face, asked the Rebbe whether he thought that atomic energy was good or bad. “In your kitchen at home, there is a knife,” the Rebbe said. “Is the knife good or bad?” The little girl replied, “It depends what it is used for. If it is used to cut food, then it is good. If it is used to hurt someone, then it is bad.”
“That is a good and true answer,” the Rebbe told her, “ and the same could be said for atomic energy or any other technology that man has developed.”

During many of his discourses, broadcast around the world via cable and satellite relays, the Rebbe would encourage the use of modern communications to unite mankind. He explained how people across the globe, normally divided by space and time, are suddenly unified, creating an opportunity for them to study together, pray together, and resolve to do one more good deed, thereby forming a universal wave of togetherness. “One might think, ‘What can I possibly accomplish sitting in this tiny corner on this huge planet of billions of people?’” the Rebbe said. “Today, we see how one person lighting a candle in his tiny corner can illuminate the entire world.”

Technology: Vice or virtue?

The computer age and the information revolution have given all of us enormous power and the ability to reach virtually anyone at any time. Yes, technology allows us to live more comfortably and work more efficiently, but can we understand how it makes our lives more meaningful?

On its own, science is neutral; it attempts to give us an objective view of our physical universe and its natural forces, but it does not draw a conclusion as to how we should use these forces. It does not deal with good and evil or with questions of morality. At its best, science acknowledges its own boundaries, recognizing that it is neither the basis nor the code for moral doctrine.

Technology, as with all forces in our lives, can be used either constructively or destructively. Developments such as television, computers, and lasers, and discoveries in nuclear energy, medicine, and biology — these are all instances of G-dly forces that are manifested in nature. Man has been charged with tapping those resources to refine and civilize the world, to transform our material surroundings into a proper home for spirituality and G-dliness.

We can choose to acknowledge the “hand inside the glove,” understanding where the power truly comes from, and use these forces as tools to lead a more meaningful life. Or we can choose to be distracted by the glove, to see technology only as a means unto itself, using it for indulgent, selfish, perhaps even destructive purposes.

Why is it important to understand technology?

The sweeping technological changes that have taken place during the past several generations are in keeping with the prediction some two thousand years ago in the Zohar, a classical text of mysticism, stating that in the year 1840, there would be an outburst of “lower wisdom,” or advancements in the physical universe, and an increase in “sublime wisdom,” or spirituality, would begin to usher true unity into the world, leading toward the final redemption.

The increase in both types of wisdom — wisdom of the mind and wisdom of the soul — has surely come to pass; where we have fallen short is in integrating these spheres of knowledge. Only by balancing the scientific with the spiritual can we transform the dream of an ideal future into a functional blueprint for society, for true communication can begin only when human minds and souls interact. With communica­tion comes understanding; with understanding comes com­passion; and with compassion comes a natural movement toward universalism.

So the current technological revolution is in fact the hand of G-d at work; it is meant to help us make G-d a reality in our lives. And as time goes on, science will show itself more and more to parallel the truths of G-d, thereby revealing the intrinsic unity in the entire universe.

The divine purpose of the present information revolution, for instance, which gives an individual unprecedented power and opportunity, is to allow us to share knowledge — spiritual knowledge with each other, empowering and unifying individuals everywhere. We need to utilize today’s interactive technology not just for business or leisure but to interlink as people — to create a welcome environment for the interaction of our souls, our hearts, our visions.

There is much to learn from the technological revolution, as long as we understand its role in our lives and see it as a final step in our dramatic search for unity throughout the universe. After all, developments in science and technology have taught us to be more sensitive to the intangible and the sublime: the forces behind computers, telephones, television, and so on are all invisible, and yet we fully recognize their power and reach. Similarly, we must come to accept that the driving force behind the entire universe is intangible and sublime, and we must come to experience the transcendent and G-dly in every single thing — beginning, of course with ourselves.

With all our human capacity for technological advancement, we must never forget our higher objective. We must strive to enhance our scientific search for truth by constantly expanding our spiritual search for the divine.

ACTION

Understanding science and technology as divine tools for our personal and spiritual growth is critical for our well-being. It is well and good to learn to program a computer, but unless a student also acquires a sense of discipline and integrity, he or she might just as easily use that skill to wreak technological havoc as to obtain a job.

The best students — and the best teachers — recognize that there is much to be learned by inspecting the failure of cultures before ours. By doing so, it becomes painfully clear that no amount of wisdom or technology can overcome a value system that encourages selfishness or evil. We must strive, therefore, to transcend humanity by constantly expanding our spiritual search.

This is an excerpt from “Toward a Meaningful Life – The Wisdom of the Rebbe” by Rabbi Simon Jacobson.

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