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If You Want a Cow to Wander – a note from FallowLab Salon #4 – ON CHOICE

Michael Ekstract

“When people have no choice, life is almost unbearable … But as the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear … the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize.”

-Barry Schwartz  “The Paradox of Choice”
We met on Monday Night at Lab/Shul’s FallowLab Salon to talk about our choices. Starting with Eve’s choice to eat the fruit – all the way to our interactions with our Apples and much more.

With wine, dried fruit and fresh baked bread we considered many fascinating choices in our digital lives. We broke off into small groups at some point for closer reading and our small study group explored a passage by Douglas Rushkoff on choice in our digital lives. We weren’t all sure his metaphor of zeros and ones constraining our perception of reality held up all that well, but we certainly agreed that the digital world can overwhelm us with choices. And we appreciated Rushkoff’s explanation how our digital choices are determined for us and constricted by those who program the software we use.

We briefly debated whether reducing reality to zeros and ones really constrains our perception of it all that much. One of our hevruta pointed out we still see an awful lot of shades and colors in the sum of all this zeroes and ones. Our senses are easily fooled and we get a good facsimile of reality. Then again, Rushkoff’s point here is not whether reality is less real, it’s that the realities in our digital choices are determined for us and also constricted by those who program the software we use. And if we can be easily fooled, we can be easily misled.

We discussed the constant tug of websites, social tools and apps. It is so difficult to make conscious choices online and in app. Yet we must. What do we really want to do in our online lives? Sometimes these are choices to stay offline to give our souls or creativity or whatever you want to call it space to breathe, relax, germinate – be fallow. Sometimes it can be exploring online but within some sense of limit. Twice tonight Fallow Lab leader, Amichai Lau-Lavie quoted the idea: “If you want a cow to wander, fence it in.”

Ultimately, we do need to be constrained and guided by our own values and vision to help us stay conscious and make choices that are most meaningful for us. Then again, if we want learning online to expand our vision and perhaps inform our values, how do we ensure our online explorations are not being overly constrained by a set of algorithms which knows where we’ve been and decides where we’d like to go next?

And a related problem: where is the place for serendipity? Perhaps the adventurous among us will learn to visit the sites, search engines and social networks that offer us unexpected stories and encounters (because they know that’s our profile, of course!).

Rushkoff asserts we must become programmers or at least learn how it works to understand how we are being programmed and to avoid it. It’s a nice ideal. You think we could get away with just being able to hire a good de-programmer?

I find myself thinking of the notion that we may soon cede much control of material activities to machines – even directly augment our own minds with computational power. At that point do we retain any capacity for choice? Can we be saved by a merry band of ethical hackers available to help us out of our digital traps – our de-programmers. Perhaps we can take up that and other (hopefully still) science fiction concepts in another post.

In our group we had one native informant from youth culture who made it clear that for many of today’s youth, technology may be giving them the gills to swim in technology while taking away their lungs to live without it. It made me think that older people might yet offer some wisdom or inspiration about in person, non-digital encounters. How do we help our youth unplug and find meaning offline?

When we met back in the full group, a retired rabbi was asked about watching his grandkids deal with these issues and choices. He spoke very personally about his contentment that all his major life decisions were behind him and he was enjoying his retirement free of such stresses. It was beautiful in its own way, this keen sense of satisfaction with a life well-lived.

Putting young and old together, though, I felt older people do have something to teach the young about the meaning and beauty of nature, intimate real world conversation and finding one’s way to peace.

And we can all learn one of the key lessons of Fallow Lab: digital downtime as personal uptime. It’s not a zero sum equation between digital and corporeal but having zero digital downtime does seem to destroy something many of us find essentially human and even holy.

Or does it? We opened our session with an incredibly moving online kaddish (not officially released, still in beta, mind you). Would it have been the same if the entire minyan was online and no two people were together? Quite possibly. But would the similarity be intrinsic, or more likely because it is among people who already have a powerful bond forged in real face-to-face interactions? I’ll leave that to Amichai to flesh out. In the meantime, for those of you interested in observing kaddish creatively in meet-space, check out labshul’s kaddish club

And join the Fallow Lab conversation right here, yes: fallowlab – do!

Bonus Resource:WNYC tech podcast New Tech City has an interesting project called
bored-and-brilliant
a challenge to rethink your relationship with your phone use to help you find the space for creative “boredom” leading to creative brilliance.