Tech Sabbath

By Seán Mullan

(From the January - March 2019 issue of VOX)

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The week I write in has seen a stream of horror stories about medical implant devices. Hundreds of thousands have had their lives and health ruined by faulty or badly made implant devices. From artificial hips to implanted defibrillators these have caused sickness, pain and death. Inadequate testing and regulation in a competitive industry has created our latest scandal.

But you and I know people who are delighted with their medical implants. I am at an age when my peers are getting artificial hips or knees and most are delighted. More sophisticated implants have transformed the lives of people with heart disease or chronic pain. Technology does so much good.

And therein lies our dilemma - technology does so much good but at what cost?

One of the most popular schools for the children of wealthy tech execs in San Francisco has a complete ban on screens, of any kind – no smart phones, no tablets, no laptops, no TVs. This is a very expensive private school but parents are quite happy to spend their earnings from technology to ensure their children have a technology free education.

Tech is here to stay but the question arises: does it serve us or does it rule us?

Oh, what sweet irony! And which of us is not, to some extent, like those parents? We benefit from technology but long for a life where it has less influence in shaping our days and our worlds. Tech is here to stay but the question arises: does it serve us or does it rule us?

Stick with me while I jump two millennia and two continents from Silicon Valley to the Jordan Valley. A picture that has intrigued me for decades is from the famous Sermon on the Mount. Jesus of Nazareth claims that if your enemy hits you on the right cheek then turning your other cheek towards him – or her – is your best option.

A weird command, I used to think – what if he hits me in the nose or the stomach? But the genius in the advice is that by turning the other cheek you are asserting your right to control your body. The normal reactions to being hit are to hit back or run away. In either case you accept your enemy’s authority; you react to his action. Fight or flight puts him in charge. The Jesus alternative is a refusal to accept his authority. It’s a declaration of independence. “I will not, because of fear or anger, submit to your rule in my life.”

We badly need to learn this principle in relation to technology. In a recent study in the Netherlands 29% of 18- to 25-year-olds described themselves as “addicted” to social media. And it’s not just Dutch twenty-somethings. How many of us end each day wishing we had spent less time on screens?

Sabbath, as a concept and practice, has a long history. The Jewish Scriptures trace it back to the beginning of humanity. Make one day in seven different. Don’t work. Rest. Play. Enjoy.

Imagine marrying modern tech and ancient Sabbath in a collective social experiment: a Tech Sabbath. One 24-hour period every week when we refrain from using the technology that shapes our lives. The more of us that are involved, the easier it will be. We can collaborate in suggesting and organising non-tech activities.

Ah, I can hear the objections rolling in already. “What about emergencies?” “I use tech for my protection.” “I could miss out on something important.” “What if people are trying to get me?”

Starting a Tech Sabbath is going to feel like running into the sea in Ireland on a sunny day. “It’s freezing – I must be mad… Well actually, it’s not too bad… In fact, this is really good … I need to do this more often.”

The obvious candidates for a tech Sabbath day are Saturday or Sunday. I’m inclined to think that starting on Friday evening, which happens to be when the Jewish Sabbath begins, is the best option. Cold turkey – especially if your job involves a lot of tech. Leave the laptop in work, get home, take a deep breath, then another one, and switch the phone off. Then do something un-tech – find that old tin whistle you swore you’d learn to play, visit a neighbour, go for a walk and say hello to strangers, write a letter, write a book, write an article for VOX magazine. Unplug and live.

It might feel cold but you could be amazed at how refreshed you are. Who knows – you might end up more influenced by the Jordan Valley than Silicon Valley.

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Seán Mullan has been working in church leadership for many years. He has developed a project in Dublin City Centre called “Third Space”.