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The Facebook / WhatsApp / Instagram Outage and the Flood

October 7, 2021 | by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

How are we using the gift of increased time?

Most of us have become accustomed to using WhatsApp to communicate and in some cases manage our family, social, and professional lives. More than 100 billion messages a day are sent through Whatsapp (most of those are just in the group my wife and I have with our children).

The pandemic has forced us to socially distance, quarantine, and lockdown physically. And this past week WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram were down for a number of hours. Both were terribly unpleasant, uncomfortable, and even painful. But they also presented opportunities to reflect, reset and recalibrate, the former on our connection with people and the latter on the role and dependence on technology in our lives.

The generation of Noah also struggled navigating an unprecedented technological breakthrough.

We're not the first generation to struggle with navigating an unprecedented technological breakthrough, how it should impact how we spend time, and what our ultimate goals should be.

The Torah tells the story of Noah and the flood, when God performed a “hard reset”, undoing all that He had created and restarting the world anew. God took such a drastic measure because, the Torah tells us, the world had become filled with corruption and moral depravity.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 108a) makes a mysterious comment – “the generation of the flood became corrupt as a result of the great blessing that God had bestowed upon them.” Which blessings are the rabbis referring to and how did they corrupt humanity?

Rabbi Avraham Pam zt”l suggests that the key to understanding this can be found in Noah's very name. The Torah tells us that Lemech named his son Noah saying, “This one will bring us rest (nuach) from our work and from the toil of our hands from the ground which God had cursed.” Until that time, the world had continued to suffer from the curse that God gave Adam, “you will have to work with the sweat of your brow to draw bread from the ground.” Until Noah was born, man labored from morning to night and worked tirelessly with his bare hands just to have food to eat, leaving no recreational down time.

Lemech saw prophetically that Noah was destined to invent the plow and other agricultural tools that would make man much more efficient and would ease his burden. He therefore named him Noah from the root nuach, to rest, because his Noah would provide tremendous relief to an overworked population.

The inventions of the plow and other tools were the great blessing that the Talmud referenced. Yet, instead of becoming empowered, liberated, or enriched by these innovations, they became corrupt. These inventions increased productivity, improved efficiency, and yielded more free time. This time could have been used constructively, productively, and meaningfully. Instead, the generation used their newfound downtime for corrupt activity. The breakthrough and advancement could have brought spiritual ascent, instead they brought moral decline.

Is the gift of greater time leading to moral decline or moral development and progress?

We are blessed to live in the greatest era of technological breakthrough of all time. Simple tasks that used to eat up our time can now be accomplished in seconds, or through automation or even speech recognition, in no time at all. We long ago became accustomed to the washing machine, dishwasher, bread machine and microwave, but we now even take things like GPS navigation systems, or the ability to Facetime or WhatsApp video with multiple people in multiple destinations across the world, for granted.

Every single day, something is invented which is meant to make our lives more noach, easier. They are designed to free up precious time. Do we fill that time meaningfully and mindfully or is that time squandered on mindless behavior? Perhaps it is no coincidence that Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp were wiped out and then flooded with messages in the week we read the story of the Noah and the flood, as a reminder that a generation is defined by what it does with the blessing of progress it experiences and the free time it discovers.

Technology can either enslave or liberate, free up time or eat up our time, move us forward, or take us backwards. Moments like a worldwide outage provide opportunities to consider our own relationship with technology and time.

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