A new year, a new age
If one were to seek a name for the outgoing year, a strong candidate could be the Year that Sought Change. Sought, even if not yet identified or attained.
If one were to seek a name for the outgoing year, a strong candidate could be the Year that Sought Change. Sought, even if not yet identified or attained. In Israel, disgust with the public sphere has led to the resignation of a prime minister. Fears about our ability to sustain ourselves have prompted socially minded entrepreneurs to ponder the transformation of everything, from our fuel economy to the flow of water on our eastern border. In the United States, a huge part of the population has been energized by the candidate whose slogan is "change you can believe in." And among the Jewish people, competitions such as the one held last spring by Brandeis University have sought out the Next Big Idea that would redefine the life of the Jewish community. All these initiatives have in common the understanding that the way things used to be done simply does not cut it anymore.
The Information Age has been with us now for years, but it has often been understood more for its economic implications than its social ones. And so, it might do us well to reflect on the radical impact access to data has on society - and how the Jews as a people might prepare for this new age, so that we not only survive, but thrive.
My childhood was probably typical. When the phone rang, my mother often answered. "Hello, who is this?" she'd ask. "It's David. Can I speak to Ariel?" "Oh David, how are you? How's your family?" she'd ask - if she knew him; if she didn't, she'd grill him about himself and his family, before letting him speak with me, or, if I was doing my homework, telling him I wasn't available. In those days, if I had a question about my homework, or something I was reading, I'd turn for help to the closest, most experienced person I knew. Their answers, and possibly the books they'd recommend, would serve as the basis of my answer until another, better informed adult came along.
Both scenarios are things of the past. Today, parents might know the friends their children meet physically, but rarely do they know whom they interact with digitally. By the time a child can access the Internet, Google will generally be the first place he or she turns to when a question arises. And with the number of citizens raised on these technologies, and now eligible to vote, growing into a sizable demographic, the social and political implications of these technologies are finally coming to bear.
A generation raised with the understanding that it can quickly form groups around one social platform or another expects nothing less of society in general. A generation whose members communicate without the restrictions of space and time expects to be heard by those who presume to represent their interests, and to be conferred with and engaged by those who aspire to lead them.
The Jewish People are not currently aligned for the "prosumer" culture of the Digital Age, wherein the consumer helps the producer improve the product. Our society was designed for a time when the authorities in our homes, communal institutions and synagogues managed our access to the outside world, and the knowledge made available to us was vetted for accuracy by experts and deliberated upon by rabbis who couldn't have anticipated the present circumstances. Those same authorities and experts cannot exert the same control any more. And so, from a world in which citizens had information and choices "pushed" at them, they now have to be convinced to "pull" those choices, if we want to ensure the propagation of our values. To do that, we need to address those intended consumers as co-producers, partners in the building of our common future.
In 1893, observing the radical change of his own era, the Zionist thinker who went by the name of Ahad Ha'am observed that there were generally two ways in which societies react to such paradigm shifts. In looking at models of successful civilizations, to paraphrase his essay "Imitation and Assimilation," they either exclaim "what wonderful values, what a glorious culture that civilization has. Let us assimilate their values and better ourselves." Or they conclude, "The social structures and governing bodies they have are brilliant! Let us imitate them and we, too, will be successful."
We Jews have thrived using the second strategy. During Greek times we created the Sanhedrin - itself a Greek word meaning "council"; in Persian times we developed the Resh Galuta, a position heading the Jewish community in exile that mirrored the singular power of the Persian emperor; and so on, until the Zionist movement proposed imitating the nation-state construct, and the system of Jewish federations in North America adopted the confederation model. We took the governing structures of the successful societies of our day and filled their vehicles with our values, creating a new societal order that was compatible with our tradition.
As we enter the new year, we are still working with inherited systems that did much good in the past - but are struggling in the present. What we need is the wisdom to seek out the best aspects of the successful civilizations of our day, and to develop frameworks that recognize the necessity of connecting and moving people who lead their lives here and everywhere, with few barriers that a data connection cannot overcome. In our search to answer our contemporary needs, may we recognize the importance of engaging individuals as co-producers and not only as consumers of content, and develop organizations that know how to operate in the "pull" environment of the here and now.
Ariel Beery is the founder and co-director of the PresenTense Group, which equips social ventures and communities for the information age.