Parashat Vayishlach: The Cost of Technology

guest post by David Sedley

Just think how different our lives were 15 years ago. Before Facebook and YouTube were invented how did we share pictures of our dinner? How did we catch up on the latest late-night television or watch cat videos? How did we have irate political discussions? Technology changes our lives, often for the better, but there is a price to pay. We become dependent upon that technology and can’t go back to living without it.

Consider the Roman empire which controlled so much of the world for so long. In most cases the Romans didn’t conquer primarily through war, but by making treaties with local tribes, offering them Roman citizenship and the benefits that go along with that. Sure, they had to quell the occasional local rebellion, often with massive force. But mostly the Romans won new territories by offering roads, markets, cities and plumbing.

For example, Judea wasn’t initially conquered by the Romans with force, but by offering power to the elite. In 63 BCE Pompey the Great conquered Jerusalem at the invitation of the Hasmonean prince Hyrcanus II and made him the High Priest (though Hyrcanus’s brother Aristobulus had also made offers to Pompey which were ultimately rejected). Later Julius Caesar made Antipater the Idumaean (Herod’s father) as the first Roman Procurator of the province.

Similarly, when the Romans conquered Britain it was initially through treaties with tribal leaders. In exchange, most of Britain went from a rural backwater to a major power with fortified cities and a much higher standard of living.

When I was a kid I read “Asterix and Obelix,” which depicted the only tribe in Gaul to withstand the Roman invasion (helped by the magic potion brewed by Getafix the druid). But looking back I realize that while Chief Vitalstatistix’s tribe lived in wooden huts, the Romans and the rest of Gaul enjoyed stone houses with all sorts of luxuries.

But there was a price to pay for the Romanization.

colisseum - cost of technology

Tacitus wrote a biography of his father-in-law Agricola, who was the governor of Britain from 78CE-84CE. He explains that the Romans offered the British people comfort in exchange for slavery to Rome. In Agricola chapter 21 he wrote:

“To accustom to rest and repose through the charms of luxury a population scattered and barbarous and therefore inclined to war, Agricola gave private encouragement and public aid to the building of temples, courts of justice and dwelling-houses, praising the energetic, and reproving the indolent… He likewise provided a liberal education for the sons of the chiefs and showed such a preference for the natural powers of the Britons over the industry of the Gauls that they who lately disdained the tongue of Rome now coveted its eloquence. Hence, too, a liking sprang up for our style of dress, and the “toga” became fashionable.

“Step by step they were led to things which dispose to vice, the lounge, the bath, the elegant banquet. All this in their ignorance, they called civilization, when it was but a part of their servitude.”

The two sides of the Roman occupation — more leisure but less freedom — are reflected in the opinions of three Rabbis in the Talmud (Shabbat 33b — it is hard not to be reminded of Monty Python).

“Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yossi and Rabbi Shimon [bar Yochai] were sitting and Yehuda ben Gerim was with them. Rabbi Yehuda began by saying, ‘How nice are the actions of this nation [the Romans]. They established markets, bridges and bathhouses.’ Rabbi Yossi said nothing. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai replied, ‘Everything they built they did for themselves…’ Yehuda ben Gerim went and repeated their words which became heard by the rulers. They said, ‘Yehuda who praised should be elevated. Yossi who remained silent should be exiled to Tzippori. And Shimon who criticized should be killed.’”

We all know the continuation of the story, how Rabbi Shimon and his son went and hid in a cave for 13 years. And when they came out Rabbi Shimon saw Yehuda ben Gerim and killed him with his stare.

(Ironically, in Moed Katan 9a-b Rabbi Shimon praised Yehuda ben Gerim as a great man and sent his son to receive a blessing from him.)

Rabbi Yehuda was right that the Romans improved the lifestyle in Judea and made all sorts of improvements, allowing better travel, communications and a host of other things. Yet Rabbi Shimon was also right that ultimately the Romans were acting in their own self-interest.

In a surprise connection to this week’s Torah reading, the same piece of Talmud in Shabbat says that Jacob acted in almost the same way as the Romans did. After facing down his brother Esau, Jacob comes to Israel and encamps near the city of Shechem.

“Jacob came whole to the city of Shechem in the land of Canaan when he came from Padan Aram, and he encamped within sight of the city,” (Genesis 33:18).

“Rav said, ‘He created money for them.’ Shmuel said, ‘He established markets for them.’ Rabbi Yochanan said, ‘He established bathhouses for them.’”

The Talmud praises Jacob for the same activities that Rabbi Yehuda praised the Romans for, and for which Rabbi Shimon criticized them. Is it possible that, just as the Romans would do later, Jacob wanted to take over Shechem through improving their lives? Of course the plan was foiled by the actions of Hamor (Shechem’s son) and Shimon and Levi (Jacob’s sons) that followed. But perhaps the original plan was to defeat the city through innovations.

The late Neil Postman wrote (in a pre-internet age) that the dystopian future described by George Orwell in 1984 may not be what lies in store for us. As technology and entertainment gradually takes over, we may end up in the future described by Aldous Huxley in “Brave New World.” In“Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Postman writes:

“In Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

The modern information technology enslaving us is a mirror of the tools used by the Romans, and perhaps Jacob, to take over the world. And Postman’s warning is even more stark today in our Age of Social Media.

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