We Don't Need a Digital Sabbath, We Need More Time

What if our technology isn't the problem? A look at "Digital Sabbaths" and the dangers of holding our gadgets responsible.

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The idea of a tech-specific Sabbath has been floating around for about a decade. It is presented as an antidote to our "busyness" -- a busyness which exhausts us and inhibits deeper connections with the people and places around us. If we set aside our gadgets, the thinking goes, for a day or a weekend, we can give ourselves a break from this busyness and find the time to really connect.

It seems paradoxical that abstaining from technology, which at some very basic level is all about connection, should help us connect better. As Jason Farman wrote in The Atlantic last week, cell phones and a variety of apps can actually foster deeper connections with the people and places around us, whether through basic phone conversations or the ability to know more about out surroundings.

But some people are clearly troubled by their relationships with technology. Why are these modern-day Sabbatarians rhapsodic about the benefits that a day away from technology can deliver?

Perhaps it's not so much the lack of technology as the creation of some dedicated time for connecting. And the creation of special time -- holy time -- is what the Sabbath fundamentally is. With a ritual at the beginning and one at the end, and all manner of work proscribed in between, the Sabbath carves out an unfragmented period of time; Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the great Jewish scholars of the 20th century called the Sabbath a "palace in time." Everyone observing the Sabbath is in the same metaphorical place, primed for human connection.

* * *

Technological progress has meant changes in the way we experience time. As historian and critic Lewis Mumford wrote, "The clock, not the steam-engine, is the key machine of the modern industrial age." In the domestic sphere, an older way of measuring time still reigns -- task-measured time, in which you do something for as long as it takes (feed a baby, cook a stew). But at work we measure time with clocks. It's no accident that a common expression for working is "being on the clock." 

At the core of the changes isn't merely that we can measure time more precisely, but that we actually divide time into smaller and smaller pieces. In his landmark 1965 12-country time-diary study, German sociologist Erwin Scheuch found that the more industrialized a country became, the more activities its people crammed into a 24-hour period. He called this phenomenon time-deepening, but, as Judith Shulevitz writes in her book The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time, this phrase is misleading "because stuffing life with more things and distractions makes time feel shallower, not deeper."

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The Sabbath has always acted as a sort of protection from "time-deepening." In a metaphorical sense, this is true even of the prototypical Sabbath, during which God rested from the work of the first fragmentation of time -- the day from the night. 

Today, time-deepening has been accelerated -- or, at least, we sense that it has been accelerated -- by changes in our economy that require more Americans to work longer hours and to be more reachable when they're at home, bringing time-deepening into our domestic sphere and interrupting our task-measured time. Shulevitz writes that, "More Americans work during the off-hours than they did half a century ago, the heyday of the nine-to-five, Monday-through-Friday workweek. According to the sociologist Harriet B. Presser, as of 2003, two-fifths of American workers were working non-standard hours -- 'in the evening, at night, on a rotating shift, or during the weekend' -- and she wasn't counting those who bring their work home and do it on their off-hours, or who are self-employed." 

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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