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.


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.

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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."

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."
When we experience time-deepening we don't merely feel that we are doing more in a day; we feel that time is actually moving faster. Research into how people perceive time suggests that when people are distracted -- when their focus is divided or elsewhere -- they mis-estimate the passage of time, thinking that less time has passed than actually has -- that time has flown. It's perhaps because of this perception that when Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery described the changes in work-life patterns in a recent issue of Mother Jones, they called them the "great speed-up." The Digital Sabbath isn't the only strategy for dealing with this speed up: The related set of "slow" movements -- slow food, slow travel, even slow science -- have proliferated in recent years.

When we make a Sabbath and push back against the many claims on our time, we are, in some ways, rebelling against this speed-up and the intrusion of work and labor into our domestic sphere. For this reason, some strains of Sabbatarian thought have an anti-corporate cast. As Douglas Rushkoff wrote of the Sabbath in Adbusters in 1999, "It's our way of disengaging  from the corporate machine." Turning off all your devices doesn't just disable web browsing, email, and YouTube; it makes you invisible, for that period of time, to the companies that track you as you click your way across the web.

It's for all these reasons that a Sabbath, digital or otherwise, can be reinvigorating. When we take a day away from our tools and create a day entirely under our own control, we create that "palace in time" where we can meet our friends and family and, finally, connect.

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If one concedes the point that a Sabbath for restorative reasons need not proscribe technology, it may seem pointless to argue against the digital sabbath. What's the harm?

The reason is that if we allow ourselves to blame the technology for distracting us from our children or connecting with our communities, then the solution is simply to put away the technology. We absolve ourselves of the need to create social, political, and, sure, technological structures that allow us to have the kinds of relationships we want with the people around us. We need to realize that at the core of our desire for a Sabbath isn't a need to escape the blinking screens of our electronic world, but the ways that work and other obligations have intruded upon our lives and our relationships.

We can begin by mimicking the Sabbath in small, by recognizing that by dedicating time to one activity or one person, without interruption from gadgets, work, or other people, will help us slow down and connect. We can use our gadgets to do this -- a long talk on the phone is the most obvious way -- or we can leave them out of it.

Such minimal steps won't build something profound like Heschel's "palace in time." They'll result in something smaller -- something more like little forts in time. And there, in these forts, we can take shelter, replenish our resources, and gear up for the battles of the week ahead.

Image: Library of Congress.