Psych Central, the internet’s largest and oldest independent psychology and mental health network (founded in 1995), has reported that with the proliferation of smartphones, counselling is shifting from the traditional mode of face-to-face sessions with a professional to sessions over the phone. In fact, a Northwestern University study reveals that approximately 85% of psychologists now deliver some of their services over the phone. Dr. David Mohr, lead author of the study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, sees this as a good thing. Considering the fact that smartphones are practically ubiquitous, “Now therapists can make house calls,” he said. As a professor of preventive medicine, I suppose that Mohr has a point. People is crisis now have immediate access to trained professionals familiar with their circumstances who can give them immediate attention. If this can save even a single person from hurting themselves or worse, it is a welcome tool. According to the Mishnah, saving a single life is tantamount to saving the entire world.
Nevertheless,there is a danger here. With any new technological invention, there seems to be a consequent social defecit . Such is the price of progress. With the proliferation of calculators, for instance, students have been relieved of the need to do laborious mathematical computations and focus instead on the application of the theorems in operation. But this advance has come with a cost. Students who had been allowed to use calculators cannot perform the simplest functions without mechanical assistance. Gone are the days when people can balance their checkbooks unaided. And calculating percentages for tips or to determine the final price of items on sale is now beyond the capabilities of the masses. To be sure, human history has been punctuated with attempts to make claculations easier, from the abacus to the slide rule. But these advances were intended to serve as aids in calculations rather than elimintate the need for them altogether. Similarly, computers have brought the world to our fingertips. But it has come with the cost of creating a generation of couch potatoes and fostered social isolation. Why visit a friend down the street when you can text him or her just as well?
Some rabbis have taken to using Skype as a way of creating a quorum for prayer. No doubt making programs available to shut-ins or distant learners has a value. But if people can merely log in from anywhere and be counted in a minyan, the concept of a sacred community -that is, a group united in place and purpose – is either defined into oblivion or rendered entirely unnecessary.
When God speaks to Moses He does so “panim el panim” – face to face. Moses was required to be in God’s presence, however we can imagine it. God does not e-mail the Torah to Moses. He painstakingly conveys it to him over time and in the same location: atop Sinai. The wisdom here is that while there are useful ways to transmit information – and more and more are being invented – there is no substitute for looking a person straight in the eye or watching their expression up close. Human interaction is enhanced by physical proximity.
People crave intimiacy in this changeable and disconnecting world. It would be shameful to further deprive people of the opportunity to interact with others by replacing physical contact with long distance communication.