Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Kosher Phones II - The Next Big Thing That Won't Be in a Kosher Phone

In this post (on our aliyah blog), I described how we purchased kosher cellphones to save money. And save money they have, at the expense of being able to use SMS - which is basically text-messaging. All kosher phones have their text-messaging capabilities disabled.
It's hard to describe how pervasive text messaging really is here. People use it for all sorts of daily needs. Just a couple of examples:
  • When our kids won't be in school (due to illness, a day off, etc.), you're supposed to SMS the school. We don't have SMS, so they let us call in by phone. But they never answer the phone and never check the voicemail, so we always get a call anyway informing us that our children didn't show up at school.
  • Bezalel's afterschool chug often changes time and location. The head of the chug doesn't like to call people - it's a pain. But he has no problem sending SMS messages.
Why can't our cellphones use SMS? I have no idea. For some reason, the powers that be figured that they could be use to send illicit messages, so they banned them on kosher phones.
I have never really understood this kind of logic, because by that thinking, cellphones themselves should be banned. After all, think of all the terrible things that people do over the phone: there's lashon hara, nivul peh, rechilut, theft, lying, inappropriate sexual speech - the list goes on and on. By the same token though, the phone offers all kinds of positive benefits as well: Torah learning, bikkur cholim, comforting the mourner, saving lives in an emergency - that's a long list as well.
I'm a big fan of Wired Magazine. So I asked my mother - who's visiting - to pick me up a copy of the latest issue at the airport, which she did. I discovered a new technology that will clearly not be included in the next kosherphone: GPS. Currently, many new cellphone models have the ability to know their own location, opening up a world of new applications. You can find out where the closest gas station is, where the speedtraps are on the highways - the list is endless. There's even a mitzvah component to all of this.
On a recent visit to the States, my cousin, cellphone guru Avi Greengart, showed me a new app that he bought for his iPhone. (He gets this stuff pretty much always for free to review, so if he buys something, he must really like it.) He showed me his new siddur application for the iPhone, which not only has the siddur itself, but because it knows where you are, it will tell you the exaxt zmanim for your location, and also connect to a minyan database and tell you where the next minyanim are closest to your location. That's an amazing application!
And today I came across the following quote in this article in Wired:
I love tinkering with new gadgets and diving into new applications. But WhosHere had me stumped. It's an iPhone app that knows where you are, shows you other users nearby, and lets you chat with them. Once it was installed and running, I drew a blank. What was I going to do with this thing?
So I asked for some help. I started messaging random people within a mile of my location (37.781641 °N, 122.393835 °W), asking what they used WhosHere for.
My first response came from someone named Bridget, who, according to her profile, at least, was a 25 year-old woman with a proclivity for scarves. "To find sex, #$%hole," she wrote.
"I'm sorry? You mean it's for finding people to have sex with?" I zapped back. "Yes, I use it for that," she wrote.
So is GPS technology good, because it can help you find the latest minyan or closest daf yomi? Because it can save your life if you need help and don't know where you are? Or is it terrible because you can use it to solicit sexual encounters with strangers? When do the positives outweigh the negatives? These are difficult questions to answer. Somehow, the need to talk on the phone is so critical that the positives outweigh the negatives. But the benefits of texting do not. (Personally, I think that all new technologies start out as "assur" and gradually gain acceptance. When the positives become clear and unequivocal, then the chareidi community can adopt that technology. Otherwise, if the benefits are dubious and the risks overwhelming, the negative outweighs the positive.) The answer to these questions must depend on the predominant uses of a given technology, the positives and negatives, and be a of formula based on:
(the potential benefits of the technology) + (the actual way the technology is normally used) - (the potential hazards of the technology)
We cannot attribute either benefit or evil to any particular technology per se. Technology itself is neutral. What's good or bad is how we decide to use that technology. Each of us must answer that question before we decide to bring a new gadget, device or capability into our homes and lives.