Two weeks ago German author Günther Grass managed to cause an uproar when he
referred – in a video interview given to a museum in Denmark – to Facebook, the
Internet, cellular phones and other new technologies as “scheisse” (“shit”); the
idea of being constantly reachable, and possibly under surveillance (an issue
recently raised by revelations of FBI surveillance techniques), is abhorrent to
him. He admitted that he feels a little like a dinosaur – he does all the
research for his books in libraries, writes first drafts by hand and then types
his manuscripts with a typewriter, and he does not own a computer or a cellular
At first sight a comparison to the Luddites (19th-century English
textile workers who protested against newly developed labor-saving machinery by
destroying it) seems valid, except that Grass does not call for the abolition of
all the new technologies; he merely wonders why people voluntarily submit to
While I believe that Grass and those like him have gone a little
too far in their conclusions, I don’t think one should simply accept all these
new technologies and fads at face value. For example, Facebook certainly offers
an alternative direct means of mass communication for anyone who feels he has
something to say. (I prefer the old-fashioned methods, like writing articles for
newspapers.) But there is nothing inherently wrong with posting on Facebook, as
Finance Minister Yair Lapid does – well, except for the fact such posts are
unedited, unfiltered and, in the absence of gate-keepers, can be libelous,
offensive, misleading and even ruinous.
However, I agree with Grass’s
reply to one of his grandchildren, who boasted of his 500 “friends” on Facebook:
If “someone has 500 friends, he has no friends.”
There is, of course,
nothing wrong with corresponding with 500 virtual friends whom one has never
met, and with whom one has never interacted in a tangible form, as long as this
does not come at the expense of maintaining physical, face-to-face relationships
with real friends, the kind one can sit in a café and chat with over a cup of
Perhaps virtual friends create the illusion of not being alone,
which is certainly preferable to being lonely, but in the final reckoning, this
is a way of avoiding the development of social skills by means of real-life
social interactions. Furthermore, it is not difficult to guess which type of
friendship would prove more valuable on a rainy day.
As for using the
Internet as a source of information, the Internet is without doubt invaluable. I
use the Internet for information for my weekly Jerusalem Post articles and for
my academic writing, to verify and update information related to the database I
am helping construct for the Jerusalem Botanical Garden, and regarding products
and services I want to purchase, plays and concerts I wish to attend, and travel
both in Israel and abroad.
Certainly one can also read books and articles
on the Internet (in so far as they are available there), but anyone who believes
that this is a good reason to close down libraries, or abolish all printed
matter (books, journals and newspapers) – is living in lala land.
first place, even without online books, long articles or newspapers, we spend
too much time in front of computers, which is hazardous to our eyes and exposes
us to excessive radiation.
But there is an additional, practical problem.
Today, if you want to read an academic article online, you must either be
connected to some institutional database, subscribe to the particular journal at
the cost of hundreds of dollars annually or pay $30 for a single
Since libraries no longer purchase journals in hard copy, what I
do these days, if I need an article which is not available for free on the
Internet, is try to get a friend who does have free access to a database to
retrieve a copy for me. Or I write to the authors directly, even though they are
usually total strangers. The Internet is of no practical use in this
The other day I was looking for a Post article from 1997. The only
available copy in electronic form would have cost me $30 from some foreign
database; the Post itself has not scanned its old newspapers. Fortunately, the
Knesset library still keeps bound copies of the Post, as it does of all
newspapers that ever appeared in Israel, and I was able to photocopy the
article. What would I have done without the library (or alternatively the Post
archives)? And what about all the books that have not appeared in electronic
form? In his interview, Grass also argued against cell phones. I sympathize with
the sentiment, but again, would not take it to the same extremes. I own a cell
phone (of 2003 vintage), but it is switched off most of the time. I turn it on
only if I need to speak to someone urgently or expect a call while away from
All my friends know they can reach me at home and that I do not
read messages from my cell phone. The fact that I am not accessible on the phone
24/7 has never been a problem, and I haven’t missed out on anything in life.
Furthermore, my phone bills are reasonable. The problem with cell phones and
“smart phones” is that people become addicted to them. People feel they need to
be constantly connected, though it is not clear why.
chatter is becoming a real nuisance. Even when out hiking, there are always
individuals holding business conversations on their cell phones. In the theater
and at concerts, there is invariably someone sitting close by, fiddling with
something or other after the lights are out, and although there is usually no
noise, the light and movement are irritating.
Drivers similarly engaged
have also turned into a menace, and they ought to have their phones confiscated
the moment they are caught.
I would just add, in connection with Grass
finding computers superfluous, that in addition to their being a gateway to the
Internet, they make writing much easier (I know – back in 1970 I wrote my
350-page PhD thesis, with over 400 footnotes, on a typewriter.) One can also
store information on a computer, and there are ways of keeping it safe from
unauthorized external surveillance, if that is a concern.
In short, the
real problem is one of setting boundaries, and finding the right balance between
taking advantage of the new technologies – which invariably involve exposure –
and good, old-fashioned preservation of discretion and privacy. The new devices
and technologies should not be rejected just because one objects to change or
because they may be abused. They should certainly be embraced and used, but
The 64,000-dollar question is how one teaches people –
especially young people – to set boundaries, to find the right balance and to
act judiciously in an age in which everyone seems intent on rejecting boundaries
and adopting extreme positions. I doubt whether Günther Grass has given this
question any thought.
The writer is a retired Knesset employee.