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August 29, 2009

Tikuun Olam, The Internet, and The Future of Cleveland

An edited published version of this piece appeared in The Cleveland Jewish News. I haven't written about the Internet through a Jewish lens before. I welcome feedback. Part II of this piece appears tomorrow in my blog.

The phrase tikkun olam may resonate with many readers of the Cleveland Jewish News as an imperative to repair or improve the world. In the Mishnah, the phrase mip'nei tikkun ha-olam ("for the sake of tikkun of the world") indicates that a practice should be followed not because it is required by Biblical law, but because it helps avoid social chaos.

It’s a big, even audacious idea that informs the history and ethos of the Jewish people.

Fast-forward some 1,800 years to the current era of unprecedented change and disruption. Ours is a global village filled with opportunities for tikkun olam, which today are interpreted as good deeds that inform personal commitments, community action and national and international service, Our efforts often focus outwards to those less fortunate in faraway lands like the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, and Argentina. Closer to home, tikkun olam finds common expression by our support of the frail, the marginalized, and the at-risk. These important humane acts of charity and kindness are signature features of great Jewish communities like Cleveland.

But the social chaos is not “out there” alone. The Internet began to change everything starting 30 years ago, making the boundaries between ”there” and ”here” less than a click away. The Internet has forever changed the way media mediate our culture. Gone is the era of the television news anchor being the “most trusted man in America.” Gone is the deference to the editorial page. Gone too are the traditional economic models of selling our culture and our news.

For the first time in history we have put our scientific innovation to work to create a worldwide advanced telecommunication infrastructure: the Internet. It has contributed to the massive dislocation of traditional economies and communities like ours; the Internet giveth and the Internet taketh. And while it began by privileging the privileged, the Internet knows no borders, honors no hierarchy or authority, and is fundamentally built on an interactive communications protocol, an entirely new and radical new way for massive numbers of humans to interact and collaborate with each other, whether conducting business, educating, governing, or organizing our communal activities

The Internet helps search and deliver goods and services in a more efficient manner than ever before; from anywhere in the world. It also contributes significantly, and without hesitation, to the decimation of the once invincible bedrock institutional giants like the auto industry. The only certainty that remains is that there are no certainties. The pace of change will continue to accelerate and the quality of life and the very viability of once vibrant communities all around us are at risk. Change brings winners and losers.

Our Jewish community of Northeast Ohio and our Greater Cleveland community face huge risks. Most everyone has a story about loss or fear of losing a child to the opportunities that present themselves in the global internet-enabled economy. As a community we are well beyond collective denial. If we look carefully at tikkun olam, if we are to avoid even more social chaos, we have no choice but to undertake unorthodox actions to engage in a collective set of practices that will, if we are intentional, lead to re-imagining, re-inventing, and ultimately re-invigorating both our Jewish and broader communities. How we use and respond to these new dynamics is ultimately a personal and community-wide set of choices.

Technology and the Land of Giants

Technology, it has been said, is anything that was invented after you were born. Anything that gets invented after you have turned 30 is against the natural order of things. For most of us reading these words in the pages of the Cleveland Jewish News, the Internet represents nothing less than a tsunami facing our cities, regions, and most every way we live our lives and make our livings. Most people’s instincts are to try to outrun the tsunami of technology by deferring the challenges to the next generation and to ride out the storm.

But there is no way to avoid the tsunami and all that lies in its wake. The only way to overcome the epic challenges is to directly confront the technological imperative and apply the genius, faith, gumption, and courage of our individual and collective beings to re-invent ourselves. In the next 25 years, tikkun olam needs to translate into repairing our world, right here, as an integrated and intentional effort in making Cleveland and the Jewish community in Cleveland the most innovative, connected, and Internet-aware community we can. If we are to realize the noble goal of repairing the world around us, we need to be able to balance our instincts to improve the lot of others with the more difficult challenge of realizing the deep and profound challenges we face in improving our own communities.

Douglas Engelbart, engineer and humanist, created the roadmap for a network-based, connected community that can help in our task. Now in his late 80s, Engelbart and his lab in the 1960s at the Stanford Research Institute pioneered almost every major technology innovation we now associate with the Internet Age: interactivity, the mouse, hyper-linking, video conferencing over the internet, social networking tools, blogs, wikis. He discovered and demonstrated almost all of them at the “mother of all demos” in 1968 (http://tinyurl.com/9km7).

Reflecting on the prophetic insights of that demonstration, Alan Kay, co-founder of the personal computer with Steven Wozniak and the pioneer of the graphical user interface, shared “I don’t know what Silicon Valley will do when it runs out of Doug’s ideas. … Doug was like a biblical prophet. His talks were not for information, but to show a promised land that needed to be found and the seas and rivers we needed to cross to get there ...”

Beyond Engelbart’s brilliant engineering was an even more impressive set of philosophical and prophetic insights for technology, a geek version of tikkun olam which he called “networked improvement communities.” The humanist impulse in Engelbart’s life work is that the Internet can be an unprecedented and powerful platform for improving the human condition. It enables like-minded people to share knowledge, experience, and caring in more impactful ways, and work together to contribute, learn and reciprocate in building common destinies moving forward.

A networked improvement community is an intentional community working to re-imagine, re-invent, and re-invigorate its members. Not exactly a Super Sunday event or joining a synagogue committee for a year, building a networked improvement community is a journey to a promised land filled with giants. It starts with embracing new language, new ideas, new tools, and being prepared to at least consider questioning some of the received wisdom, language, and ideas that have long represented our own sacred cows.

Lev Gonick
Case Western Reserve University
Cleveland, Ohio

Posted by lsg8 at August 29, 2009 12:24 PM and tagged

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