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  • Jews and the Original World Wide Web

    Posted on May 13th, 2009 Ruth Abusch-Magder 3 comments
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    Martin Kace

    Martin Kace recently spoke on “The Jewish World Wide Web from Antiquity to Today,” and proposed the idea that the Jews originated the concept of the World Wide Web; I was intrigued. Kace’s background is in psychology and visual arts and his company Empax is a non-profit that advises non-profits about branding and web use. He has worked with politicians like Al Gore and Shimon Peres as they developed their virtual presence to further their agendas as well as with organizations such as Matan to create logos and brands.

    His thesis, derived from the work of Gidi Grinstein, the founder of Reut, posits that the Jews are the original world wide network. According to Kace, the ancient dispersions of the Jews created a web of connections and interconnection across communities and replicated practice across regions. In Jewish communities across the world, similar practises and beliefs, calendars and modalities could be found and one could move from region to region with some familiarity. Moreover, the shift from Temple worship to Yavneh and kallot meant a shift in power from a top down model location specific model to a knowledge based system independent of location or status. People still came together to share knowledge, inevitable given the technological limitations, but the currency of power had shifted from a few limited individuals to a more diverse and spread out group.

    Jews in the Russain Pale of Settlement circa 1800

    Jews in the Russain Pale of Settlement circa 1800

    By the 1800s, Jews are living in all parts of the inhabitable world (his words not mine and here I would quibble). Living in many distinct types of communities they share visual motifs and models of worship. According to Kace, Jews made synagogues their centers because they became assimilated, once again adopting the non-Jewish model of place being the key element in organizing community.

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    He pushed us to consider branding of synagogues which overwhelmingly rely on what he called clichéd images or at best images that speak to the “in group” but do not broadcast the vision of the organization to the world at large. Moreover, he suggested that a survey of synagogue websites shows a tendency towards web 1.0. In other words, the presentation is one way; the temple puts up content and congregants read and receive the wisdom but cannot create thier own content. While he did not make the link directly with the first half of his presentation, one could make a connection to the vision of power in the Temple whereby the power/knowledge is unidirectional and located in one place. In other words, the synagogues he surveyed use the web to disseminate information out and not really to facilitate conversation or community.

    He challenged us to consider how to move towards web 2.0 online community building as part of synagogue life. He did not tell us how to do that, or address what that community would look like but he did suggest that the role of the rabbi would become that of moderator rather than source of knowledge.

    He also discussed that the web could be a wonderful way to short circuit many of the time sinks of the clergy such as financial planning, setting agendas, and basic communication that do not really need the face time of the rabbi. In fact, he suggested that most of the time initiatives that seem very promising at the start of a process lose most of their momentum by the third meeting. By doing the initial organizing on the web and allowing people to own the process and engage others laterally, there will be a higher retention rate as seen with Al Gore or Barak Obama. Online organizing allows people to define their own parameters of participation and needs. According to Kace, people will be more likely to speak their truth online than in person and the written record of the web will drive accountability. Asked about the tendency of the impersonal nature of the web to allow people to feel removed from the words they write, which sometimes leads to a lack of derekh eretz, Kace suggested that it is when discussion deteriorates that the role and authority of the religious leader becomes particularly important.

    Kace distinguished between what he called face to face time and eye to eye time. Face to face time means that you see the rabbi/cantor/educator but don’t have a strong direct connection with the person. Eye to eye time is the very personal and intimate attention that our community members can only get from us. Saving on face to face time will allow Jewish professionals to spend more time on what he sees as eye to eye interactions. Emotion, he explained, can really only be conveyed eye to eye.

    One of the listeners in the room asked whether consensus could be built using the web. Kace suggested that the goal of moving forward need not be consensus but rather decision making. Vote taking, he noted, is easy on the web and can be done repeatedly and often within a process to gauge feeling and progress towards a goal.

    Another participant noted that synagogues are largely about building communities and communities are about boundaries. Web 2.0,  by contrast, is about openness and lack of boundaries. Can the two really coexist? For Kace the answer is simple, if you love someone let them go. Web 2.0 is a useful tool in furthering our quest for meaning and should be seen as an essential portal into Judaism.

    He also described a process called crowdsourcing; the process by which the public is invited to actively participate in the creation of online conversation and content. The term was new to me but he explained that contests are one way to draw people in and looking on the web I learned more about this new process.  I began to imagine free synagogue membership being awarded to those who present the most compelling ideas for innovation.

    One example of crowdsourcing

    One example of crowdsourcing

    I think his thesis about Jews as a world wide web is fascinating. It resonates with what I know about the ways in which Jews were engaged in building networks of trade and commerce in the early modern world. And while, much to the chagrin of some of my professors in graduate school, I love grand metaphors and theories in history, I am also wary of simplifying too much. I would be excited to see this line of thinking developed more thoroughly.

    Much of what he presented about the internet was exciting and challenged me to think about how we can use the web more effectively. But it also left me with some bigger questions not only about how we might use the web to engage but also what the implications of such decentralization of knowledge and power in terms of its effect on synagogues and the ways in which we structure contemporary Jewish life.

    The presentation was part of a recent meeting of ACRE, Alliance for Continuing Rabbinic Education. The other discussion and many conversations were also interesting and I hope to report on them in the near future.

    photo credits: Empax, friends-partners.org, and Wikipedia
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    3 responses to “Jews and the Original World Wide Web”

    1. hey this is a very interesting article!

    2. Are any of these talks streamed live online? taped for later viewing online? blogged live? tweeted live?

    3. Unfortunately, the original talk is not available online.

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