As a boy raised on the promise vouchsafed by Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” upon the moon’s crust and Captain Kirk’s invitation to “boldly go where no man has gone before,” I am a member of a generation afflicted with a great disappointment. By this time in my life, according to what I was assured by the Jetsons, I should have been flying to work on my private hoverjet, enjoying gourmet meals materialized ex nihilo at the beep of a red button, and vacationing once a year on the sunny side of a planet orbiting around Alpha Centauri or at least on nearby Mars.

Sitting atop this great heap of broken promises of techno-felicity, I find myself living in a future where it seems the one and only consolation for all my dashed boyhood hopes is encased in a singular technical device, the only item that contemporary Israelis acknowledge by name as a pele, a wonder, to wit, the smartphone.

Am I consoled? The smartphone, to be sure, is no mere device among devices. Who with even a modicum of spiritual sensibility could deny that, for better or for worse, a new dawn of the human spirit is upon us? —The Age of the Smartphone!

But am I consoled? —Actually, for my part, I have found something better than consolation. Thanks to a kabbalistic teaching originally articulated in the very ancient Sefer Yetzirah1 and promulgated for popular consumption in its Chassidic format since the 1797 publication the short treatise, Shaar HaYiud vehaEmunah (“The Gate of Unity and Faith”) by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, it seems to me that a positive appreciation of the wondrous leap for mankind represented by the technological advent of the smartphone is indeed not only feasible, it is a spiritual-intellectual requirement of any thoughtful person who would be at least as smart as his or her own phone.

The Virtual Life of the Smartphoner on the Street

When Alexander Graham Bell uttered the inaugural telephoned sentence in 18762 to his assistant standing in the next room—“Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you!”—the first sublime potential of the telephone (Greek: têle phōnê, “far-off voice”) was made manifest as its power to bring closer someone who stood farther away.

A second sublime potential eventually unlocked itself when two interlocutors on the opposite ends of a very long wire running under the Atlantic found that they were quite content with achieving a dimension of closeness that no longer said, “Come here, I want to see you!” (As Mr. Watson replied to the same statement repeated by Bell in their historic 1915 call between New York and San Francisco: “It will take me five days to get there now!”) A happy proximity could be satisfactorily attained by two family members or two friends at a great physical distance from each other within the phone call itself.

Not that this proximity was accepted as genuine or wholesome by everyone or right away. In the 1940s, the novelist Albert Camus could be upset by the eerie spectacle of a man gesticulating fervidly inside a phonebooth. “A man is talking on the telephone behind a glass partition. We can’t hear him, but we see his pointless pantomime. We wonder why he is alive.”3 How, wondered Camus in dismay, could this count as “being alive,” this self-imprisoned, inaudible one-man act in a glass box on the street corner? Could this really be a living conversation?

In 1983, Motorola Inc. manufactured the DynaTAC 8000x, the first commercially available cellular phone. And once the fad took off 1991, the spectacle that appeared so unnerving and absurd for Camus has achieved epidemic proportions—an epidemic against which today, evidently, no one in his or her right mind desires to be inoculated.

I walk down the street at a quarter past five. I see a fellow pedestrian walking in the other direction, toward me, chatting into his smartphone. His feet touch the sidewalk, his free arm makes tender gestures in the air, the sun shines into his squinting eyes, the noise of the street swirls around him, and yet he is not there. Or he is just barely there. His body is there going through various motions. But he, he himself, is somewhere else. Where? Right beside his wife, as far as I can tell, in his kitchen at home, where his wife is stirring tomato sauce for the spaghetti bolognese they will soon be sharing for dinner.

And now—I am still studying him—now the most remarkable thing takes place. The conversation winds down to see-you-soons, and, just before he holds out the cell and presses the red phone icon, I see my fellow pedestrian puckering his lips—into a kiss!

A man has just expressed sweet affection for a little black appliance in public. I look around. No one has noticed anything unusual. Just another guy on the street kissing his wife in the kitchen.

The Virtue of Virtual Reality

Now, for some social critics, as for Camus, this kind of behaviour might appear like nothing but another sad phase in the general plague of technologized life. The fact that the cellphone epidemic is eating away into the face-to-face encounter between two flesh-and-blood human beings, and by the same token into the precious loneliness that used to be suffered patiently between such encounters which made the encounters themselves all the sweeter, appears as a major step toward the cybernetic dystopia looming just ahead, a world in which humans will lie prone, like macrochips wedged in a green panel, with tiny smartphones implanted under their skulls as they participate in a dense world-web of electronic interconnectedness.

Such social critics, moreover, insist on the simple physical fact that my fellow pedestrian is in reality, in fact, on the street, and that his “presence” at home with his wife is merely a virtual one. It is precisely the self-abandonment to virtual existence that is taken to be so lamentable. The smartphone dimension is said to be a non-reality.

Yet there is a distinctly cavalier dishonesty in this criticism. Where, how, after all, does this social critic make this criticism? More often than not, he formulates his ideas on his laptop, transmits his critique by email to his publisher, who uploads it to the internet, so that the critic’s loyal fans can access it on their smartphones while riding the bus.

That a certain type of intimacy and hence of reality has been compromised since the smartphone revolution took place is not to be doubted. But a rigorous phenomenology of the situation—that is, an honest recognition of the most real dimension of life in which we breathe and move about and share our feelings and thoughts with one another—also points to the equally real fact, indeed, realer fact, that human beings have lived in a profoundly virtual dimension since time began, namely the dimension of language.

Is there anything more meaningful, more real, within human existence than the constant barter and banter of words in which we live our lives? When the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure wanted to represent pictorially “where” it is that language takes place, he resorted, sensibly enough, to drawing trajectories suspended in the air between two human heads.4

This classical diagram affirms the full concrete reality of the heads while it depicts the two-fold action of speaking-and-hearing by means of two abstract geometric arcs. And when I see the man on the street with his cellphone, this scientific estimation of what is real versus what is abstract can certainly make an amusing impression at times. I see his head, to be sure; but where are the dotted lines?! Nevertheless, when I am the man on the street blowing kisses to his wife on the phone—and I am certainly that man at some point during the day—the experience of what is abstract versus what is concrete is very different. I can smell the spaghetti.

How the Universe Was Uttered Into Place

“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!” (Song of Songs 1:2) The beloved Shulamite says these words about her lover. It is a metaphor for how we feel about G‑d.5

A closely related metaphor speaks of the “breath of G‑d’s mouth,” which “breath,” as Rabbi Shneur Zalman explains, represents, not something ethereal and unreal, but the most real of realities. More in fact, it represents the source of reality itself. “By the word of G‑d were the heavens made and their hosts by the breath of His mouth.” (Psalms 33:6)

The reason that all things created and actualized appear to us as existing and tangible, is that we do not comprehend or see with our eyes of flesh the power of G‑d and the breath of His mouth which is in every creature. If, however, the eye were permitted to see and to comprehend the vital principle and the spirituality within every creature, flowing into it from ‘That which proceeds out of the mouth of G‑d’ [Deuteronomy 8:3] and His breath, then the corporeality, materiality and tangibility of the creature would not be visible to our eyes at all, for its existence is utterly null vis-à-vis the vitality and the spirituality which is within it, since without the spirituality it would be nothingness and literally zero, exactly as before the Six Days of Creation.6

What is it that comes out of the mouth of G‑d to constitute and to vitalize reality? Words! Words! Words! G‑d speaks and reality is released from silent nothingness into being. “Let there be …” said G‑d, eight times explicitly and twice implicitly,7 as everything that is real was permitted, as it were, to be and to take shape in the six primordial days when G‑d invoked the unfathomable idea of a cosmos to percolate from the depths of His inscrutable Mind up to the surface of this superficial layer of thingishness we call the universe. “And G‑d said: ‘Let there be …’” G‑d said this. G‑d made the universe by uttering words.

… even in thoroughly inanimate matter, such as rocks or earth or water, there is soul and spiritual vitality, that is, the investiture of the letters of speech of the Ten Utterances which give life and existence to inanimate matter that it might come to be out the nothingness and zero that preceded the Six Days of Creation. And although [for example,] the noun אבן [rock] is not mentioned in the Ten Utterances recorded in the Torah, nevertheless, vitality flows to the rock through combinations and permutations of the letters that circulate in the Two Hundred and Thirty-One Gates [of binary Hebrew letter combinations], either in direct or reverse order, as is explained in the Sefer Yetzirah, until the combination of the [three letters in the] noun אבן devolves from the Ten Utterances, and is derived from them, this being the vitality of the rock.8

Which means that the very being of this thing called a “rock” which was summoned into reality by the divine utterance of the Hebrew noun êvên, this thing whose very being is derived from this word, must be less real than the word whence it is derived. If the eye were permitted to see a rock as is in its truth, then it would no longer be seen in its mere physical manifestations: its grey colour, its shape, its hardness, its heaviness, its ability to smash windows. The rock would appear as the word, as the word êvên, a primordial word that “proceeds out of the mouth of G‑d.” (What would this word look like? Well, if the eye were permitted to see it … which, alas, is something the eye is not permitted to do ….)

The Smartphone as a "You Have Just Entered" Sign of the Messianic Age

“This is my comfort in my affliction, that Your word gives me vitality!” (Psalms 119:50)

The great disappointment regarding the technological paradise that was promised to the 21st century, it turns out, is a blessing in disguise. For what was promised was a life of consummate ease and comfort, a life of perfect laziness. And such a paradise has dire little to do with the messianic era as envisioned by the prophets.

The comforts promised by the prophets—for example to all the sheep of the world, who are assured they will finally get to snuggle with lions and wolves (Isaiah 11:6)—are but accidental features of an era utterly submerged in a full-time preoccupation with acquiring knowledge of G‑d (Isaiah 11:9). And what is the smartphone but a sign of the general readiness of humanity for such a preoccupation?

Our smartphones submerge us in a reality of around-the-clock communication, where words are more real than things, where the bursting open of the wellsprings of constant conversation is as harmless, indeed as welcome, as a global deluge would be to fish.

The content of this great flood of communication and information, to be sure, still needs to be channeled into better, more decent, holier, smarter words. But the technology, at least, is in place. As is, most importantly, the passion for words.

Am I consoled then? —Never mind consolation! If private flying saucers, zap-into-existence Tiramisu, and candle-light dinner dates on the dark side of the moon are not yet a reality, perhaps this has something to do with the basic economic rule that technology develops in accordance with what human beings are willing to invest in.

We don’t really care about being able to fly home from the office. We want to be able to be home while still at the office. This is no abrogation of space. It is a transcendence of space. Better still, it is a disclosure of the innermost secret of spatiality itself as a host for language, communication, and submersion in divine knowledge.

The smartphone is no mere zonk-gift behind door number two or a consolation prize for technology’s slowness to catch up to science fiction. Kabbalistically understood: the smartphone is the very flower of technological wisdom.