Ki Teitzei: United Or Ununited States ?


Google and Microsoft: Lessons from Your Desktop

Are we doomed to be battlers all our lives? What is the inherent nature of the universe – unity or discord? Are we victims of circumstances? These and other vital life issues are answered in one opening verse in this week’s Torah portion; indeed, two words in the verse change our entire perspective on life!

For more insight on this we don’t have to look any farther than our own desktop…

Is the world becoming less or more united? Converging technologies and economies would seem to inevitably bring us all closer. Yet, the opposite is happening. Practically every industry and segment of our society is becoming more entrenched. Racial divisions and religious passions are intensifying – defying all predictions and expectations of the shrinking boundaries of our global village.

If the wise and enlightened ones of previous centuries would see our society, they would never believe that the proliferation of knowledge, unprecedented in all of history, would actually amplify our diversity. They all imagined that the forward march of progress went hand in hand with the assimilation of extremes into one homogenous whole. The information revolution was meant to be the big equalizer. Instead, it is eliciting deeper extremes then ever – both to the left and to right.

This divergence, recently coined as segmentation, certainly has its virtues. It validates our inherent individuality and the unique nature of races and cultures.

Yet, there is also an ugly side to these divisions, as has been just made apparent by Hurricane Katrina. Beyond the direct devastation wreaked by the natural disaster, its aftermath has also exposed the very human disaster of the painful rifts of class and race in this country.

Illinois Senator Barack Obama put it this way last week: “I hope we realize that the people of New Orleans weren’t just abandoned during the hurricane. They were abandoned long ago—to murder and mayhem in the streets, to substandard schools, to dilapidated housing, to inadequate health care, to a pervasive sense of hopelessness.”

Without minimizing the sad dichotomy which has now resurfaced, demonstrating how  parts of the wealthiest nation in the world look like Third World countries, the fact is that the polarization of the wealthy and the impoverished is a global phenomenon. 1 billion people in the world are starving from hunger, while Western (and some Eastern) wastebaskets are brimming with over or underdone steaks. 64% of the population in prosperous countries are overweight (and around 33% obese), while in poorer countries millions of bellies are bloated or emaciated from hunger. Gandhi once said that

“The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems.”

Is there any hope? Can we ever expect to mend this split or will human greed always keep us apart? We must acknowledge the charity and compassion of our times. Great strides have been made in modern society’s sense of civil rights and social justice. Yet, we also can’t ignore the undeniable inequality that prevails. Will we always remain selfishly inclined?

A fascinating argument between two giants can ironically illuminate this issue. No, I’m not referring to the great sages Shammai and Hillel, but to non other than our contemporary mega-corporate technology titans, Microsoft and Google.

Perhaps less noticed than other more blatant news, Google and Microsoft are currently embroiled in a fundamental disagreement as to the vision of the future of human endeavor, which manifests itself in two different approaches to search engines.

Microsoft believes that the central point of personal computing is individual productivity. That’s why their desktop search limits itself to probing the user’s hard disk. Microsoft argues that mixing Web-search results with your own information is too confusing. Things go more efficiently, they contend, when your personal data pond is segregated from the ocean of information data located elsewhere in the world.

In contrast, Google Desktop searches bring results from everywhere – your hard drive, your e-mail and billions of Web sites. That’s because the Google mission is organizing and managing all the world’s information, without distinguishing where the information comes from. Though Google-ites acknowledge difficulties in merging the personal with the public, their core belief is that the essence of 21st-century computing springs from the connectivity that allows all human knowledge, from books to instant messages, to be potentially shared. This of course causes Google to increasingly run into issues of privacy, copyright and censorship.

Which vision will prevail?

Thousands of years ago, Isaiah the visionary declared that at the end of days:

“there no longer will be evil and destruction…because the universe will be filled with Divine knowledge as the water cover the sea.”

This statement may have been ignored or dismissed as esoteric poetry. Today, however, these words resonate more than ever.

Isaiah is confirming Google’s idealism that all knowledge will be connected and accessible to all. However with one major caveat: It must be infused with Divine knowledge, the knowledge must be transcendent in nature, lest we remain confined by our individual interests.

Though Google’s approach sounds more idealistic and less selfish (consistent with their famous IPO vow, “Don’t be evil”), I submit that as long as personal gain and commercial profit remain the driving engine of human growth, than both attitudes, even Google’s, are ultimately reinforcing the narcissistic force that separates us all.

Microsoft and Google are both right and both wrong. Success is fueled by individual initiative and productivity (as Microsoft claims). Knowledge is all connected (as Google argues). Both need to be fused; the ultimate goal is to merge individual productivity with universal knowledge, and vice versa. But that is only possible when knowledge itself is not seen as one’s selfish domain, but as part of Divine knowledge – to be shared and accessible by all.

The information revolution – and its brainchild, IT (information technology) – deceptively suggests that abundant information will make us free. The fact us that more often than not the glut of information is swamping and confusing us more than ever (just check out the ratio of spam to vital e-mail in your inbox). We now need experts, information traffic cops, to help us sort and make sense of all the information coming our way; information that makes other information relevant.

The key is not just knowledge, but Divine knowledge – knowledge that has purpose and direction, knowledge that helps us fulfill our higher calling.

The philosophy of the behemoth Microsoft essentially captures the heartbeat of all capitalism: Growth is driven by personal gain. The downside of this is that greed will inevitable create the economic rifts that divide one class from another, and the other schisms of society. Capitalism must have a soul to balance its inherent selfishness and resultant inequality (for a lengthy discussion on this, see the series on Money and Spirituality).

Google is definitely giving us a taste of universal knowledge at your fingertip. But we still have a way to go.

The answer to the question whether we are doomed to endless inequality (with sporadic bouts of compassion to relieve our consciences) really depends on how we see the nature of existence.

The Torah view of life is unequivocal, as stated in this week’s opening verse:

When you go out to wage war upon your enemies, G-d will deliver them in your hands.

The two operative phrases are “go out” and “upon,” seemingly superfluous terms. The Torah is telling us that “war” – all forms of it: physical, psychological, class struggle, racial – is not the natural state of affairs. You “go out” – outside of your inherent nature – to wage battle. And therefore you always remain “upon” – above and more powerful – than “your enemies.”

Self confidence and projection define most if not all life struggles. When you have peace in your inner core and you feel that any battle is “outside” of you, than you may fight your adversary, but you never become defined by it. Even as you wage war you always remain above it.

The innate nature of man is unity – we are all parts of one mosaic (whether we feel it or not). Discord, divisiveness and battles are part of life, but they don’t have to define life.

So as we read more and more about less and less (Oscar Wilde), and many people know the price of everything and the value of nothing (ibid), the wealthy become wealthier and the poor become poorer.

Time has come to introduce and integrate Divine knowledge into our lives. Spiritual consciousness is the only true antidote to the by-products of prosperity and comfort zones.

Days are coming, we are told, when there will “a famine in the land – not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the Divine words” (Amos 8:11).

This famine is upon us, but the good news is that abundant nourishment is readily available to all. The only thing required is the will to act and feed our souls.

Our hearts and pocketbooks must always go out to those in need. Today that includes the thousands of misplaced souls in the Gulf Coast, as well as people in dire straits wherever they may be.

But above all, this must not be a commitment for the moment, but a lifetime activity. We are compassionate not because there are people in need; but because we are soulful people — and the soul dictates that we are all integrally bound. Pain in one part of the world does not allow any other part to be complete.

May we always remember this even when there is no apparent crisis.


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