The importance of neural Shabbat; thoughts on Tracker220 by Jamie Krakover
The saying “it’s all in your head” used to mean you are imagining things. But what if there was really something in your head that can influence how your brain works, including how you access information. It is not a new idea: Johnny Mnemonic, a 1981 William Gibson short story already assumed a future where the brain had an extension where one could carry data. Ever since the advent of the internet and more recently with the widespread use of smartphones, it is not necessarily data that we carry with us, but access to it. And not just data, but lots of aspects of our lives, including social life, education, and entertainment: it is all in the cloud. There is plenty of literature, both academic and (science) fiction exploring the long-term implication of this change. Our brains and habits have already shifted significantly because we can and do access so much through our devices. For a well-researched book about how it works, I recommend “Rewired: Protecting Your Brain in the Digital Age” by Carl D. Marci MD or at least a summary of eight actionable recommendations.
Jamie Krakover’s Tracker220 is an incorporation of the spiritual side of the struggle for our sanity and mental freedom in an enlightening and engaging novel; something that I have not seen anywhere else before. First, it introduces a future that might seem like a utopia for the digital natives of our era: all the features and functions of our current devices are consolidated into a chip built in our brain. We no longer need to carry anything with us, and no need to worry about cables, battery levels, and internet connections. It is all there ubiquitously. The real and potential disadvantages of these all-encompassing systems are introduced slowly and turning. On page 81 it is clear: “Global Tracking Systems put a chip in your brain. Your brain! The center that controls every function in your body. They took away a piece of your free will.” The main arch of the book is unwrapping the layers of the implications of having no off-switch of this device. All the things we are missing out on by not having a choice in the matter come to the surface one by one: privacy, lack of salient solitude, and ultimately freedom of thoughts and action.
Don’t let my description above mislead you. For me, those topics are exciting, essential and existential and I recognize that they may not be for others. In that case, you can also read and utterly enjoy this true page-turner for its wild ride of adventures. It has chases, fights, mysteries to uncover, prison escapes, budding romances, sibling loyalties and rivalries, and cool future technological innovations. I kind of assumed there would be more of the latter considering that the author is a real-life rocket scientist, I mean aerospace engineer. At Boeing, no less. But no, it had just the right balance of tech and plot. The tech sounded all plausible to me and assumed more evolutionary advancement in engineering from where it stands now than revolutionary.
With what Krakover wrote on page 225 we have arrived at the central message of the book: “I’d grown to enjoy the quiet. The moments without lights and messages popping up to distract me, to take my attention from what was truly important. With my tracker back online, they’d ripped away my freedom all over again. That Shabbat and Havdalah with Jake at the Hive had meant everything.“
The brain needs a break to recharge. Regularly. Say, once a week is ideal. Hence the option to choose a Sabbath without the disruptions of a tracker/implant is a requirement for survival. Lots of people recognized it since we attached ourselves to screens. Douglas Rushkoff coined the term “Digital Sabbath“, to support the idea of not staring at screens for a day a week. He was also involved in Reboot (“an arts and culture non-profit that reimagines and reinforces Jewish thought and traditions“) that established “The National Day of Unplugging“, which narrows the idea for one (early March) day a year, but extends it to everybody too. While I am covering this topic I have to mention the Sabbath Manifesto that enriches the same idea by adding nine additional positive prescriptive, principles to the avoidance of technology; e.g. connect with loved ones, drink wine, find silence.
This is the lesson from the future (Tracker220) and the past (Torah) worth paying attention to. From page 30: “Observing Judaism came with sacrifices I self-imposed. Having a tracker came with sacrifices I had no control over.” Go ahead: take control o your life, mind, and time. Build that “palace in time” (as Abraham Joshua Heschel called the Sabbath), because if you don’t your life is in danger. The book showed how this metaphor can turn into reality.
Despite several dark turns of events, the book doesn’t morph into a desperate dystopia. Without giving away specific spoilers I can let you know that it has a social and personal happy end. I appreciate the positive outcome, even if this reaction is just a reflection of my own escapism. It is so satisfying to read about successful system change because in our world I see fewer and fewer reasons to be optimistic. Krakover built a fun world and developed an action-packed story with an engineer’s meticulousness, a sci-fi aficionado’s imagination, a child’s playfulness, and a Jew’s devoted curiosity. I am looking forward to her next book. Meanwhile, I will check out “So Brave New Girls: Stories of Girls Who Science and Scheme”, where “a variety of brainy young heroines—girls who engineer, tinker, experiment, and more” as she contributed to that too.
Disclaimer: I have received a digital copy of this book and a small amount from the publisher which did not affect my review in any way.
P.s. When I was a teenager in 1980’s Hungary an underground “hit” song started with the line “Agyamban kopasz cenzor ül“, meaning “in my brain a bald censor sits”. Back then, behind the iron curtain, the song had strong political overtones, as it was about the effects of the unavoidable, internalized external censorship. This book depicts a future where we invite and accept the censor into our brain in exchange for a fake sense of convenience. Not all of us were complacent back in the 80’s to do so and I hope that not all of us are that now.
When everyone has a brain-interfacing tracking chip, one glitch threatens the entire network. Kaya Weiss is that glitch.
Through thoughts and blinks, Kaya can access anyone or anything on the tracker network. But the authorities monitor everything–where Kaya goes, who she talks to, and what she searches. And without the ability to turn it off, Kaya and her family can’t observe a tech-free Shabbat. To fix the glitch, the authorities slice into her skull to reset her tracker, leaving Kaya to question more than the system’s invasion into her faith.
Kaya won’t be a lab rat again.
Evading the authorities requires some serious tech skills the rogue underground Ghosts can offer. But Kaya’s not sure she can trust them–even if their top tech wiz, Bailen, has interest in her running deeper than her bum tracker. Kaya must decide if gaining freedom is worth losing her tracker’s infinite knowledge–because to take down the tracker network, she must betray the only tech she’s ever known.
Year first published: 2020
The book's page at the pubisher's site