Google’s Project Loon and Aharon the High Priest

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By Yonatan Gordon

We are much happier when Google seems to start projects that don’t make strict monetary sense at first. So when we heard that some Googlers went deep into the remote regions of New Zealand, in order to give a handful of people internet, our interest perked up.

We are not saying that the balloons of Project Loon won’t eventually be the method of choice that delivers internet to the masses; or that launching prototype projects doesn’t make sound business sense. Instead, the reason we like the story so much is not because of these very valid practical considerations.

Finding the Signal

The reason we found Project Loon so compelling is because it gives hope for those who have felt that their internet use has long since landed. We go to the same five sites, or get distracted by the assorted 500. Much like the dream of taking internet into the stratosphere, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could float to a place where the internet was equally beneficial and useful to everyone? While two-thirds of the world doesn’t have access to a reliable internet connection, its debatable whether the connection of the remaining one-third is so reliable either.

As you may have surmised, this article is not about the technical specs behind Project Loon. Instead, we’re more interested the concepts that make this story so attractive to begin with. For this we turn to last week’s Torah portion of Chukat, the time when Project Loon became public.

Clouds of Glory For All

We learn that after Aharon passed away, the Clouds of Glory also departed. The explanation that is given is that since Aharon was the manifestation of love amongst the Jewish people, the Clouds of Glory descended in his merit. Even though Abraham was also love, it was a worldly or “inner” love (אהבת עולם), whereas Aharon’s love was great or “surrounding”  (אהבת רבה). Like the Clouds of Glory, Aharon’s love for the Jewish people encompassed each and every person equally.

Aharon’s great power was in kindling the spark of love between people. Thus the Clouds of Glory came as a direct result of the love that Aharon sparked in us. When the clouds were gone, we became vulnerable. So the moral is that as long as there is love between us, we cannot be hurt. But the moment the love is gone, when Aharon is no longer, then we need to begin defending ourselves against outside enemies.

Taking to the Sky

What changes when we go from private internet access to some aerial network of universal access? From a marketing standpoint, there are two main considerations at play. The first is, like the surrounding love of Aharon, that Google is attempting to show themselves as a business that cares about everyone. But the degree to which they “care” really hinges on the service they are providing. Said more specifically, the fact that they want to bring internet to the masses only shows them to be caring, if the internet itself is something beneficial.

The difference between the respective “inner” and “surrounding” loves of Abraham and Aharon brought about a real qualitative difference. The protective Clouds of Glory came in the merit of the surrounding love of Aharon. It was these clouds that would protect them from their enemies, and even continuously kill the snakes that lay in their path. Everyone was included in their protective realm, and once they departed because of the passing of Aharon, everyone became vulnerable to the opposing enemies.

Our lesson then is that its not simply enough to reach everyone on the planet. More than providing internet access, in order for Project Loon to be significant, it should also mark a qualitative shift in the way we approach the internet.

Purifying the Airwaves

We explained that the Clouds of Glory were a direct result of a “surrounding” love of Israel. Once this protection departed with the passing of Aharon, the Amalekites came and disguised themselves by speaking a foreign tongue. Usually a person disguises themselves by changing their clothing, but here they changed only their language. Notwithstanding the fact that they were still in their same Amalekite garb, the Jewish people still didn’t know who they were. The fact that speech was the determining factor of identity, serves as a testament to the power of speech.

While we have programs like Google Voice and Siri, what we really need is a “positive speech” detector. Similar in some ways to an internet filter, the intent here is to recreate our own “clouds of glory” experience for internet use. Instead of the physical snakes and enemies that lay in our path, certain places on the internet are treacherous indeed. The idea then is to reposition the internet, by redefining what we expect to get from it. Instead of a means to pursue individual pursuits and interests, perhaps we should view it as something that surrounds all of us. If a particular site or article doesn’t equally benefit us all, then it has no place under our protective “cloud.”

Not only does this approach give justification for internet-promoting activities such as Project Loon, but it provides a natural benchmark by which we can approach the internet. Similar to the snakes that were continuously flattened and killed by the Clouds of Glory, we are not suggesting that the filtering process be something forced or artificial. Instead, our proposition is that the result is a most natural one. When the internet is viewed as a means toward true world-wide collaboration, then the greater good of the whole will overwhelm the personal considerations of the individual.

Excerpted and freely adapted from Rabbi Ginsburgh’s class, 5 Tammuz 5773

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