24 Elul 5776
By Matt Cohen
Usually when someone says they have ‘built’ something the mind conjures images of something materially sturdy. One’s parents or grandparents might have said, “I built this bridge,” or “this building,” “this work of art,” or even “this company.” The implied product is something concrete, tangible, substantial, solid, possibly even physically imposing. They are usually also lasting, permanent or at least enduring. These accomplishments are a point of pride precisely because they are visible to all, with the hope being that their existence will outlast their creator. Even if only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still stands today, their existence has been eternally etched into humankind’s memory and will exist as part of our permanent record. The written word recorded to paper will still exist for thousands of years from now, if not longer.
I also build things as part of my career. I build web sites. They are intangible, digital, insubstantial and ultimately, ephemeral. If the design of a web site has been static for a few years, it is a mark of neglect. When one notes an unchanging web page, it is not to express pride or commend me on my skills, as it would to point out the lasting nature of a monument. Rather, it is a reminder that I need to get started on a redesign, or more likely that one is overdue.
I will never be able to look back with satisfaction as I show off a creation from years ago. My children will never have something to point to and say, “My Aba built that,” much less something to hand down to their children to say, ‘This is something that your grandfather created.’
Oddly, I had never come to this realization until I was inspired to write this piece. I always approach the transitory nature of my digital creations from the other side: What a great benefit, I would explain to clients, that if we decide we want to change something on our web site, it’s not an issue at all to make that happen. If the building owner comes back to the construction supervisor and says, “Oh, by the way, I know you’re finished, but we decided we want to put a solid wall on every single room instead of a window, will that be a problem?”, there will be issues, to put it mildly. When a client comes to me and says, “we need to change the bottom of every page on the site to display a different address,” I can usually effect the change while we’re still on the phone.
I developed a spiel to explain to clients that a web page is “never finished,” so it’s ok if we just start working and then come back and make changes later. The temporary nature of my creations are their strength. They are constructed with the full intention that they will be modified many times during their passing existence.
While redesigning the TBS website, I thought I could use the experience to contribute something to Echoes of Elul. The thought that inspired this compare-and-contrast exercise is this: Is it better to build something physically, which takes much longer to create but has the capability of lasting for future generations, or is better to build something digitally, that is ephemeral but is endlessly mutable while only lasting a short time?
To apply this to our lives in general, think of this: As you work towards your life goals, you need to categorize them. Sometimes, it is important to stay focused and rigid in your process, so that you will have the proper amount of follow-through and bring your project to fruition. Other times, you will need to be flexible and allow yourself to dive in quickly, and be prepared to change your destination to fit the changing circumstances.
As we begin the High Holy Day season, take a moment and see which stance you might adopt for the next year 5777.