Is Cultural Insensitivity a Side Effect of Digital Calendars?

Why is this year different than all other years? Because so many people are holding events on Jewish High Holy Days – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (the most solemn day of the year) – that have nothing to do with those holidays. In fact, the scheduling of events on these days is likely to preclude Jewish participants.

In particular, I noted:

  • A business is holding its 30th anniversary party the evening Yom Kippur starts.
  • The University of California San Francisco is holding a neighborhood fitness festival on Rosh Hashanah.
  • A Jewish friend was invited to her good friend’s wedding shower on Yom Kippur.
  • A neighbor noted that his vintage car club decided to hold their special drive on Yom Kippur, thereby inadvertently excluding a bunch of members.

I have a hypothesis: might widespread adoption of digital calendars have fostered this?

Paper calendars are typically fairly inclusive and well-edited. They include important holidays for many different religious and ethnic groups. They contain useful information, such as that Yom Kippur starts at sundown.

In contrast, digital calendars don’t automatically include holidays. No editor is tasked with deciding what you should know about. You have to overtly subscribe to specific calendars, such as “US Holidays”. If you subscribe to a Jewish calendar, you get information about the major Jewish holidays, but you also get myriad minor holidays, and no way to distinguish between the two. A Jewish calendar digital subscription is intended for Jews – and fairly religious ones at that – and is not useful to an event planner that wants to schedule events mindfully.

And so, most people don’t get information about holidays that aren’t their own. I suspect they don’t even realize that they are missing potentially useful information. Maybe there are carefully-edited multicultural calendars to subscribe to, but I don’t know where they are or how to find them (and I’m a person inclined to search for such things).

All of this reminds me of Eli Pariser’s book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You (2011). His thesis: online, people often aren’t exposed to viewpoints different from their own. As the internet creeps further into all aspects of our existence, I think the thesis can be expanded. The filter bubble seems to be informing our smart devices. It is likely to get worse as we move closer to an internet of things. Precise algorithms are biasing our calendars in a way Hallmark’s human editors never did. The fuzzy boundaries of our old analog artifacts aren’t easily mimicked with computational technology (just think about how Amazon works well for finding a specific book, or books just like those you’ve already bought, but still doesn’t afford the serendipity of a physical bookstore). When digital logic replaces a more holistic human approach, each person’s reality is in danger of turning into a narrowcast.