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Where Does Tech Belong? Where Do We?

The online, connected life gives us a lot. Demands a lot. Steals a lot. Andy Crouch thinks there has to be a better way to live. 

"It is one of the great ironies of technology’s “success” that rather than relieving human beings from toil, it has most often redistributed toil. Work has never been easy, but I believe it is plausible that since the industrial revolution more and more work has become degrading, below the dignity of a human being because it asks people adapt to a mechanical (and now computational) economic system that does not employ their full heart-soul-mind-strength capacities."
Andy Crouch

You can read almost daily about swelling concerns around our society’s all-encompassing use of tech. Most musings and proposed solutions seem to center around schedules and relative quantities of screen time. But we need to do more than just put technology in its proper place in our lives, according to author and generally thinky person Andy Crouch. We need to start by examining what we want for our lives in the first place.

“Being out of control is just the human condition,” Crouch said in an interview with Common Good. “The problem, actually, is the dream of control.” There’s a place where we bring tech into our lives — where we want to do things more efficiently, to communicate effortlessly, to do more doing less. But all that is difficult to navigate when the tools we create become systems we can’t control, when we forget why we began to use them in the first place. “The systems we are now embedded in,” Crouch said, “and find ourselves at the mercy of, were created with the dream of control, which means they are dedicated to impersonal power rather than personal love.” In other words, there’s a sacrifice we make in pursuit of control, and more often than not, that’s real connection and real relationships; in that exchange we receive a false reality.

New tools have made our lives so much better in countless ways. But there are ways where these developments do not benefit us: I don’t need to explain to anyone what scrolling through Instagram for an hour and not interacting with a single person in that time is like.

In his new book, The Life We’re Looking For, Crouch challenges readers to rethink — and even reset — the roles tech can play in everyday life. He shared thoughts on this with me earlier this week.

The conversation around — and advice for — not allowing technology to master us seems to be everywhere. Where does your book enter this conversation?

This book is much less about advice than about reexamining what we really want from (and for) our lives. I think the deep issue with technology is that it is based on a dream — very broadly speaking, the dream of magic — that turns out not to be a healthy dream for individuals or for society. I hope this book can help us turn away from that dream to a better one.

While I do believe the story of tech has gone in a direction that is deeply damaging, this book is not about reversal but about redesign, about beginning to ask our technology to serve a very different set of purposes. It’s very much a vision for what we could build together for a thousand-generation future, not for a return to the past.

So do you think technology is a net gain or net loss for society?

Modern science and the understanding that it gives us of the deep, elegant structure of creation is a massive net gain for our collective calling as image bearers.

I define technology as “science plus a dream” — to the extent that technology is the deployment of scientific understanding to advance the dream of magic, the dream of effortless power. It is probably at its best when it reduces meaningless risk — of suffering and death from preventable diseases, of accidents, of harms that could have been avoided. It’s been spectacularly successful in this regard, as in much of modern medicine. But even here we have to reckon with the fact that the dream of what I sometimes call “easy everywhere” has led to steps backwards in human health as well, above all in the rise of metabolic syndrome in technologically “advanced” societies, which you might consider the first noninfectious pandemic in human history in terms of its toll in lives and quality of life.

The dream of magic is just not very good for human beings, even when scientific knowledge allows us to realize it in certain respects.

So dreaming of magic is not very good for humans — is loneliness one of the results?

I think almost every person who lives within the dominant cultural context of the “West” — which is in many ways a proxy for the technologized world — lives a more lonely life than most human beings could have ever imagined. We really cannot quite grasp how isolated our individual lives are compared to most people in most places and times. It’s only when you visit a more communally oriented culture that you realize what we are missing. So while self-reported loneliness is also increasing among many groups in the West — notably, loneliness is becoming a common part of youth and young adult life even though traditionally it’s been an experience more common among older adults — I think we are all far more isolated than we realize from the kind of human community we were made for.

To be a person, as I understand it, is to be a heart-soul-mind-strength complex designed for love. Very, very little of our technology is designed to actually develop us as heart-soul-mind-strength complexes designed for love. If that were the design criteria, we would be designing and adopting very different kinds of tech. But as it is, technology is largely developed to generate economic profit and often works directly against the development of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, let alone increasing our capacity for love. The result is a world far more lonely than we even know.

You describe how personalized, not personal, our lives can be when we’re immersed in a false reality on the internet. If we’re to move away from this personalized approach to life, where do we start?

For any relationship that matters — including the types of relationships that you mention — I think there are two basic moves needed. First, increase the bandwidth — at least for any communication beyond sheer logistics. It’s fine for my wife to text me that we need more milk from the grocery store on my way home; but other than that level of communication, always try to increase the amount of information you’re getting from another person about what they are thinking or feeling. This is why handwritten notes are better than email which is better than texting, and video chat is probably better than calling. But actually being present in person, which probably literally gives us a millionfold more information about the other person than any mediated communication, is the gold standard. So we need to move all the most important relationships, and the most important conversations and encounters in those relationships, “offline” if we want them to grow deeper and to last longer.

The second move is to increase heart-soul-mind-strength engagement with each other, by which I mean to increase the extent to which we use all four of these fundamental components of personhood together when we are together. Take walks — or better yet bike rides or hikes — instead of just sitting in a room so you are developing your strength together. Listen to music — or better yet make music — together so you are developing your emotional resonance. Pray — or better yet join in corporate worship — together so you are developing your souls. Read serious and challenging books — or for that matter memorize poetry or sections of Scripture — together so you are involving your minds.

All of this is best done in person, and all the best of it can only really be done in person, though there are mediated forms that can substitute for some of the in-person experiences when we are apart. But in our closest relationships we should have the same attitude towards media as the biblical letter-writer John: “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 1:12).

The pursuit of this dream of magic is changing more than just our relationships but the way many of us spend most of our time — at work. For example, in your book you discuss the state of Amazon delivery services — even though drones were adapted to do efficient delivery and a higher volume of it, humans can still work tirelessly yet more efficiently, but humans are not made for the kind of work promised by or meant for a machine. It seems a 180 turn from the whole purpose of the innovation. What does that indicate?

It is one of the great ironies of technology’s “success” that rather than relieving human beings from toil, it has most often redistributed toil. Work has never been easy, but I believe it is plausible that since the industrial revolution more and more work has become degrading, below the dignity of a human being because it asks people adapt to a mechanical (and now computational) economic system that does not employ their full heart-soul-mind-strength capacities. We dream of robots that will do all the toil for us, but as their arrival keeps receding, we make more and more people toil like robots.

I’m well aware this may not be true for most people who will read this interview — some of us enjoy fantastic amounts of insulation from drudgery, though even “knowledge workers” feel imprisoned and diminished by aspects of their jobs. But the relative leisure of the relative few depends to a great extent on others doing work that is not worthy of a human being, whether that is mining the natural resources that all our devices depend on, or relentlessly optimized repetitive tasks in robot-friendly warehouses, or the awful work of social media content moderation where human beings have to weed out repulsive video and images so the rest of us never see them.

I do think there is some dissatisfaction with all this, but I will also say that for the moment the economic logic is relentless, and for many people there is no real alternative than to play the game they are offered. I think of it very much like slavery in the Roman Empire. No one thought it was a great thing to be a slave, and everyone understood that if slaves could, they would seek freedom. But nonetheless, decade after decade for several centuries, 20 to 30 percent of the empire’s population was enslaved. The system was alarmingly exploitative and alarmingly stable, all things considered, especially after the brutal suppression that followed the Servile Wars. I don’t think our economic system will quickly change course from its current dehumanizing, exploitative patterns.

Nonetheless, right in the midst of the Roman Empire arose a community that restored personhood, and at least in individual cases like that documented in the letter to Philemon literally freed slaves. They were a redemptive, alternative witness that there was a better way, and they slowly but inexorably grew as a counter-story even as the empire around them seemed to go from strength to strength. I believe we can build a similar alternative community today.

An antidote to this, a way to move forward, you say, is to remember that tech is an instrument. What advice do you have for practicing — and it will take practice — this perspective?

I hope we can redesign more and more of our “devices” — which displace and replace people, and do little or nothing to develop heart-soul-mind-strength skill — with “instruments,” which can be very high tech but still fully involve human beings. I would start with a simple question I try (with varying consistency) to ask whenever I pick up my smartphone. Am I about to use this to extend and develop my heart-soul-mind-strength design for love? Or am I about to use this to escape in one way or another from the demands of being a person? The truth is that most computational “devices” can be repurposed to be much more like “instruments.” Instead of aimlessly scrolling through Instagram, I can open up a more creator-oriented photo app like VSCO and make an image of my own. Instead of just browsing social media, I can write and revise and share something I find beautiful, inspiring, or challenging.

I also think in terms of adding a dimension of personhood that is absent when we are using our devices. Instead of sitting motionless at my desk while I make a phone call, why not take a walk out of doors? I find the conversation is often more creative and personal when I do. When I have tough mental work to do, why not take breaks to make music, getting not just my mind but my heart more engaged with the world and with the work that is before me? The more I can add the missing dimensions of heart, soul, mind, or strength to my work (and rest), the more I’ll be using all these tools we call “technology” as instruments rather than just devices.

I’ve been thinking recently that a good, rough indicator of the health of your social world is how many people have the keys to your home. We need to be living lives of comprehensive interdependence — as I put it in the book, we need a place where we cannot hide and a place where we cannot get lost. The more people who come and go from your home, more or less without needing to knock, the more likely you live the life we all are looking for — the life where we belong to others and others belong to us. If I am reading Jesus’ promise correctly that leaving everything for his kingdom means we will have a hundred houses “now in this age” (Mark 10:30), this is the bar we should be aiming for — the kind of interdependent lives in which any one of us could say that we have a hundred houses, and in which we could also say for the same reason that “there was no needy person among them” (Acts 4:34).

A better way is so very possible, even now.

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