I am currently reading through The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place by Andy Crouch. It’s a challenging read, but a timely one; while I appreciate the ease and utility that things like smartphones have brought to my life, I also resent technology’s hold over me. (This resentment stems in no small measure from my perpetual disappointment with my own lack of self-discipline in these matters, as well as the fact that much of our technology seems designed to create dependency in us.) The questions that Crouch asks about the role of technology in our family life — about how we use it, and how we allow or don’t allow it to form us and our relationships with each other — are penetrating, and have given me much food for thought. It’s a small book, but one that I am reading slowly — and will be blogging about each section as I finish it, in part to help me digest his ideas and refine my own.
The book is divided into three main sections: “The Three Key Decisions of a Tech-Wise Family”, “Daily Life”, and “What Matters Most”. Those will be addressed in my next three posts on the book; for today, I’m just tackling Crouch’s preface and introduction, which set the stage for what’s to come. They are capped by what he calls the “Ten Tech-Wise Commitments” (each of which is addressed in a subsection of one of the three larger divisions named above).
So, let’s begin.
In the preface, Crouch talks about his stated aim of putting technology “in its proper place.” This doesn’t meant that technology is bad and should have no place in our homes; rather, that its pervasive default presence demands that we set limits in place around its use. He notes that this will not look the same for every family, and that even in one family it will look different during different seasons of life (as it may make sense to completely prohibit television for a two-year-old, but not for a twelve-year-old, for example). He doesn’t provide a hard-and-fast list of what technology we should have, or how to use it (which would be fast out of date, anyway), but rather offers a series of guiding principles to help us discern how we want to interact with our tech:
Technology is in its proper place when it helps us to bond with the real people we have been given to love. It’s out of its proper place when we end up bonding with people at a distance, like celebrities, whom we will never meet.
Technology is in its proper place when it starts great conversations. It’s out of its proper place when it prevents us from talking with and listening to one another.
Technology is in its proper place when it helps us take care of the fragile bodies we inhabit. It’s out of its proper place when it promises to help us escape the limits and vulnerabilities of those bodies altogether.
Technology is in its proper place when it helps us acquire skill and mastery of domains that are the glory of human culture (sports, music, the arts, cooking, writing, accounting; the list could go on and on). When we let technology replace the development of skill with passive consumption, something has gone wrong.
Technology is in its proper place when it helps us cultivate awe for the created world we are part of and responsible for stewarding… It’s out of its proper place when it keeps us from engaging the wild and wonderful natural world with all our senses.
Technology is in its proper place only when we use it with intention and care. … [I]t doesn’t stay in its proper place on its own; … If we aren’t intentional and careful, we’ll end up with a quite extraordinary mess. (20-1)
So far so reasonable. But how do we set those limits? In his introduction, Crouch begins by laying out some statistics about technology use — not just who is using what, but how it makes us feel. The vast majority (78%) of American parents, we are told, think that raising kids today is more complicated than it was when they were children. The number one reason given for that perception is “technology and social media” (65%). I believe it. The recent technological revolution/explosion/whatever means that we’re in fairly uncharted waters when it comes to managing our children’s encounters with technology. It’s hard to know how much to intervene, or how to do it if we have determined to begin. But Crouch gives us two helpful tools here.
The first is the “nudge” (here he is drawing from Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness). A nudge is a small way that we make certain choices easier or more likely. A nudge helps guide us toward the choice we want to make (at least, that we want to make when we are at our best) by either making the good choice easier or the bad choice less convenient, which helps us preserve our “precious limited supply of willpower, leaving it available for the moments when we really need it” (33). In terms of technology use, a nudge might be something like disabling facebook notifications, so that you’re more likely to check your newsfeed because you’ve made a conscious choice to do so, rather than because you were summoned by the imperious ding. A nudge toward healthier eating might be putting the apples at the front of your fridge and the chocolate way back behind the pickles somewhere. You get the picture. Having the apples at the front of the fridge won’t stop you from eating the chocolate if you really want it, but the minor inconvenience of digging it out — and the relative ease of grabbing an apple — makes it more likely that you will choose the apple. That’s a nudge.
The other tool addresses what nudging can’t: the development of our moral character. Crouch writes that
… nudges will never, on their own, build the wisdom and courage we need — partly because we often can’t control our environment, no matter how much we’d like to. We need to change something inside of us as well: to develop the strength to make good choices even when everything around us is nudging, or pushing, us in the wrong direction. And for that we need disciplines. (35)
The disciplines, Crouch writes, gradually strengthen us, move our limits further out, “move us toward being the kinds of people we were meant to be and want to be” (37). And disciplines, take, well, discipline! They are “not about specific decisions but about patterns of life” (37) that will, by their nature, shape our choices. As the capstone to the introduction, Crouch offers us his list of “ten commitments” for starting and shaping the discussion around technology’s proper place in our families. Not all of them will apply to everyone; not everything that we need to consider is covered. But they are a good catalyst for further thought and discussion:
- We develop wisdom and courage together as a family.
- We want to create more than we consume. So we fill the center of our home with things that reward skill and active engagement.
- We are designed for a rhythm of work and rest. So one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year, we turn off our devices and worship, feast, play, and rest together.
- We wake up before our devices do, and they “go to bed” before we do.
- We aim for “no screens before double digits” at school and at home.
- We use screens for a purpose, and we use them together, rather than using them aimlessly and alone.
- Car time is conversation time.
- Spouses have one another’s passwords, and parents have total access to children’s devices.
- We learn to sing together, rather than letting recorded and amplified music take over our lives and worship.
- We show up in person for the big events of life. We learn how to be human by being fully present at our moments of greatest vulnerability. We hope to die in one another’s arms. (41-2)
Anecdotally, I have had success — so far — with implementing a simple nudge of my own. I removed the shortcut to the app that I waste the most time on from the home screen of my phone. I still have the app; I just have to page through all of my apps to get to it. But the simple change of no longer having it right there in front of me whenever I pick my phone up has meant that I have spent way, way less time using it than I was before. Do I still use it? Yes. But now I’m opening it up deliberately, not just because of habit or absent-minded default behaviour. Nudges work.
The disciplines, of course, will take more effort … but I look forward to seeing where Andy Crouch takes us in the discussion of how to develop them in the context of our current (over-) reliance on technology. The next post in this series will tackle Crouch’s section entitled “The Three Key Decisions of a Tech-Wise Family,” which looks at items 1-3 above. Stay tuned!
[Other posts in this series: part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5]