Becoming Tech-Wise, Part 2: Three Key Decisions

It’s been a few weeks, but I haven’t forgotten my promise to continue the series I started about reading Andy Crouch’s Becoming Tech-Wise: Everyday Steps for Putting Techonology in Its Proper Place. Travel and other circumstances have largely kept me away from the computer lately. But if I’ve been choosing (or by necessity have had to choose) to neglect my digital life in favour of the analog — well, I suppose that’s exactly the point. So without further ado, let’s look at Crouch’s first major section, “The Three Key Decisions of a Tech-Wise Family.”

Choosing Character: “We develop wisdom and courage together as a family”

Before addressing how to regulate our technological involvement, we need to know why we should do so, especially in the context of the family. Which means asking a larger question: What is a family for? Crouch proposes that “Family is about the forming of persons” (52) by which he means not only for the bearing and begetting of children, but for realizing the potential of those children (and their parents!), enabling us to grow into our full humanity. Family, in his estimation, exists to help “form us into persons who have acquired wisdom and courage” (53). Wisdom, here, is not just head-knowledge or book learning,  but “the kind of understanding, specifically, that guides action. It’s knowing, in a tremendously complex world, what the right thing to do is…” (53). Similarly, courage is far more than just being brave. Courage goes hand in hand with wisdom, because “we need not just to understand our place in the world and the faithful way to proceed — we also need the conviction and character to act” (56). A more old fashioned way of talking about courage is to call it virtue.

The family is the crucial place for this sort of growth to take place, because it is, for most of us, virtually the only context we have for life-long, intimate relationships where we are seen for exactly who we are — good, bad, and ugly — and loved unconditionally by those who are committed to us and to our flourishing. It is where we run into the “iron sharpening iron” of personal relationships, where those who love us see both our failures and our potential and work to call us from the depths of the former to the heights of the latter. Some deep and long-lasting friendships are like this; the Church is certainly supposed to be like this. But for most of us, the family is where this happened first and happens most.

If we accept Crouch’s premise that the family is the chief context in which we develop wisdom and courage/virtue, what does that mean for the way we choose to use (or not use) technology? First, that we recognise that technology makes our lives easier and perhaps more fun, but that it can also work against us as we seek to develop wisdom and virtue:

Let’s honestly compare ourselves, and the society we currently inhabit, with previous generations who did not benefit from modern technology’s easy everywhere. Without a doubt, compared to human beings just one century ago, we are more globally connected, better informed about many aspects of the world, in certain respects more productive, and — thanks to GPS and Google Maps — certainly less lost. But are we more patient, kind, forgiving, fearless, committed, creative than they were? And if we are, how much credit should technology receive? […]

In countless ways our lives are easier than our grandparents’. But in what really matters — for example, wisdom and courage — it seems very hard to argue that our lives are overall better. […] this is exactly what we would expect if the things that really matter in becoming a person have nothing to do with how easy our life is — and if they have a great deal to do with how we handle the difficulty that comes our way. (63-5)

In saying this Crouch is not arguing that we should throw out our computers, trade our  modern refrigerators in for ice boxes, and go back to washing laundry by hand. Technology “is good at serving human beings. It even — as in medical or communication technology — saves human lives” (66). These are good things. But in terms of forming us as human beings, Crouch writes that it is “at best a neutral factor” in this endeavour, and its constant presence means that often “In the most intimate setting of the household, here the deepest human work of our lives is meant to take place, technology distracts and displaces us far too often, undermining the real work of becoming persons of wisdom and courage” (66).  “Distracts” and “displaces” — those words definitely resonate with me. There are things I love about our technological world but I also know that the tech I use distracts me — distracts me horribly, some days — and on my worst days it displaces not only my attention but even my affection. But Crouch gives me the remedy:

We are going to have to commit to make every major decision, and many small decisions, on the basis of these questions: Will this help me become less foolish and more wise? Will this help me become less fearful and more courageous?

We will have to teach our children, from early on, that we are not here as parents to make their lives easier but to make them better. We will tell them — and show them — that nothing matters more to our family than creating a home where all of us can be known, loved, and called to grow. And then we’ll have to make hard choices — sometimes radical choices — to use technology in a very different way from people around us. (68-9)

Okay. But how?

Shaping Space: “We want to create more than we consume. So we fill the center of our home with things that reward skill and active engagement”

Crouch opens this chapter with the statement that “The best way to choose character is to make it part of the furniture” (71). That means filling the center of your home (that is, the place where you most often gather, not necessarily the physical center!) with items and activities that reward personal engagement, imagination, growth, creativity, etc. — with things that draw us in toward each other the way gathering around the hearth would have in the age before central heating. That can mean candles instead of overhead lights at dinner;  real instruments instead of stereos; bookshelves and craft stations instead of TVs; cooking from scratch instead of microwaving; and the list goes on. That doesn’t mean never choosing to watch TV or microwave dinner — but rather, that as we fill the social/emotional center of our homes with activities that require active engagement (with the world, with each other), it becomes easier to substitute them for passive technological activities as a default choice. If you remember the last post in this series, we’re talking about setting up nudges that inch us away from our screens and toward each other.

Crouch lays out a challenge here:

So if you do only one thing in response to this book, I urge you to make it this: Find the room  where your family spends the most time and ruthlessly eliminate the things that ask little of you and develop little in you. Move the TV to a less central location — and ideally a less comfortable one. And begin filling the space that is left over with opportunities for creativity and skill, beauty and risk. […] This simple nudge, all by itself, is a powerful antidote to consumer culture… (79-80)

I really like the sound of this. We are, I must admit, somewhat hampered by the fact that we live in a small, two-bedroom apartment — there’s nowhere for the TV to go except the living room, for example, since we certainly aren’t going to move it into a bedroom! But there are small steps we can take in the mean time, like making sure that our toys, books, and board games are visible and accessible. And when we have a house of our own, one day, I would love to fill its center in the way that Crouch invites us to envision: that it would be a space and a home filled with beauty and creativity, warmth and light, order and wonder.

Structuring Time: “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”

For me the most interesting part of this section was the distinction that Crouch draws between the two things we as humans were made to do (work and rest) and their more common, and far less healthy and satisfying, counterparts (toil and leisure). Work, he writes, “is the fruitful transformation of the world through human effort and skill, in ways that serve our shared human needs and give glory to God” (83). Toil, on the other hand, is “excessive, endless, fruitless labor — the kind that leaves us exhausted, with nothing valuable to show for our effort” (85). Don’t make the mistake of thinking “toil” is limited to menial jobs, either: toil happens in the sweat-shop environment of technology startups, in the white-collar world where you can never un-tether yourself from your company phone, and when the technology that lets us complete more work in less time doesn’t free us from that work but instead increases its demands upon us.

The distinction between work and toil is fairly straightforward, I think. What is more interesting as a new idea to me is Crouch’s distinction between rest and leisure:

If toil is fruitless labor, you could think of leisure as fruitless escape from labor. It’s a kind of rest that doesn’t really restore our souls, doesn’t restore our relationships with others or God. And crucially, it is the kind of rest that doesn’t give others the chance to rest. Leisure is purchased from other people who have to work to provide us our experiences of entertainment and rejuvenation.

A game of pickup football in the backyard can be real rest …But watching football on TV is leisure, and not just because we’re not burning many calories. It is leisure because we are watching others work, or indeed toil, for our enjoyment. It doesn’t really matter whether the workers are well paid, like professional football players, or paid minimally and indirectly, like college athletes. From the point of view of the Sabbath commandment, it’s still work. (87)

I have been accustomed to categorizing rest and leisure according to how restorative they feel for me. Reading books is restful to me, so is crocheting; they’re real rest. Pointlessly dicking around on the internet is leisure — it may be physically restful in that I’m usually sitting down to do it, but it doesn’t leave me feeling any better afterwards, and often makes me feel worse. But the idea of evaluating rest/leisure in terms of what it demands from others is intriguing. I mean, I’m still going to watch movies, and I reserve the right to order dinner in every once in a while. But the question of who, if anyone, has to work/toil for what I want to do is a helpful one in evaluating an activity’s potential rest, or lack thereof. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with leisure… except when, as happens so often, we confuse it for the real thing.

What does this mean for the home? One thing is that we need to guard against the infiltration of toil into our home life: the work email that “needs” to be answered, the project that “needs” to be finished outside of regular hours. Not all of us have jobs where we can be truly off the clock — but I suspect that more of us do than think we do, if you follow me. And perhaps if more people were willing to stand up for their time off from work, some of those cultural expectations around always being reachable might start to change.

Another important aspect of limiting toil and leisure’s creep into our homes, so far as we are able, is being aware of how they can affect our views of one another:

One of the most damaging results [of when the home becomes a leisure zone], as the philosopher Albert Borgmann has pointed out, is that children never see their parents acting with wisdom and courage in the world of work. Even if if adults’ jobs still require skill and insight, even if those jobs are quite meaningful and rewarding, that work now [post-industrial revolution] takes place far from home. […] when the art of cooking is replaced by meals warmed up in a microwave — something a five-year-old can do as well as a fifty-five-year-old — then children no longer see their mothers or fathers doing something challenging, fruitful, admirable, or ultimately enjoyable. Instead, the family’s life together is reduced to mere consumption, purchasing the results of others’ work or toil. No wonder children at the “peak leisure-home” stage of the 1960s and 1970s stopped admiring their parents. They never saw their parents doing anything worth admiring. (90-1)

Ouch! Andy Crouch, tell us how you really feel. Now, we are fortunate in that I’m able to stay home with our kids, and so they see me work all day long — and my husband’s profession means that they see him work regularly too. But it’s the next part of this section that we’re not very good at: the principle of Sabbath-taking.

The Sabbath, Crouch writes, is “rooted in the loving and creative purposes that brought the world into being” — but it is also “of all the commandments… the most persistently and casually broken” (93). Yup, guilty as charged. But at least, he adds, “there is a silver lining in the way technology has clouded our lives with nonstop toil and leisure — it gives us an amazingly simple way to bring everything to a beautiful halt. We can turn our devices off” (94). It says something about our culture that most of us will read that — “we can turn our devices off” — as a radical suggestion. What if we miss an important email? What if we miss something going on in the world? What if, what if, what if?

Well — what if we didn’t? Or what if, if we do, it doesn’t matter? What if we put tech on hold so that we could live our lives, instead of the other way around? Will the world really end if nobody can call me for the next hour? Can it possibly matter if I don’t look at facebook today?  Crouch sets out a challenge for us: to unplug for one hour a day, for one day a week, and for one week a year. I don’t know if I’m ready to unplug for a whole week at a time. But there are steps to take before that — and as this article from Brave Parenting points out, it starts with dinner.  No phones at dinner; we can build from there. Again, this comes down to a deliberate embrace of freedom through discipline. “The beautiful, indeed amazing, thing about all disciplines,” Crouch writes, “is that they serve as both diagnosis and cure for what is missing in our lives. They both help us recognize the exact nature of our disease and, at the very same time, begin to heal us from our disease” (102). If I get jittery at the thought of turning off my computer and phone for a whole day — all the more reason to do it. Likewise with the idea of going offline for a week. But the disciplines aren’t an all-or-nothing affair; we can start small. We can start with dinner.

[Other posts in this series: part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5]

One thought on “Becoming Tech-Wise, Part 2: Three Key Decisions

  1. Pingback: Becoming Tech-Wise, Part 1: Setting the Stage | In this Ordinary Time

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