Interview with Andy Crouch – The Tech-Wise Family

Andy Crouch is well known for his thoughtful writing, speaking, and scholarship on culture. His previous books include Strong and Weak, Playing God, and Culture Making. His newest book, The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place is due out April 4th. I recently had the opportunity to ask Andy some questions regarding this book.

Chris Robertson: Andy, why write this book? Were you seeing situations in your own family and other families where technology was taking over?

Andy Crouch: I was urged to write this book by my friends at Barna Group, who spend every day working to understand what’s happening in our culture. And once I got into the subject—wow, did I discover a lot of desperate desire for a better way to handle the devices that have flooded our homes, all in the blink of an eye in terms of human history. I’ve never worked on any topic where so many people expressed an urgent need for help—from 76-year-olds to 16-year-olds.

One of the stunning findings from Barna’s research is that when you ask teenagers what they most wish were different in their relationship with their parents, the most common answer is they wish their parents would actually listen to them rather than being on their devices.

One of the central ideas in this book is, “It’s not about the kids.” It’s mostly about us parents. I have had to wrestle extensively with my own tendency to become immersed in technology—even before smartphones came along—at the expense of relationship with the people closest to me, and relationship with God.

I’m very grateful to be married to my wife Catherine, who works with cutting-edge technology as a physicist, but is deeply sane about it at home. We managed to make a set of choices that have ended up feeling healthy for our family and our kids, and we’re now at the stage where our teenage children can confirm that we didn’t do any lasting damage! So it felt like a good time to share the fairly radical choices that we’ve made over the years to raise our children quite differently from the default settings around us.

CR: How has your faith informed the way you handle technology at home and the recommendations you offer in the book?

AC: Well, I should say that of the four books I’ve written, this is probably the one that is least dependent on Christian belief for its account of the problem and the solutions. We are all in this together—whatever our faith commitments. So I’m hopeful that this book will be part of a broader conversation, certainly among Christians but among our neighbors who don’t share our faith as well.

But Christian faith does play a very important role in how I think about these things—above all by giving me the confidence that you can have a full, flourishing life without any technology.

The ultimate example of a flourishing life for Christians is Jesus Christ, who had access to effectively no technological devices of the sort we have today. He walked almost everywhere he went (with very occasional excursions on boats and donkeys). He never even, as far as we know, wrote anything down in any permanent way. And yet his life is the paradigm for meaningful, enduringly significant life.

And you can take it further: so much of technology aims to mitigate or eliminate our bodily nature—to help us escape the conditions of embodiment. The Christian doctrine is that God himself took on human form, and didn’t even shrink back from the very worst parts of embodied life, namely suffering, pain, and death. This suggests that even the things we try to avoid or minimize with technology actually can be part of God’s redemptive plan. So Christian faith provides both a powerful basis for critique of the promises of technology that we so often accept uncritically, and a powerful reason for hope that there is a better life that has nothing to do with the devices at our disposal.

I was struck by something Ross Douthat said in a column recently, making the case for drastically limiting our access to the Internet. He said that basically the only people likely to adopt his proposal were either wealthy families or “a certain kind of religious family.” I’m almost positive he’s right. The truth is that the upper class in America already makes all kinds of intentional choices to avoid being immersed in technology—they are among the least likely to give their kids smartphones, for example. But the only other people likely to adopt these kinds of radical measures are in fact families that have some transcendent reference frame that gives them the courage to swim against the cultural tide, which is more like a cultural tsunami at this point.

CR: How does this work on technology relate to your other books on culture? 

AC: The real theme of all my book-length writing, starting with Culture Making, is the image of God. The divine image is the best starting point for understanding the importance of culture, which is the fulfillment of our commission to bear God’s image in the world, as stewards of, and for the sake of, the whole creation. In that sense, the modern scientific and technological revolutions are just one more example of human beings discovering the abundance of the world and using that abundance for the flourishing of creation.

But along with the image of God, which is a fundamentally positive theme, comes the darker theme of the false image—what Scripture calls idolatry. And idolatry is never just about misdirected worship—it’s also about misdirected, and indeed diminished ,worshipers. There have been idols as long as there have been human beings east of Eden, but I don’t think there’s any real doubt that technology is a central focus of idolatry today. So a healthy relationship with technology will involve sorting out what aspects of it are conducive to image bearing and worship of the true God, and what parts are luring us into false worship and a false understanding of what it is to be human.

CR: Can you recount a time where technology was not put in its proper place in your family?

AC: I’m afraid so, and it’s a very specific time: dinnertime. We try to keep the dinner hour free of devices, but it’s amazing how often they show up anyway. And to be clear, I’m not talking mostly about our kids. It’s usually the parents and our desire (or “need”) to confirm some scheduling item or find out a piece of information. The problem is that it’s so rare to just get the one bit of data we need and then put the phone down. All too often I find myself absentmindedly catching up on email when all I meant to do was check one a single little item. And of course that quite effectively sends a signal to everyone else that the dinner conversation is over . . . and it’s time for all of us to reacquaint ourselves with our glowing rectangles.

It’s a constant struggle, literally to the present day, to set that time aside for enjoying food and conversation.

CR: The vulnerability you demonstrated as you recounted your confession to Catherine about your pornography addiction was powerful and a highlight of the book. I believe that our God is a restoring and redeeming God who desires to use all aspects of our stories for His glory and our flourishing. Thank you for sharing this. I wonder if there was a data point from the Barna research or an anecdote that particularly struck you as you wrote this chapter.

AC: Well, it’s certainly stunning that 62% of teens say they have received a nude image from someone else on their phones, and 40% say they have sent one. Just as social media has made “broadcasters” out of all of us, messaging apps have made “pornographers” out of an awful lot of people. One major implication is that it’s not enough to have filters in place—though if you don’t have filtered Internet in your home you’re quite foolish about your own and your family’s susceptibility to temptation. But we need much more robust ways to resist the “technologized pseudosex” that has saturated our culture. The only real defense against it is a full life, the kind of life that is relationally and experientially rich enough that we aren’t trapped in our aloneness and our thin addictions. This requires much more real intimacy—more access to one another’s lives as parents and kids, husbands and wives—than we tend to have, and much more transparency.

Maybe it’s not surprising that the only really sufficient antidote to sexual temptation is true intimacy: knowing and being known by others, and not having anywhere to hide. That’s both what we all most want (and it’s what is driving compulsive use of technology to find simulations of intimacy)—and it’s also what we all most fear.

CR: It seems to me that a common thread to your ten tech-wise statements is intentionality. Our engagement with technology can very easily become passive and unconscious. I believe I read that you are calling families to conscious, intentional use of technology that results in flourishing (albeit imperfect) families. Can you speak to this?

AC: That’s well put. I don’t believe flourishing ever happens, actually, without intentionality, partly because flourishing requires risk and vulnerability, and few of us take meaningful risks or embrace vulnerability by default. The default settings of our technology are all designed to make our lives easier. That’s not necessarily a bad thing and sometimes a very crucial good thing—as with devices, say, that allow medicine to be delivered in precise, life-saving doses. The risk of dying from an improperly administered dose of medication, or from a pill that wasn’t carefully manufactured, is not a meaningful risk. We are right to try to remove that risk.

But when we allow those default settings to take over parts of our lives, like family, where we can’t flourish without meaningful risk, the cost is always that we lose an opportunity to take the risks that will lead to wisdom and growth, and to real relationship. All ten of the “tech-wise commitments” in the book are focused on the kinds of risks that will lead us to really know and grow in love for one another.

CR: What would you say to parents who know technology is not in the right place in their home? Where should they start?

AC: I’d start with Sabbath—setting aside one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year where no one in the family uses technological devices. I don’t just mean screens. Anything that has technology’s signature qualities of “easy everywhere”—the microwave oven, recorded music, even ideally the car. Turn them off altogether. If your “hour a day” is dinner time, as it is in our house, I’d highly recommend turning off the artificial lights and using candles. And then spend time together. (This is for the whole family—not just the kids!) Talk, pray, sing, play a board game, cook a meal, get outside.

The beautiful thing about Sabbath, like fasting and many other spiritual disciplines, is that it is not only a good prescription for our idolatries and addictions, but it’s also a good tool for diagnosing them. With that discipline of time away from devices, we gain some perspective on what has gone wrong or what’s missing. So I suspect that once you have that discipline in place you’ll begin to discover what else needs attention. Then you can pick up the book and try one of the other nine ideas!

CR: The Green Room is a blog where we write for leaders in the faith and work movement.  What are the implications for technology and its proper use for the faith and work movement?

AC: Well, technology has been a good thing in all kinds of ways for work. I have far fewer fundamental concerns about technology in the workplace than in the home. The workplace is where we seek to maximize our capacities to steward the fruitfulness of the world—that certainly will involve making use of technology. Whereas the home is about developing those capacities for creative stewardship in the first place—which we will never do if we are overly dependent on technology, especially in the formative first two decades of life.

The big concerns about technology at work, I think, are threefold. The first is the deluge of information that knowledge workers, in particular, have to deal with today. We are all wrestling with how to manage the high-velocity stream of connection and distraction that prevents individuals and teams from being truly creative and innovative. There are a lot of workplaces that eagerly turned to Slack to reduce the volume of email—and are now desperately trying to reduce the volume of Slack!

The myth of “multitasking” has been, I think, effectively demolished by research—performance degrades when our attention is divided. But the expectation for multitasking seems to just be ratcheting up. It’s essentially a function of the first part of technology’s marvelous quality of “easy everywhere”—it’s become too easy to be connected, and thus distracted from our core work and the people we are meant to do that work with.

The second concern comes from the second part of “easy everywhere”—the everywhere part. Work now follows us home—and, if we adopt the cultural default setting of going to bed with our devices, follows us to bed! I don’t deny that this can give workers a certain flexibility about when and where they work—that can be a good thing. But the omnipresence of work so often interferes with meaningful relationships outside of work.

And if multitasking is bad in the workplace, which it is, it’s even worse with our non-work relationships, because they are meant to be so much more intimate and non-transactional than our workplace ones. And if omnipresent work interferes with meaningful rest, including our sleep, that in the long run is very bad for our work itself.

The final concern, of course, applies not just to people whose work is done on screens—it is the question of how much of work will eventually be automated and how many jobs and kinds of work will effectively disappear. It’s hard to know how that is going to play out and I’d assign only about a 20% likelihood to the truly worst-case scenario where most jobs end up being performed by machines.

But for people of faith who believe that a core part of a flourishing human life is work, and that even relatively routine work is still dignified when it contributes to the common good and gives people a means of providing for their families, the scenario where huge swaths of workers simply cannot find jobs is a huge threat to image bearing. This, to me, is the next frontier of the faith and work conversation, and I hope more Christians will start seriously talking about it.

I strongly encourage you to purchase a copy of this book from my friend Byron Borger at Hearts and Minds Books.

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