Some time ago, I saw mention of Andy Crouch’s new book The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place. I ordered it months before it was released because I was very interested in what he would have to say on the topic. I think Andy Crouch is a very sharp thinker and is worth listening to on just about anything. I was very happy to receive my copy of the little book as soon as it came out (thanks, Amazon Prime!) and speed right through it.
The book is small and very easy to read. The pages are smattered with helpful graphics from the Barna research group. They become a bit redundant because the data is reiterated in text form at the end of the chapter, but it probably makes the read quicker and easier for some people. Crouch passes on 10 principles for how families should manage technology use in their household. They are mostly very easy to imagine integrating into your life (probably), though one or two may seem daunting. He then, helpfully, gives an accounting for how his family did or did not live up to these principles. And they often failed just like my family would often fail.
I very much recommend this book to anyone and everyone.That’s mainly not what I am writing about here, though.
At the end of his book, Crouch recommends further reading for those interested in some of his claims or takes on current trends. My curiosity was piqued by a book that he said was the primary source of inspiration for his own book. I figured, “I liked his book, I should probably read the one that he liked so much.” So I pretty quickly ordered Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle.
Turkle is a social psychologist that serves as a professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT. So, you know, a real light-weight. She wrote a book a few years ago called Alone Together that got a consider amount of publicity. I had not even heard of Reclaiming Conversation until I read Crouch’s book, though. But boy am I glad that I did. What an eye-opening read.
Turtle uses Thoreau’s three-chair metaphor from Walden to serve as the narrative framework of her examination of the role of technology in society. Thoreau wrote, “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” So basically, there are three levels of relationship: relationship to the self, relationship to other persons, and societal/large-scale relationship. Turkle turns her analysis to all three spheres of relationships and asks questions about the role of technology.
The basic driving concern is the lack of conversation, actual conversation, that is going on in our technological age. She makes the point that conversation is very, very important for human development. This seems like an obvious claim, but when you consider how obvious that claim seems and then compare it to our larger practices as a society, you can start to see some problems.
Here is a basic example: Babies and small children desperately need eye contact. That visual connection teaches children that adults are trustworthy, attentive creatures who can provide a safe environment and will teach them how to navigate this crazy world. Eye contact communicates care and teaches empathy by mirroring and reflecting back their own experience. Eye contact is super important.
But kids today are seeing less and less of their parents’ eyes and more and more of the top of their heads as their parents give their attention over to their devices. They are quietly and persistently being told that the world is less safe, that adults are less caring, and that empathy isn’t that important. Turkle’s book leads with the observation of teachers at a middle school that their students seem to be several years behind what would be normal empathic abilities for kids their age. Their parents’ iPhone usage is not the only thing that causes this, because kids have agency all their own. But kids themselves are also being formed in other ways by technology itself.
These are just some of the problems at the two-chair level of things. At the societal level, in education and work environments, institutions and businesses are having to take increasingly drastic and even architectural steps to teach people, especially younger people, how to be attentive, empathetic, caring persons. They are literally changing the walls and spaces in their buildings to force workers to have collaborative meetings instead of taking turns data-dumping.
And individually, people are being driven away from moments of solitude out of a pervasive fear of boredom. Turkle argues, though, that boredom is an incredibly important mechanism in the life of a human that forces moments of creativity and introspection. Perpetual distraction feels good, but is ultimately harmful.
Neither Crouch or Turkle are advocating that we move in with the Amish. Both of them are careful to praise the real values of technology in our society that has made more and more things possible, more information available. One thing neither one discusses that’s also important to consider is that technology can help close poverty gaps in important ways that deserve serious considerations. So in some sense, their argument is to a middle-to-upper class audience. However, I’d still insist that both authors are speaking to ways that Technology can shape us, our families, and our whole society, and we should attend to what they are saying. Means of communication is communicating content. And we should pay attention to that content.
I was already seriously considering ditching my smartphone. I am too distracted by my iPhone and I often feel the costs outweigh the benefits. I will miss some things about it, but I feel more committed to at least trying the experiment after reading these two books. Maybe you don’t want to go there. Neither one of these authors actually lays that down as a suggestion. Turkle does suggest that future innovation will be for apps that are more functional and not as geared to perpetual usage. But she never says, “Dump your iPhone.”
What I would suggest as one practical takeaway as a parent:
Do. Not. Give. Your. Kids. A. Smartphone. DO NOT. As one author pointed out (and I can’t remember which, at this point), we restrict teenagers from all kinds of privileges (including alcohol) because we do not believe their brains are ready. They are not ready for a smartphone. They may throw up a holy racket, they may bring down the house with their rage. But they do not need to navigate increasingly difficult peer relationships through the medium of GIFs, constantly updating streams of social media, exchanges of images, etc. You can keep your iPhone if you want. But I would strongly recommend you do not let your kids have one.
And here is one practice I got from Andy Crouch that I have adopted as a means of breaking my perpetual need to be plugged in:
“Our devices go to sleep before us and wake up after us.” I used to bring my phone into the bedroom with me as an alarm clock. But you know what I can use as an alarm clock instead of my phone? An alarm clock. Those things still work. I need to have definite boundaries where my real life exists without a digital life nearby. I don’t need to bring a Twitter feed into the bedroom with me. I can wake up and pray the Lord’s Prayer and have a moment to be quiet, awake human before I plug in to the information pipeline. I have taken to keeping my phone in a different room to make sure I’m doing that. Sometimes, I feel this has done nothing for me. I read books before bed and did before I decided to do this. Sometimes, I feel like things are harder. Before, I would wake up at 5am for my workout and my phone’s glow would wake me up. My alarm clock has gone off lately and, several times, I have dozed back off. But I largely believe I am better off for this practice. And, like I said, I might be expanding it by just dropping my iPhone altogether.
I highly recommend these two books to you. If I had to pick one, and you’re up for a longer (though very entertaining) read, I would probably just push for the Turkle book, though Crouch’s is more spiritually directed and is itself a great conversation-starter. We need to be a people, though, that are moving towards wisdom in regards to technology. We need not be luddites that eschew all things with lights and buttons. But we do need to be wise masters of that technology and not give our formation over to app engineers.
Ok, now that you’re done reading this, put down your device and go talk to a live, in-the-flesh human being. Siri does not count. She never counts. Go talk to your neighbor.