Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone to the world on January 9, 2007. Since then, Apple has sold more than 2.2 billion units. My iPhone 11 has more computing power and runs more sophisticated apps than my first computer, which was a Macintosh Classic.
Smartphones make life easier. I can call, text, or videoconference people for work and for fun. I can write (or dictate), edit, post, and share articles via social media. I can snap pictures or take video of family events. When I’m bored, I can stream my favorite TV shows or movies. And I can shop for almost anything anytime online.
By the same token, though, smartphones make life weirder. I experience phantom vibration syndrome, the feeling that my phone is buzzing even though it’s not. My ability to concentrate when reading a book has suffered, as I now constantly check my iPhone for fear of missing out. And how often have I seen (or been) the date-night couple checking their devices instead of talking to one another?
All technological advances have such pros and cons. To evaluate tech, then, we must ask whether it contributes to human flourishing. And that, in turn, forces us to ask even more fundamental questions: What is a human being, and what constitutes human flourishing?
The Life We’re Looking For by Andy Crouch seeks to answer those questions. According to Jesus’ Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37–40), people are supposed to love God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love their neighbors as themselves. From this, Crouch infers a definition of human being: “Every person is a heart-soul-mind-strength complex designed for love.” If this is what human beings are, then flourishing occurs when people grow holistically into their relational design.
The problem with technology is that it promises “power without relationship” and “abundance without dependence.” Crouch names these two promises “magic” and “Mammon,” respectively. They hold out the hope for “superpowers” that enable us to rise beyond our limitations.
Ironically, however, magic and Mammon, when left unchecked, corrode the holism and relationality that make life worthwhile. Crouch counts the costs:
Mind: “The defining mental activity of our time is scrolling … taking shallow hits of trivia, humor, and outrage to make up for the depths of learning, joy, and genuine lament that now feel beyond our reach.”
Strength: “The defining illness of our time is metabolic syndrome, the chronic combination of high weight, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar that is the hallmark of an inactive life.”
Heart: “The defining emotional challenge of our time is anxiety …. Now we live as voyeurs, pursuing shadowy vestiges of what we desire from behind the one-way mirror of a screen, invulnerable but alone.”
Soul: “We have lost the sense that we are both at home and on a pilgrimage in the vast, mysterious cosmos, anchored in a rich reality beyond ourselves.”
In short, technology reduces flourishing to an exercise of power in pursuit of stuff, ignoring the non-material and relational aspects of human being. “So it is no wonder that the defining condition of our time is a sense of loneliness and alienation,” Crouch writes. FaceTime is no substitute for face-to-face time, you might say. Technology cannot replace relationship.
In my opinion, there is no greater proof of the truth of this statement than the past two years of the pandemic. However necessary social isolation and information technology were for getting us through Covid, their use has correlated with an increase in mental health disorders and a decrease in social trust.
The dangers of technology don’t require Christians to become Luddites, however. Remember, technology has pros, too, not just cons. I know this personally. At the age of 21, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that that causes inflammation in the vertebrae. Over time, the disease curves the spine forward into the shape of a C, making it difficult to walk or breathe.
At first, the treatment for this condition consisted of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs that alleviated the effects of inflammation. Advances in medical technology have produced biologic agents that reduce the causes of inflammation. Biologics have side effects, to be sure — such as greater proneness to infection — but overall, the newer treatment is much better than the older one.
So how do we discern the usefulness of technological advancements? How do we know that tech is helping us become heart-soul-mind-strength complexes designed for love? How do we avoid tech that promises power without relationship and abundance without dependence?
It would help, Crouch suggests, if we would distinguish a “device” from an “instrument.” Say you want to play Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G-major. You could take out your iPhone, open the YouTube app, and play a video of Yo-Yo Ma performing the song. Or you could take out a cello, open the score, and play the suite yourself. In this example, your iPhone is a device while your cello is an instrument.
Both the iPhone and the cello allow you to do something you wouldn’t be able to do without them: play Bach’s Cell Suite No. 1 in G-major. The difference is that a device makes you rely on its capabilities, while an instrument forces you to develop your own capabilities. Only the latter is consistent with growth as a heart-mind-soul-strength complex.
Mostly, though, Crouch focuses on developing our capacity to form loving relationships in a “household” as the antidote to magic and Mammon. A household is related to but not limited to a “family.” Crouch writes:
A household is both place and people — or maybe better, it is a particular people with a particular place. A household is a community of persons who may well take shelter under one roof but also and more fundamentally take shelter under one another’s care and concern. They provide for one another, and they depend on one another. They mingle their assets and their liabilities, their gifts and their vulnerabilities, in such a way that it is hard to tell where one member’s end and another member’s begin.
If technology offers power without relationship and abundance without dependence, the household offers its antithesis: relationship that empowers the powerless and dependence that abounds to the needy. According to Crouch, the New Testament exemplifies this kind of “community of the useless,” one blessedly free of a concern for magic and Mammon. It can make use of technological advances, but it always requires that such advances serve the purpose of binding people to one another in love.
The Life We’re Looking For, like Andy Crouch’s other books, is well-written and thought-provoking. I see the truth of its analysis most clearly when it comes to IT, smartphones, and social media. Such communication technologies are excellent examples of magic and Mammon’s false promises.
But I’d be lying if I said those promises held no allure for me. Creating a community modeled on the New Testament household is not easy. It requires us to acknowledge our needs, even as we use our resources to meet the needs of others. Too often, we just don’t want to bother or be bothered. We want to be left to our own devices.
And that, I suspect, is the attitude driving our dependence on technology.
Andy Crouch, The Life We’re Looking For: Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World (New York: Convergent, 2022).
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P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com by permission.