In the quiet moments of our lives, we can all sense that our hearts long for something, though we often don’t know what that something is. We seek an answer in our phones, and while they can provide some sense of extension and fulfillment — a feeling of magic — the use of technology also comes with significant costs in individual development and interpersonal connection that we typically don’t fully understand and consider.
My guest today will unpack what it is we really yearn for, how technology, when misused, can direct us away from the path to fulfilling those yearnings, and how we can find true human flourishing in a world in which so much works against it. His name is Andy Crouch and he’s the author of The Life We’re Looking For: Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World. Today on the show we talk about the tradeoffs you make when you seek magic without mastery, and how we can understand our desires better once we understand ourselves as heart, soul, mind, and strength complexes who want to be loved and known. We discuss the difference between interactions that are personal versus personalized, as well as the difference between devices and instruments, and how to use your phone as the latter instead of the former. We end our conversation with why Andy thinks we need to redesign the architecture of our relational lives and create something he calls “households.”
Resources Related to the Podcast
- Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
- Wendell Berry
- AoM article on Plato’s idea of the tripartite nature of the soul
- AoM Podcast #723: Men Without Chests
- AoM Article: The Tool Works on Both Ends
- AoM Article: Communities vs. Networks — To Which Do You Belong?
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. In the quiet moments of our lives, we can all sense that our hearts long for something. We often don’t know what that something is. We seek an answer in our phones, and while they provide some sense of extension and fulfillment, a feeling of magic, the use of technology also comes with significant cost in individual development and interpersonal connection that we typically don’t fully understand and consider.
My guest today will unpack what it is we really yearn for. That technology when misused can direct us away from the path to fulfilling those yearnings, and that we can find true human flourishing in a world in which so much works against it. His name is Andy Crouch, and he’s the author of The Life We’re Looking For: Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World.
Today on the show, we talk about the trade-offs you make when you seek magic without mastery, and how we can understand our desires better once we understand ourselves as heart, soul, mind and strength complexes, who wanna be loved and known. We discuss the different interactions that are personal versus personalized, as well as the difference between devices and instruments, and how to use your phone as the latter instead of the former.
We end our conversation with why Andy thinks we need to redesign the architecture of our relational lives and create something he calls “households”. After the show’s over check out our show notes at aom.is/crouch.
Andy Crouch, welcome to the show.
Andy Crouch: Thank you so much. Great to be here.
Brett McKay: So you’ve got an interesting background, you’ve studied Classics at Cornell University. It’s beautiful Ithaca.
Andy Crouch: Yes it is.
Brett McKay: And then after that, you went to divinity school at Boston University, you got your Master’s in Divinity. Usually, most people, they become like a minister or they go teach. You did a little bit of ministering, but you’ve spent most of your career writing about digital technology, particularly its intersection with culture and faith and philosophy. What drew you to explore the humanistic side of our digital technology?
Andy Crouch: Great question. Well, I’ve always loved technology, even though it wasn’t the thing I ended up studying, it was my first love. My dad brought home one of the very first computer terminals, you’re probably too young to know what these were, but back when there was just a single computer for a whole university.
And so when I was a kid, I started coding, I still love to code, and so I’ve been fascinated with this, though it wasn’t my vocation. As a user, as a beneficiary of technology of course, ’cause we all are, I’ve really got more interested in it though, when I tried to start understanding, honestly, what was going wrong at the same time as so many things were going so right.
Like the iPhones just keep getting better and better, and our tech keeps getting better and better, but people are not getting better and better. We’re not getting happier and happier, that’s become pretty clear. We’re not getting healthier and healthier, especially in the US.
So I started trying to get to the heart of, what is technology, how has it shaped us? It just ends up being one of the most fundamental and interesting questions you can ask, and as a journalist and as a writer, I’m just drawn to the big important questions, and this to me is maybe the big important question of our time, for those of us who live in what we call “the West”, which is really the technological world.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think that is important. I think people forget about when it comes to technology and science, what often happens is there’s an advancement in technology, and then we come up with a philosophy for that technology, like how we’re gonna integrate it into our lives, and in previous centuries, there’d be decades or centuries between innovations, so we have time to figure out, “Okay, well, what is the printing press? What does this mean?”
And now stuff’s just happening constantly, and we never have time to think about, “Well, what does this mean, how are we gonna incorporate this into our life? What place will it have in our life?” So I think a lot of people were just like, “Okay, this is new. I’ll use it,” and we don’t really think about, “Well, what are the second order, third order effects of this?”
Andy Crouch: Completely. I think this is partly because of the distinctive thing about technology. We have a saying in our family, ’cause my wife is actually a scientist who’s a physicist, so she does experimental physics, and we say “science is hard, technology is easy” Or “technology is easy, science is hard.”
Science is slow, science is challenging, although the pace of scientific discovery has also accelerated, but what has really accelerated is the introduction of applications of science, which is what technology is, that are actually very easy to use. So it used to be that when people invented tools, it took a long time to make those tools really effective for human use, but now technology is so good at insinuating itself into our lives because it’s so easy to adopt. But you can adopt it so fast without actually thinking through, “What are we adopting? Why are we adopting it?”
It’s also sold on two things. It’s always sold on the premise of it’s going to be, you’ll be able to do something new and you won’t have to do things you don’t like to do. So, “You’ll be able to do this, you don’t have to do this.” But we never talk about the other two things that always come with technology, which is you’ll no longer be able to do something if you adopt this, or at least they’ll get a lot harder.
So it’s not only going to expand what you can do, it’s going to subtract what you can do. And it’s not just that you don’t have to do some things, but now you’ll actually start to have to do things. In other words, technology has a kind of coercive quality. Once we introduce it into our lives, into our homes, it actually requires behaviors of us, and those are often not disclosed in the sales process, you might say. [chuckle]
So it’s this combination of offering and coercion that we don’t really have time to reflect on, whereas with tools, they entered the human story so slowly and gradually that I think societies did a better job reflecting on what we were actually adopting and why.
Brett McKay: Can you give us an example of that, the promises that we get with technology and the burdens of it?
Andy Crouch: Yeah, I think of all the reasons people get a smartphone, now you’ll be be able to… One, they get it for their kids. Now you’ll be able to check on when their soccer game is. A lot of people feel like their kid needs a smartphone just to find out when soccer practice is. And that’s a really interesting example of the technology promises to expand your capabilities, but then it says, actually, now there is no other way to find out about soccer practice. So you have to have the thing to do this thing that people managed to do for many generations before the phone, but now you have to have it. It has this coercive quality.
Maybe a deeper example is what’s happened in music. I think the making of music is one of the most important things human beings do together and do as persons, and of course, technology about 100 years ago made it possible to listen to recorded music, which is an absolutely new idea in human history. Up ’til 100 years ago, if you wanted music, somebody had to play.
And now technology says, “Well now you can just listen to whatever music you want, and with streaming, listen to almost any music you want, any time, anywhere, and you’ll no longer have to play yourself.” And that sounds great, like what’s the downside to that? I think the downside is, as your world becomes full of professionally made recorded music, it’s at least less and less likely, even if not strictly speaking, less and less possible, it’s less and less likely that you or someone you know will sit down and go through all the effort and all the expense and difficulty of actually learning to make music.
And if you never go through that, you’ll never be able to make music yourself. And so this technology that opens up the world of hearing music to you, also closes down the possibility of making music together, ’cause now we’re often in places where no one in the room has ever practiced enough to be able to play in a way other people would wanna listen to, and so we’ve traded. It’s a, I don’t know, is it a bad trade or a good trade? But it’s definitely a trade. Does that make sense?
Brett McKay: That makes sense. And I think this trade-off that we make with technology is part of the reason, I think you make it explicit, it’s one of the reasons why you feel kind of this, I don’t know, ambivalence towards our technology. This is what you explore in your latest book, it’s called The Life We’re Looking For, is this idea, this idea of trade-off, is one of the big ideas that you’re trying to explore in this book?
Andy Crouch: Completely. In a way, it’s the trade of wanting to do magic. [chuckle] Arthur C. Clark said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And that sounds like a good thing, like, “Oh, I’d like to have that,” but magic is actually the way human beings talk about the ultimate trade. [chuckle]
So there’s this whole history of people reflecting on, what do you actually trade away when you decide to become a magician or a sorcerer or an alchemist? And the fundamental story of this in Western history is Goethe’s poem, Dr. Faustus, about this magician, sorcerer, alchemist who makes a deal with the devil to acquire incredible power, but at the cost of his soul.
And I’m not saying… Well, I don’t know if I’m saying, is that our technology is quite the same bargain. Because of course, it is not based on pure imagination, the way that maybe Faust was. It’s based on real things in the world that we’ve learned how they work, and that’s good for human beings to learn how the world works and make use of that.
But have we traded something away? I think we’ve traded away a bunch of things of great value to human flourishing, in the pursuit of what we thought was sufficiently advanced technology, this kind of magical world that works on its own, world that works without us having to do anything, without us having to become anything, without us having to grow or develop, and that leads to very diminished people in a very powerful world. I think the powers that we’ve acquired have come at the expense of our internal capability to really meaningfully be part of the world that we’re in.
Brett McKay: Do you know where else in culture they explore this trade-off of magic and what you… Twilight zone.
Andy Crouch: Totally.
Brett McKay: Yeah. We watch it a lot in our family, and it seems like every other episode is about that trade-off, sort of this Faustian bargain that people are making.
Andy Crouch: Exactly. It’s all over. Because we just instinctively know as human beings I think, that there are risks in these bargains. But because we think that all technology is about is science, basically, we’re like, “Well it’s just STEM, it science, technology, engineering, maths. What could go wrong?” But I actually think it’s embedded in these much deeper mysterious forces that we modern people don’t talk and think as much about, but then I think actually are still very much there.
Brett McKay: So your book’s called The Life We’re looking For. What is it that we are looking for when we turn to technology to make our lives better? What is the big thing we’re looking for, you think?
Andy Crouch: Maybe I’ll start with what we were originally looking for, which wasn’t a device and wasn’t technology. I think essentially what we’re looking for is a fully personal life. I begin the book by saying, “The very first human quest is recognition. First of all, we’re just looking for someone who is looking for us.” Which is a phrase I got from the psychiatrist Curt Thompson.
We’re looking for someone who’s going to look back, who’s going to regard us, pay attention to us, and in fact, none of us make it to adulthood without parents or someone who played the role of parents gazing at us and beholding us, interacting with us, listening to us. Because the first thing we’re looking for in a way is love, connection.
And then beyond that, all the things that become possible when you feel truly loved. You become creative in the world, you grow… We grow through the process of human development into adult human beings who have tremendous bodily capabilities, strength, tremendous mental capabilities, tremendous emotional range.
So we were looking for, and we still are looking for that kind of full human life, which I describe it as heart, soul, mind strength, complexes designed for love. That’s who we are. What we’re looking for with technology, I think comes in when the quest for real life fails or is frustrated in some way.
It’s actually really interesting to me to look at when do people first give a toddler a screen? ‘Cause toddlers are given screens now, right? We hand our toddlers screens. When do we do that? When they are feeling distressed, basically. The first time. Now, eventually you give it to them so they can find out when soccer practice is. [chuckle]
But when you give a 2-year-old an iPad, it’s because that 2-year-old is experiencing some frustration of being human. Maybe they’re stuck in the car, maybe they’re mad at mom, maybe they’re bored, whatever, and we’re like, “You know what? Here, try this.” And when the toddler tries it, that magical device responds to them in a way that other people don’t as readily.
That is, it pays unlimited attention to them. It is much easier to manipulate than the real world. Toddlers get frustrated in the real world, as do adults, ’cause it doesn’t always respond to what we want it to do. But that device and its kind of magical virtual world is designed to just be so easy to use that even a toddler can use it and feel very efficacious.
So what we turn to technology for is a compensating simulation of the real powers that we want, but that are too hard or too long or difficult to acquire. And for relief from the distress of being heart, soul, mind, strength, complexes designed for love in a world that’s a vulnerable place and hard to be in, and technology will take away some of that distress and replace it with this kind of pretty easy effortless sense of capacity and power.
Brett McKay: Okay, I wanna dig more into this. Okay, this idea of being a person. What we’re… You’re making this case that we’re seeking to be a person, that’s the light, we’re trying to develop ourselves into a person. And you say this, I wanna dig into more of this heart, soul, mind, strength complex. What is that?
Andy Crouch: Well, it comes from one of the longest standing wisdom traditions in the world, the Hebrew Bible. It’s this idea from the Hebrew scriptures, that we are to meant to love, it says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul,” Jesus of Nazareth adds, “All your mind and all your strength.”
I was thinking about that, and I thought, “That is a very good and very irreplaceable precise summary of the components of being a human being.” In other words, we’re not a brain without a body, we’re not mind without emotion, but we’re not emotion without reason. You can run all the permutations or combinations.
We are all these things together and they interact, so heart is like emotion, desire, also the will that comes from the desire, the desire to pursue something because that thing is beautiful or worthwhile, it activates our emotion and our activity. Mind, of course, is the capacity for cognition, reason, thinking things through.
Soul is the hardest one, but I suppose it’s something like depth of self. It’s going down into the very heart of who I am that makes me distinct perhaps from others, and my own unique story with all its pain and all its power. And then strength is the fact that we’re embodied. We’re not disembodied, mental, just mental spirits. We can’t think without our bodies, and our bodies can’t exist without thinking.
So this word “complex” kind of holds these all together and says, “They can’t be completely separated, but they are different from each other.” And then I think to turn it around, so much of modern life neglects one or more of these things, at any given time. The thing that’s been most neglected, because we really built our computers on the model of just pure minds, our computers are really good at the mind part of life, as it were, but they’re not that good at the strength part, and they ask very little of our strength.
So when you’re sitting at a computer, your body, which is meant to be moving in three planes through the world, is just totally idled. Totally inactivated practically. We’ve designed technology and designed a modern world that very rarely lets us bring all four of these things back into active collaboration, which would have been just normal for human beings until the blink of an eye ago.
Most human beings most of the time were out in a natural world that was beautiful, activated their heart. They had a sense of soul and connection to some transcendent reality that reflected itself in some ways in the depths of their being. They did, of course think their way through the world, and they were acting with their bodies. And every day all day, that was the human experience.
And now, how much of a given day is that actually our experience in the technological world? A very small part of the day, I would say, where all four of those are happening. So we’ve lost something that really we almost could have taken for granted for a very long time.
Brett McKay: Yeah, this idea of heart, soul, mind, strength complex. You also see this with the Greeks, like Plato had his idea of there’s three parts of us, three parts of the soul. And then you also… CS Lewis kinda picked up on this as well within The Abolition Of Man, where mind, chest, just kind of like that, I guess, that soul part. And then the belly. All are meant to work together to be fully human. If you take out one part, then you’re no longer human.
Okay, so what you’re saying is that in order for these to develop we typically, we interact with other people. We interact with the world around us. I think the important part of this idea of becoming human, I wanna bring in another writer that I like a lot, is Wendell Berry. He writes about being… You have to think of ourselves as creatures, that we are products of the earth. We are bound here in temporal time, and if we try to go beyond that, then we somehow miss out in our development.
And so you’re… Typically the way humans mostly develop, you’re a baby and you interact the world, you crawl, you pick up things, stick ’em in your mouth, and you’re doing this with people and you develop, and over time you develop into a human being. You’re saying technology kinda skips some of that stuff and we miss out on some of that development and becoming a person?
Andy Crouch: Exactly. Because development mostly happens against resistance. Right? So part of I think what Berry is getting at, and he’s influenced me tremendously as well, is it’s even the… Part of being a creature is you go out in the world and the world is just really big compared to you. Even if you just step out in the world, you just feel the smallness of being human. Some kind of resistance. The world is not set up to just actualize yourself in any easy, simple way.
And so I begin every day going outside, I just stand outdoors, before I look at a screen, I go out of doors and I stand ideally out from under a roof, entirely. I get off a porch, I stand under the sky. Some days it’s raining or snowing or whatever, I still stand there. And I just feel like my smallness. Which strangely is not frightening, at least most mornings. It’s strangely grounding.
But it is a kind of resistance. It says, “Gosh, how is little you going to make a difference in this world?” It’s both an invitation and a kind of warning. And that’s developmental, like something happens to my mind, my heart, my soul, my strength when I start the day that way, that invites me to figure out what the next thing is, what I can do.
And then ideally, I’d be working against certain kinds of resistance. We know that strength only develops when you push muscles or pull muscles against resistive forces, but that’s really true for the mind as well. It’s happening for me in this conversation, like you’re asking questions that I don’t know the answer to them, or in a simple way know the answer. So I have to think my way through it, I’m feeling resistance as I do that, good things are happening as I’m doing that.
What technology does is it makes a lot of these things much easier. So if I have central air conditioning in my house, I never have to go outside and feel a difference of temperature or step out into a natural world where I’m no longer kind of in charge of the temperature, the computer does a lot of the thinking for me. If I need to do math, it just does the math. If I need to remember something, it just does the remembering.
That’s useful, but it’s not developmental, and this is… I think this is the heart of why we are so markedly lonely, anxious and depressed, is we’ve become very diminished people, and diminished people have a hard time finding something to do that’s worthwhile in the world and have a hard time finding a way to make a real connection with other people in the world, because if everyone else has just been equally undeveloped as me, who am I connecting with? I’m connecting with shadows or ciphers.
That’s an exaggeration maybe of where we’re at, but maybe not totally missing something that has changed, is that we used to be in a world that just of necessity developed us, and now we’re in a world that almost necessarily or coercively fails to develop us, just keeps us still, keeps us not engaged, and I think that’s causing a lot of distress that’s hard to surface until you really start paying attention to what it feels like to be us right now.
Brett McKay: Alright, so human development, there’s resistance, there’s frustrations, there’s friction. So when we experience that, we turn to technology thinking, “Well, maybe this can solve that issue.”
Andy Crouch: Exactly.
Brett McKay: I think one of the things you talk about, you really hit home. I think one of the things that we’re looking for as human beings, you said in the beginning, we’re looking for recognition, we’re looking for relationships with other people. Well, sometimes making relationships can be hard. Sometimes people don’t pay attention to you.
Andy Crouch: Sometimes. [chuckle]
Brett McKay: Yeah, sometimes, pretty much all the time people misunderstand you, they’re frustrating, so we think, “Well, we can turn to technology,” and we get this social media superpower. But you’re making the case when we do that, we become a little bit less human, correct? ‘Cause we’re not developing it to its fullest capacity.
Andy Crouch: And more and more fragile, less resilient, less able to handle or know how to respond when someone doesn’t get what you’re saying or isn’t listening. Sherry Turkle who has studied so many dimensions of how media is shaping us, she had this really interesting series of kind of experiments or conversations in her lab at MIT with college students who are the easy ones to get in a lab at a college research setting, and she was trying to prob why do college students prefer to text rather than talk with each other, right? Why would you text your friend if you could talk with your friend?
But the answer is I think really illuminating. The basic answer that she gets from students as she probes this in her conversations with them, is they prefer to text because when you text you are in control of the message you send. So even as we’re having this conversation, there’s a lot I’m not in control of.
I’m not in control of what you ask, I’m not in control of how you respond, and I don’t get unlimited time to figure out how to respond. I sort of have to be in the moment, and that’s vulnerable. But if you’re texting, first of all, you’ve reduced the information stream tremendously. You’ve gone from mega-bits of information over a voice connection, like we’re using terabytes if we were face-to-face, like we’d be exchanging so much information in real time.
You take that all the way down to a few bytes of information at a time, that means that I can actually look over what I’m going to send to you before I send it. So I’m totally in control. I never send a message I didn’t mean to send, which happens all the time in real relationships. It’s much more likely you will get the message I want to send, but it also finds out the relationship.
The problem is the quest for control is directly in opposition to the quest for relationship. [chuckle] The more you wanna be in control of a situation, the less real relationship you have. Because relationship is risk, it is improv, it is vulnerability, and we would prefer not to have that. But the more we opt out of that, the less we lack the very thing we were most deeply designed for.
So that trade of, “Well, I’ll be more in control, I won’t be as vulnerable, it won’t be as hard,” in some ways true, but you won’t have much left once you’ve given up the things that make relationships what they are.
Brett McKay: Well, the other thing that technology allows us to do with relationships is, okay, we can control the conversation, we can control how we present ourselves to others so they like us, but we can also control who we even interact with in the first place. A lot of the frustration that happens with relationships, you end up with people that you just don’t even think like them, and you have to learn how to manage that.
With social media or the internet, you can find people who are pretty much just like you, and you know as soon as I interact with them it’s gonna be, it’s gonna be easy.
Andy Crouch: Exactly, exactly. And easy everywhere is what technology promises. That’s, to me that’s the fundamental idea, is wouldn’t it be nice if life were easy? Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone pretty much had the same opinions as you do, the same style of communication as you do? It’s such a steep trade-off to, how am I going to become the kind of person who can handle difficulty in the world, who could actually persuade others? I mean, this is a huge issue in our world right now.
How does anyone ever persuade anyone now? Because we’ve lost the ability to attend to someone who genuinely sees or feels the world differently than I do, and have them come to trust enough that I really know why they think what they think, what it feels like to be them, and then I can offer them an alternative account of the world, and they’re like, “Oh actually, that helps make sense of something that I couldn’t make sense of.”
But when we’re siloed off from each other and we’re never encountering that real difference, we also completely lose the ability to ever persuade someone else. And then of course, it just spirals into tiny little polarized tribes, rather than people who have actually done the hard work of, how do I listen well enough across some real difference that I could be part of a real conversation.
The problem is, the logic of this is ultimately it’s Narcissus’ mirror. Because it’s interesting, I’ve been married for 27 years, and when my wife and I got married, one of the things our friends said about us was, “Oh, Andy and Catherine are so alike,” like we had the same Myers-Briggs type, we had the same… There were so many ways that we were… We seemed quite similar while we were dating and engaged.
And then the day we got married, it was like a switch flipped and we just discovered all these ways that we’re so different from each other, and I never think of myself primarily these days as like my wife, even though I think if you met us, you would probably say that on an initial encounter. But the truth is, as we get to know any other person, we discover, “This is hard, this person does not see or feel what I see and feel.”
There’s always moments where you’re like, “I would rather opt out of this and go to some other environment where I’m more in control.” But the only place where you’re really going to experience that is with the infinite personalization of a screen that just mirrors back to you who you are.
Cause the moment you encounter another person, no matter how similar they seem to be, you’re going to encounter some deep chasms of difference that you’ll have to bridge, and that will cause conflict and strain and stress. If you opt out of that, you are ultimately opting out of all relationship in the world.
Fortunately, with screens, maybe you’ll be relatively palliated, [chuckle] but you won’t be living the life we were looking for when we started, which was to find that other face and somehow know what it was to be known by another. That, you won’t get.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.
And now back to the show.
I love this distinction you make in the book about personal and personalized, ’cause I think this is a useful distinction ’cause I think what technology does it promises us to have personal experience, but what we get is personalized experiences. I love the example that you give of those robo letters you get from real estate agents that look like they’ve been written by hand.
Andy Crouch: They look so real.
Brett McKay: Yeah, tell us. Tell us about that distinction?
Andy Crouch: I got one as I was starting the book, I was thinking about this issue of what exactly has gone wrong in our world of persons? And I got this letter that, it completely fooled me. I consider myself to be a pretty suspicious person, but I got this letter in the mail and it looks like a friendly 10th grader had written me a note, it was sort of exuberant handwriting, and it took me several minutes looking at the letter to realize this window salesman [chuckle] had not actually written me a letter.
And I thought, “Oh, this is what technology is getting so good at. It’s getting good at simulating personal connection.” Because of course, what do I respond most deeply to? I respond to that face I’m looking for. And so now our technology, it’s a very convincing imitation of the real thing. That my devices know my name, they talk to me by name, they recognize my face.
But the difference between personal and personalized is very simple. In personalized encounters, there’s not actually another person on the other side, it’s a device, it’s a thing, it’s an algorithm, it’s a program. And yes, it very convincingly talks to you, presents itself to you as if it knows who you are and what your unique interests and needs and so forth are, but in fact, there’s no face of another person who’s paying attention to you.
So it’s like it both totally feeds the hunger, and it’s also like the most lonely thing in the world, because this device doesn’t in fact know me or care about me, or have anything to offer me other than what can benefit the system that produced the device. And that’s a very different thing from a real personal encounter with another person, who is more than the sum of a system of profit generation.
Even if they are a window salesman, if I meet a real person, there’s something real that happens ideally with that person that’s not just transaction, but a personalized world is all transaction all the time.
Brett McKay: So I get this a lot with PR people who are pitching podcast guests.
Andy Crouch: Oh my gosh.
Brett McKay: They use the template.
Andy Crouch: I can only imagine.
Brett McKay: Right, and have like I guess these…
Andy Crouch: “Dear Brett… ” [chuckle]
Brett McKay: Yeah. But sometimes I think there’s a macro they use, and so they can just automatically… But sometimes the macro doesn’t work and it says, “Dear podcast host,” in parentheses. And…
Andy Crouch: “Dear influencer… ”
Brett McKay: Right. That’s a perfect example of personalization, but not personal. But then you even also see this personalized ethos creep into really intimate relationships. There’s apps now that can send out text messages to your spouse to offer affirmation or…
Andy Crouch: No. Oh no. No, I don’t wanna know about this.
Brett McKay: Or if it’s their anniversary. And people like, “Well, this good for my relationship. My wife will approach it.” But it’s like, man, it just feels like a Dark Mirror episode. This is not good.
Andy Crouch: And the veil will eventually slip, and instead of saying, “Dear Catherine,” it’ll say, “Dear spouse.” [chuckle]
Brett McKay: Right, “Dear spouse.” Or you won’t even… She’ll say, “Thank you for sending that message.” Like, “I didn’t send a message.”
Andy Crouch: “What message was that again?” [chuckle] “Yes Honey.”
Brett McKay: These are our attempts at we want personal relationships, we’re looking for that connection, but we’re looking for the shortcut, but in the process, we de-humanize ourself in the process.
Andy Crouch: Yes, exactly. And there just are no shortcuts. So I talk in the book about superpowers, and a lot of tech now sells things, but you’ll have coding superpowers, you’re have presenting superpowers, podcasting superpowers. Fine, there’s a place for the amazing affordances of technology in certain kinds of work and all that, but there are no personhood superpowers. There’s no love superpower. There’s no marriage superpower.
And in fact, quite the opposite. The attempt to import… To be honest, a few moments ago, I said how many years have I’ve been married, and I’m not sure I got it right. I know my wife would get it right, right? So I know she knows the exact number of years. I took a reasonably accurate guess. I didn’t take the time to do the math. If she listened to this, she may say I got it wrong.
Well, that’s part of the relationship. That for better or for worse, that’s who I am, and if, yeah, I could outsource that to a machine and have it keep track, but then there’s no additional quantum of relationship in that. There’s just a facsimile of attention, but not the real thing.
And so the quest for superpowers needs to be very, very carefully constrained and kept away from the things that matter most, because in the areas where it matters most, superpowers actually cannot help, they undermine, they distract and they ultimately deplete the real power we need to be human.
Brett McKay: And you end up as Twilight Zone episode.
Andy Crouch: That is, doesn’t it kind of feel like that’s where we are? [chuckle]
Brett McKay: Well, another point you make in the book is we often think when we use technology, that we’re the one who is working the technology, but what we often forget is that the technology is also working on us in shaping us. How do you think our technology shapes us unknowingly while we are using it? It’s like the tool works on both ends, right?
Andy Crouch: Mm-hmm, yeah. And it’s always been true. You use the hammer and it acts back on your neuromuscular system to reshape literally your neurons, reprogram, to expand in a way to be able to wield that tool more and more effectively. Every moment of use in the world is rewiring my neural system, my reward system.
I think that we’re… Everybody brings up The Social Dilemma film when I talk about this stuff and they’re like, “Oh yeah, do you know they’ve studied our rewards and… ” Yes, they sure have, and they know what makes us tick, but I actually think the deeper layer of this is not the designed interventions, like the ways that the algorithms really are calculated to keep you clicking, that is true.
It’s more the whole premise that my life should get easier. To me, that’s actually how technology is acting on me. It’s making me shrink from risk, shrink from productive effort and always want a shortcut, and my brain gets very itchy and uncomfortable when I can’t find the shortcut. The thing is that all creativity and generativity happens if you persist in that discomfort of not being able to find the shortcut. The shortcut never is truly generative. It’s always imitative and repetitive.
If I wanna do something really new, whether a new thought or just learn a new motion with my body that I haven’t learned yet, I’m a pianist, I play the piano, have trained pretty seriously as that, and when I sit down to practice, if I wanna learn something really tricky with one or both hands, I have to push through that itchy sense that says, “Wouldn’t you rather do something easy, wouldn’t you rather just play something you already know? Or for that are just press play and listen to somebody else play it?”
And it’s only if I press through the resistance and the desire for a shortcut, do I come to ultimately a kind of mastery of the new thing. And our technology is just constantly training us, “Don’t bother with the hard thing, choose the easy thing.” In that way, it’s so different from tools, which are… They’re not easy to use. Even a simple tool like a hammer, not easy at all. As you use it, it doesn’t train you to decline in ability, it trains you to increase.
But I think that the way we’ve designed a lot of our devices, they kind of train us to decrease and to just wait for the shortcut to happen and wait for the magic to happen, rather than actually figure out how to exert ourselves in new and creative ways in the world.
Brett McKay: Well, I wanna dig into this. You make this… You’re not like a Luddite, you think technology can be life-enhancing and life-affirming as opposed to life negating, and I like this distinction you make, the type of technology that can enhance our life, you make this distinction between devices and instruments. What are the difference between the two?
Andy Crouch: Yeah, I’m so glad you brought this up ’cause it is so important. This is not an anti-technology book, I’m not anti-technology, I use a lot of technology. But I do want us to totally reframe what we’re looking for and ultimately redesign. The whole stack of technology needs to be redesigned from devices which basically do everything we’ve been talking about, they kind of replace and displace human engagement and effort.
But then there’s this other kind of thing we make, often using very sophisticated understanding of the world from science and so forth, and very high tech, that we call instruments, and I think the three ways I see that word used a lot are “medical instruments”, “scientific instruments” and maybe most richly, “musical instruments”. And an instrument can be very, very complex at the technical level, that is highly complicated device in one way, but it fully engages a person. Ideally with heart, soul, mind and strength all at once.
I grew up playing a Steinway grand piano, which is already an industrial thing, it couldn’t have been made before the modern era, there’s a lot of industrial technology in even a acoustic grand piano, but then often I’m in settings where I’m playing a digital piano, which is all silicon and it’s all computational technology, but because of the way it’s designed, it doesn’t play itself, there’s no little triangle where you just press “play”.
It’s designed to actually be played by a musician, and in fact, the digital thing can in certain ways call forth new creative acts that the acoustic thing could not, because there’s new layers of interface and possibility built into the thing, but only if a human being uses it with skill.
So an instrument is a kind of technology that fully involves us and keeps developing us, that is as I keep using it I am growing, I’m developing. I’m not getting kind of cut out of the loop, I’m not taking shortcuts. I’m growing, I’m contributing, and the instrument’s helping to kind of channel and amplify that.
I think we could go back almost literally like… So I don’t wanna roll back to 100 years and not have technology any more, I wish we could roll back under years and say, “Hey, scientists, as you’re figuring this stuff out, give us instruments, not devices.” [chuckle] But instead we wanted magic, right?
But I think we could have said, “No, no, we want all instruments.” Like, “You’re gonna design a computational interface that will give us great powers in math memory. Okay, that’s fine, but we’ve got to stay moving in the world.” No screens, ’cause screens pin you to one place. Just for the convenience of the computer. You’re not there for your own convenience, you’re there because that’s the only way we figured out how to build an interface.
But what if we built a different kind of interface where you can move through the world the way people always did when they had real work to do or hard thinking to do, they’d get out and move around. Why not build a thinking instrument, a different kind of computer? We could go through almost every kind of domain of technology and redesign it to be much more instrument-like and much less device-like.
Brett McKay: Okay, so for people who are listening, how could they know if they’re using a device? If it does work for them and doesn’t require any skill, you’re probably using a device?
Andy Crouch: Mm-hmm, yup, yup. And you’re using an instrument if you feel like more alive at the end, like there’s a crescendo of involvement, and if you’ve become something different at the end. Whereas the device, you feel often there’s a great surge, like when you’re exercising these superpowers, it sort of feels very pleasurable, but then at the end, you feel kind of depleted.
I just was talking to a mom who lets her kids have two hours a weekend on screens, like video games, which is low and good for her, and it’s hard to hold the line as a parent. And she said something really interesting. She said, “My son is so eager to get to the video games for the two hours a weekend, but he sometimes at the end says, ‘Mom, I feel like trash,’ at the end.” That’s his word for the feeling at the end of using the thing.
I’ve never felt that on a bicycle, I’ve never felt that playing a piano or a digital piano. I’ve never felt that when I’ve had a really good session like coding on a computer where I’m really thinking through a problem and coming up with a solution. But we know that feeling like, “Ugh, I feel like trash.”
Instruments don’t make you feel like trash, they make you feel, “I’m more fully alive.” And I’m actually able to let it go. That’s the other interesting thing. Often, the superpowers are very sticky, like we don’t wanna let go, and the instrument is sort of very free. You pick up the hammer, you work hard for a while, then you’re willing to lay it down. You’re not compulsive about it, you’re not addicted to it. Depends on…
Brett McKay: You’re not constantly hammering things. “I just gotta keep hammering. I’m bored. Need a hammer.”
“I’m waiting in line, I’m gonna hammer.”
Andy Crouch: Exactly. And yet you can be really good with it and love doing it, but without compulsion. That world is just waiting for us if we asked for that instead of the magic, but we asked for the magic.
Brett McKay: I think everyone’s got a device in their pocket, a smartphone. Is it possible, you think, to pound your smartphone device into an instrument?
Andy Crouch: Totally, and this is actually to me the hopeful thing about the glowing rectangles, is to be super geeky right now, a computer is just a Turing-complete universal machine, which basically means it can represent any state of the world you ask it to, or nearly Turing-complete.
And that just means these things can be the ultimate device, we can ask them just to do all magic all the time. Or they can be the ultimate instrument. So what I’ve tried to do with my smartphone is discipline myself, and it does take practice and certain kinds of habits and certain kinds of rhythms, but that every time I pick it up, it’s to use it as an instrument, not as a device.
So I’m not using it to distract myself, I’m trying to not to use it to soothe myself when I’m anxious or upset. When I’m bored, I don’t take it out, because I know if I’m bored, I’m likely to just use it to assuage the boredom. So I pick it up when I need to attend to a person through the medium of a text message, or call or email, when I need to learn something about the world.
And I don’t do this perfectly, but I have shifted dramatically since I started really trying to pay attention to this, I’d say like I used to be 80% device, 20% instrument, and now I think it’s 80% instrument, and it feels way less compulsive, I feel the weight in my pocket much less, I leave it behind more often without anxiety, ’cause it’s no longer that magical thing.
Brett McKay: No, I stayed at a monastery a couple of years ago, and I come to find out, I learned that monks use computers. But they treat it… It’s like a tool. It’s like a shovel. They’re just like, “Well, I gotta get on here to upload this thing for whatever,” and then they’re done, and that’s it. To them it’s just another shovel, it’s a hammer. Nothing more.
Andy Crouch: Exactly, exactly. It’s totally possible to rewire your brain and instincts, it’s just hard and also very hard to do. It’s not an accident that you found that at a monastery, because it’s hard to do without a community of people who are pursuing this together and also have a better life to live beyond the screen.
If you are really isolated and your best option is the screen, it’s really hard to turn that into an instrument only. It’s easier when you’re part of an intentional community that’s actually pursuing something different.
Brett McKay: So, big argument in the book, the big thing we’re looking for is relationships and connections, and we think we can get that through our digital devices, but then we come up empty-handed, we find out actually it makes us feel… We made that Faustian bargain, we become less human in a way.
But then you say, if we want that human connection that we’re craving, you argue, we gotta find that in households. What’s a household, and how is it different from a family or a small group like a CrossFit gym or something like that?
Andy Crouch: Yeah, ultimately, so there’s a redesign that needs to happen with the tech itself, but there’s also a kind of social architecture redesign that I think we need, which is you’re only going to find the life that you’re looking for with other people in an extended durable way, which almost always means some version of living under the same roof or very close to it.
You’ve gotta be proximate enough to other people for long enough that you overcome the inherent superficiality of our relationships and the transactional nature of our relationships in our world. And you go beyond that to something that is just deeper and more lasting.
Now, that can happen in family to some extent. Some people are fortunate to marry and have children and for a season of life, you can have that with what we call a “nuclear family”, but I’ve really become convinced that’s totally inadequate for several reasons. One is, I’ve had the very disturbing experience of discovering that the children grow up and leave, which happened to me now. [chuckle] So I have two amazing young adult children who I love dearly, who probably for very good reasons are now moving into the world and they’re going to form their own households and their own families. And so that’s a very temporary thing, as intense as child-rearing is for those of us who get to do it, it’s a temporary thing.
But the other thing is more generally, like the reality is many people in our world may not marry, and marriages end for all kinds of reasons, sometimes tragically, it’s just a truth, and we need a kind of community that’s bigger than just that nuclear unit. It needs to be ideally more generational, more stages of life, more different conditions of life in a way, but it needs to be almost literally under a roof.
I lived for my first four years out of college with four or five other men, depending on the year, in a single house. We had one bank account for those years. We each had our own lives and jobs, but we took that common life very seriously. We weren’t monks, but for a season we lived with a kind of intentionality of life, and it was one of the most beneficial formative experiences in my life.
And then when my wife and I got married, instead of just moving into a single unit kind of living situation, we lived for many years with other people, and I think this is a missing piece in rebuilding a social world that actually has room for the kind of relationships we’re craving. Because we live such atomized individual lives, even when we’re coupled. A couple is not a big enough unit to keep personhood going. [chuckle]
So in the book, I’m kind of inviting us to rethink, like there’s other patterns from other times and places where people lived in much more complex dwelling units, and ultimately we need to rebuild our world to make that possible for more people.
Brett McKay: Well, the thing is, there’s people out there in like Silicon Valley, “There’s a problem, people need households, so we’re gonna develop an app where you can sign up and you can… ”
You can make the case, a lot of these co-working things, like WeWork, that’s what they’re trying to do. But like you said, it’s a simulation, it’s not the real deal.
Andy Crouch: It’s a simulation because of another kind of layer here, which we haven’t talked a whole lot about, but it’s the way the technological world is all built on usefulness and productivity. So it WeWork was and is a beautiful idea and a lot better space to work than many places, but it’s all built on one slice of your life, which is your working life, and once you’re not generating money to pay the monthly dues or fees or whatever, you’re not part of that community. Same with CrossFit, actually, which I’m a big believer in gyms and boxes and whatever community you build for your fitness.
But what happens when you’re too old to participate or you become disabled in a way that you can’t really do the work out of the day, and how does that community touch all the other aspects of your life? This is where a household is sort of indispensable ’cause it’s the one integrated environment where you’re known in all your facets as a person, rather than only being there as long as you make sense transactionally for that system. Does that make sense?
Brett McKay: No, that makes sense. And I think the other thing people might be tempted to do, “So okay, I wanna develop more household in my life,” and again, they’ll turn to technology, “Well, we can start these group texts with people.” And it could help, but it’s probably not gonna do… It’s gonna require you to, like you said, do some re-jiggering of your social structure in your life, and that’s something that a device can’t do.
Andy Crouch: Yeah. ‘Cause this is where there’s just not any superpowers for the thing we most want, which is being known. One way to put it is, there’s just a whole involuntary layer to being known. There’s all the things my housemates see in me and about me that I never intended for them to see, and that I might not even know about myself, and sometimes it’ll cause real conflict and they’ll push back and complain or criticize.
Or just maybe more lovingly intervene and say, “Do you realize you’re really anxious about this? Or, “Do you realize you’ve been really depressed for the last four nights and haven’t done anything except lie on the couch?” I’m never gonna put that in a text message, honestly. I’m just not going to choose to disclose that.
So we have to live in environments where we can’t help but be known, an environment where if you fall asleep and stay asleep for a long time, someone will come check on you. If you have a cardiac arrest, you’re not gonna text your friends and say, “Hey, by the way I’m incapacitated right now.” [chuckle]
You need a place where people will notice, “We haven’t seen him for a while. What’s going on?” And that level of being known that goes beyond the what I volunteer or what I would willingly offer, is actually the essence of being known, but how many of us have places where that happens regularly? Not enough, I would say.
Brett McKay: No. I’ve seen that in my own life, not just this household thing, but in small groups, what I consider my communities I belong to. There’s always this moment where people are like, “Well, we need to connect more.” There’s not enough camaraderie, and so they’ll like, “We’ll do this group chat, or we’ll do Discord,” and this will be the thing and then nothing ever changes. And then… I don’t know.
It’s frustrating ’cause I think lot of people think like, “Oh, this will be it, this is gonna be the thing that fixes it,” and it’s like no, it’s not. It’s not gonna be that.
Andy Crouch: The thing that would fix it, like short of moving in together, which I recommend or giving each other keys to your house, there’s steps we can take. Catherine and I have given… There’s like five people who have a key to our house who didn’t a couple of years ago, ’cause we no longer live under one roof with other people, but we we’re like, “We need to invite other people close enough that they could kind of let themselves in when they want to.”
But for that group, rather than the Discord or the group chat, I think the only thing that would approximate is go on, the old word would be a pilgrimage together. That is go somewhere hard, long for an extended period of time and the relationships would change, the connection would go way deeper.
Because you’d get that involuntary quality of this extended time where other people see you without filters, not at your best, often in challenging or adverse circumstances in some ways, and what gets forged in those that kind of travel, that kind of pilgrimage journey is incredibly powerful. But in some ways we need a group of people we’re doing that pilgrimage of life with where we are, not just on special occasions. But a pilgrimage would do it in a way that a group chat won’t.
Brett McKay: I think that you gotta still manage expectations, there’s not gonna be a lot of people who wanna go do that pilgrimage.
Andy Crouch: It’s true, it’s true.
Brett McKay: There’s gonna be people who say, “Oh yeah, I would definitely be down for that,” but then when it finally comes to put your chips on the table, “No, I have my… ”
Andy Crouch: “It’s costly.”
Brett McKay: Yeah, “My wife, I got stuff I gotta do.” And they’ll find some reason not to go. But I think when you do find people who wanna do that, you gotta just embrace it, embrace those people.
Andy Crouch: Yes. Those are the people, those are the people. And a lot of people will resist it, because it is costly. It’s also scary, and so people will find reasons not to do things that are scary, but the good stuff is always found on the other side of that.
Brett McKay: Well Andy, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Andy Crouch: You can learn a little more about me at my website. [chuckle] It just feels so self-promotional to even say things like this, but andy-crouch.com, with a dash, andy-crouch.com. But I also work for an organization called Praxis, and we actually help people build ventures and businesses that work on this stuff, and we have a whole section on the book at praxislabs.org. “Labs” like a laboratory.
Praxislabs.org/life will give you you a lot more, not just about the book, but how you could actually build new ventures for-profit, non-profit along these lines.
Brett McKay: Fantastical. Well, Andy Crouch, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Andy Crouch: Thank you so much. This was great.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Andy Crouch. He’s the author of the book, The Life We’re Looking For, it’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website and andy-crouch.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/crouch, where you can find links to resources, we can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast. Make sure check on our website at artofmanliness.com, where you’ll find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles written about pretty much anything you’d think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium.
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