Putting technology in its place

I’m sure family life and parenting was extremely complex and challenging a hundred years ago. I’ll bet it’s even more so today. Over the past two generations, our lives have become more or less intertwined with technology; the latest gadgets and apps have brought opportunities and temptations to our homes that our predecessors couldn’t have ever imagined. In his new book The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch writes “if there is one word that sums up how many of us feel about technology and family life, it’s Help!”

Crouch wants to help, and we should be grateful. He is the executive editor of Christianity Today, and the author of three wise and perceptive books – Culture Making, Playing God, and Strong and Weak – that explore the challenges of our current cultural situation. The Tech-Wise Family is of the same quality. It feels like it was written for an attention span accustomed to online media, with its short, easily digestible chapters, attractive info-graphics detailing the latest research from the Barna group, and personal touch (Crouch discloses his own family’s tech-related struggles and successes at the end of each chapter). Unlike a lot of online media, it does all these things without being reactionary and superficial. It might be a bit radical, though. Crouch isn’t trying to make you Amish, “but you probably have to become closer to Amish than you think.”

The Tech-Wise Family is “about how to find the proper place for technology in our family lives – and how to keep it there.” Should we not find that proper place, we run the risk of missing out on so many of the best parts of family life, argues Crouch. “Our homes aren’t meant to be just refuelling stations, places where we and our devices rest briefly, top up our charge, and then go back to frantic activity. They are meant to be places where the very best of life happens.”

In order to nurture and encourage this “very best of life,” Crouch offers “Ten Tech-Wise Commitments.” Some of them are pretty philosophical, and don’t sound obviously tech-related. Commitment #1, for instance: “We develop wisdom and courage together as a family.” Others are more obviously tech-focussed and practical, like Commitment #4: “We wake up before our devices do, and they ‘go to bed’ before we do.” All 10 hang together nicely, though; indeed, the practical ones draw their power from the foundation laid by the more philosophical ones. That’s so important in a work like this. Without some reflection on what sort of creatures we are, or aspire to be, these sorts of books can tend toward dry legalism, which doesn’t inspire anyone to change their life.

Here’s a provocative, insightful example of how Crouch goes about combining the philosophical with the pragmatic. While reflecting on the appropriate age for children to have screens incorporated into their lives, Crouch writes “the last thing you need when you are learning, at any age but especially in childhood, is to have things made too easy.” Difficulty and challenge, provided they’re not too discouraging, are precisely what help us adapt and learn. But, Crouch goes on to say, we’re spending so much time on screen-based activities that “ask far too little of us, and make the world far too simple.” Compare the rigours of learning to play the guitar – calluses, finger strength and dexterity, etc., with toying around with a guitar app on your iPad. The latter “vastly oversimplifies all these dimensions of embodied music making.” And that means that excessive screen time is not just time wasted or used unproductively, but an activity that can actually diminish us as creatures, insofar as it distracts us from the embodied, often difficult paths toward human flourishing. Need a pragmatic approach to counteract this temptation? Make sure your house is full of musical instruments, and make music as a family.

That’s a wonderful insight. This book is full of them. If you’re looking for help navigating the perplexing challenges of our technological age, you’d do well to engage The Tech-Wise Family.  

  • Brian Is CC’s Review Editor and a CRC chaplain at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

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