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The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch

Gregory E. Reynolds

The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place, by Andy Crouch. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017, 224 pages, $14.99.

Crouch begins: “Tech-wise parenting isn’t simply intended to eliminate technology but to put better things in its place. . . . I’ve discovered a world out there that is better than anything technology can offer—as close as our front lawn” (11). This is a book about putting technology in its place. As such it offers some excellent, humbly expressed, advice that all parents and adults would be wise to consider. I am always concerned about the theoretical basis of books on technology. When I first began studying and writing on this subject, most Christians were concerned only about media content; they hadn’t considered the ways in which electronics are an environment and not simply tools. Crouch has read several of the right books to undergird his analysis and suggestions.[1]

In the preface Crouch gives five descriptions of what it means to put technology in its proper place. The sum of his concerns reminded me of Matthew Crawford’s The World beyond Your Head; and Shop Class as Soulcraft.[2] Crouch is concerned with the reality of embodied existence, involving activities that require mental skill and personal presence (29). It is these real life employments that should be promoted and enhanced by technology. This also reminded me of Edith Schaeffer’s Hidden Art[3] in which she encourages artistic expression in ordinary, everyday life. L’Abri exemplified this in my experience there in 1971–72.

Crouch is very realistic about the peer pressure young people are subjected to when it comes to the use of electronic devices (26). At the end of each chapter he has the “Crouch Family Reality Check” in which he humbly relates his own successes and failures. After the introduction he gives “Ten Tech-wise Commitments” (41–42), which he elaborates in the remainder of the book. Reshaping patterns of living must be rooted in changes of our inner lives. He uses Sabbath-keeping as an example (35–36).

The first three chapters present “The Three Key Decisions of a Tech-Wise Family.” They are: “Choosing Character,” “Shaping Space,” and “Structuring Time.” Crouch is essentially pleading for RL (real life) to take precedence over VR (virtual reality) in terms of developing the virtues of wisdom and courage (53). Christian character is developed in the context of families, natural and spiritual. Technology is good when it helps us to achieve these noble ends. But it also poses the greatest threat to the development of character ever conceived (62–63).

Proper ordering of space means that our homes and churches must be suited to the development of wise and courageous people. Here Crouch has lots of practical suggestions, such as having technology free zones (79–80).

Ordering time wisely means maintaining a work-life balance, which technology tends to remove by making life all work. He recommends the Sabbath and worship with God’s people as a positive commands of God (92–93, 98–101). Using the “off” button on devices assists us in the wise use of time throughout the week.

The chapter on “Learning and Working” is Crouch’s best. He focuses on human life as embodied existence expressing ideas and concerns similar to Matthew Crawford, to whom I referred above. Language itself is embedded in the body, the tongue, as the etymology of the word suggests (124–25). Crouch pays attention to the important research of cognitive science[4] which reinforces the mind-body interaction (125). The use of pen and paper helps memory and creativity in ways that keyboards and screens do not. Electronic devices are “dangerously easy” (126–27). Activities that demand skill, that are difficult and thus rewarding, must be emphasized at an early age. “Computer literacy” is a myth because it does not take great skill as does learning to read—actual literacy (130–35). Neil Postman made this plea in The End of Education in 1995.[5] Crouch ends this chapter with the recognition that we are swimming upstream. Few educators have heeded Postman’s advice. Perhaps the plethora of research and writing that points out some of the deleterious effects of the digital will seep into our culture and its institutions.

The remainder of the book deals helpfully with boredom and its antidote: real life activities such as conversation and singing. Crouch’s chapter on “Why Singing Matters” comes close to a healthy criticism of much contemporary worship music (which sound to me like an oxymoron) as he laments the “disappearance of shared singing” (185). Missing in his analysis is the fact that the entertainment mode of the “worship band” and microphones is by its very nature the performance of a few. Here Neil Postman’s chapter in Amusing Ourselves to Death, “Shuffle off the Bethlehem”[6] would be helpful in showing how TV worship programming mutes the presence of God. A corollary to Postman’s critique would be that many contemporary worship services unconsciously replicate TV. For all of Crouch’s excellent material on the Sabbath, corporate singing, and worship, the absence of discussion for the need of sound biblical preaching is troubling.

My quarrels with this book in no way undermine its great value as a practical guide to electronic navigation, especially in family life.

The Barna visuals, while supportive of some of what Crouch is seeking to deal with, are sometimes difficult to understand and always distracting. But I suppose a hardcover book without a dust cover and dressed in snappy orange and red accessories is meant to communicate PRACTICAL. In this it succeeds. 

Crouch could have described the way that the electronic is a total environment and one that alters social space. Mid-twentieth-century sociologist Erving Goffman observed that access to information defines social relations. Thus altering the means of access to information changes these relations and the institutions of a culture.[7]

A final concern is Crouch’s use of the word “leisure.” His problem is really with amusement or meaningless rest (87, 94). So, his point is a good one, but he inadvertently gives leisure a bad name. Leland Ryken presents a positive view of leisure in his article “Leisure as a Christian Calling.”[8] Leisure is etymologically rooted in the idea of being freed from obligations in order to cultivate one’s life. Our word “school” means to set free. This is the idea behind a liberal education. Ryken broadens the idea by defining what leisure is in its highest reaches: “Leisure is the growing time for the human spirit. Leisure provides the occasion for learning and freedom, for growth and expression, for rest and restoration, for rediscovering life in its entirety.”[9] That raises the bar high, and I think we resonate with that.

That being said, with these few reservations, I highly recommend this book. It is a wonderfully accessible encouragement and guide to developing technological wisdom in the Christian family.

Endnotes

[1] Albert Borgman, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987); Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (New York: Penguin, 2015); John Dyer, From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011).

[2] Matthew Crawford, The World beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015); Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (New York: Penguin, 2009).

[3] Edith Schaeffer, Hidden Art (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 1971).

[4] Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (New York: Harper Collins, 2007); Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper, The Myth of the Paperless Office (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003). Maryanne Wolf’s most recent book is well worth reading, Reader, Come Home (New York: HarperCollins, 2018). Stephen Migotsky reviewed it in Ordained Servant Online (January 2019), https://opc.org/os.html?article_id=729.

[5] Neal Postman, The End of Education (New York: Knopf, 1995).

[6] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985).

[7] Cf. Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood (London: Allen, 1983). Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York: Anchor, 1959).

[8] Leland Ryken, “Leisure as a Christian Calling,” Ordained Servant Online (November 2018), https://opc.org/os.html?article_id=714&issue_id=140.

[9] Robert Lee, Religion and Leisure in America (Nashville: Abingdon, 1964), 35.

Gregory E. Reynolds is pastor emeritus of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, February 2018.

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