Our addiction to technology
by Christopher O. Tollefsen | July 07, 2017
Earlier this year, the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat published a series of op-eds making the case for “implausible ideas.” Among these was a March 11 piece titled “Resist the Internet.” Douthat urged his readers to admit that they were in the grip of a “compulsion,” an “enslavement,” an “addiction” to the internet, to their Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts, an enslavement that leaves them alienated, depressed, and distracted.
This strikes many as an increasingly plausible claim, so where was the implausible idea? Douthat thought that his remedy, digital temperance—a social movement to “take back some control,” including, most importantly, control over our selves—was likely to be viewed as a modern day “Prohibition.”
Yet Douthat’s diagnosis, and his remedy, converge with those of Andy Crouch, editor of Christianity Today, whose new book, The Tech-Wise Family situates both the crisis and its potential solution in what I take to be their most plausible place, the family.
Our internet dependence really is a crisis for families first, before it is a crisis for our schools, churches, and even our republic, for it is in the family that the effects of distraction and alienation most immediately rupture our chance at human flourishing. Family members who do not and cannot communicate with one another cease to be part of an intentional community with one another. The family then ceases to be the little school that makes possible virtue, community, and the cooperative pursuit of a common good in other social and political spaces.
Similarly, the family is where the crisis can be averted. Parents can have, if they will exercise it, much greater immediate authority and influence over their children than can other social leaders, and judicious use of that authority can, perhaps, help shape their children’s characters in ways that will make possible Douthat’s “resistance” to the siren call of internet technology.
But for that to be the case requires, on the part of parents, commitment. It will not happen easily or accidentally. And so Crouch’s book is organized around ten commitments “for a healthy family life with technology.”
The ten commitments themselves have some important subdivisions. The first three identify what we could call, following St. Thomas Aquinas, forms of order that we should, in different ways, work to realize in our lives and homes. The first is the most important, and complements Douthat’s focus on temperance. We should work to cultivate character, recognizing this as our primary mission as parents.
What aspects of character must we focus on? Crouch argues that wisdom and courage must be the focus, seeing, as he does, the erosion of both by internet (and other forms of) technology. Knowledge there may be in abundance online (though clearly there is no shortage of ignorance either), but wisdom is not only not to be found there, it is threatened by the short attention spans and constant need for stimulus that social media create.
Courage, the conviction and character to act, is likewise threatened, by the passivity and herd mentality that the internet cultivates. And both virtues, Crouch believes, are jeopardized by the lack of genuine person-to-person connection that the internet creates. Without spending real time with the flesh-and-blood bodies of loved ones who know us and are committed to our true good, we will not learn when we have been foolish and when our wisdom has not been matched by courageous action.
Crouch’s focus on the virtues that parents must commit to cultivating in their children and the threats that our internet time poses to these virtues is insightful. But why stop with wisdom and courage? Indeed, Douthat’s emphasis on temperance seems an equally natural starting point for thinking about a character-based pushback against the internet.
One of the most remarkable and disconcerting features of social media and email is the way they turn even the most productive of us into small-scale Vegas slot-machine junkies, constantly refreshing our inbox, opening our Instagram account, or checking to see how many Facebook notifications have arrived since our last post.
Crouch himself offers an important, and inevitable, chapter on pornography (more on which below); elsewhere in the book, he speaks of the many hours he has idled trawling through social media feeds, clicking link after link, chasing satiation. These are certainly failures of self-governance. The development of temperance, or moderation, is the only solution here.
Although he does not name it as such, Crouch recognizes this clearly enough. Part Two of the book, and commitments four through eight, are devoted to what he calls “nudges” and “disciplines.” A nudge is, to use traditional Catholic language, a way of avoiding “near occasions of sin.” Don’t put your seat facing a television if you plan to converse with friends; don’t leave your phone at your bedside if you plan, as Crouch recommends, to go to sleep later and wake up earlier than your social-media self.
A discipline is just what it sounds like: a way of ordering and forming our wills and characters so that we are masters, and not slaves, of technology: keep the discipline of the Sabbath, Crouch recommends, and turn away from the internet for an hour a day, a day a week, a week a year.
These are all prudent recommendations for temperance, and Crouch’s recommendations overlap with Douthat’s and others’. I’ll return to some of these recommendations in a moment.
What of justice? Neither Crouch nor Douthat thematizes this virtue in his treatment of technology and especially internet technology, yet there are special temptations toward injustice here: invasions of privacy, mobbing, online shaming, unjust anger, and schadenfreude, to name but a few. Once again, our lack of connection to the flesh and blood of those we revile, shame, or exult over is at least part of the story here. Removing ourselves from the gilded cage of technology is essential for gaining both the detachment and the attachment that make possible the giving of what is due to others.
So character, and the order of the virtues, is, I believe, the greatest part of the resistance that is called for; and the virtues in question should be all four of the cardinal virtues, wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage. But Crouch also argues that we need to order our space and time in ways that will conduce to this revolution in the virtues. His discussions are practical and insightful. The second commitment is to make our domestic space one that rewards “skill and active engagement,” rather than encouraging passive consumption. The third is, as noted already, that we shape our time by explicitly committing to internet-free parts of our day, week, and year.
The practical nudges and disciplines of Part Two are meant to assist with the ordering of character, space, and time. Couch recommends little to no screen time for those under ten, the use of “car time” as conversation time, and total transparency, where internet-enabled devices are concerned, both between spouses and for all children living in the home. Let me say just a bit about this last recommendation before I turn to the final section of Crouch’s book.
First, where children are concerned, Crouch’s recommendation is most importantly, though not exclusively, a way to put up a hedge against the use of the internet for consuming pornography. But Crouch makes what I think is an important point here: really, everything in the book is essential to inoculating a family against pornography. The order of the virtues in a family’s life, the order of space and time toward fleshly communion with one another and toward fleshly activity in the world; these are the best defenses against souls that, like Callicles in the Gorgias, must itch so that they can scratch.
Second, I will confess that at an earlier age I occasionally felt somewhat superior when I would meet spouses who shared one email address. Was that really necessary? I still don’t think it is strictly necessary; and of course, anyone can create a second email address unknown to his spouse if he has something to hide.
But online transparency is important, and spouses can remind one another of this in symbolic ways, as by the sharing of an email address or the availability for scrutiny of email accounts and search histories (except, of course, when one is purchasing a birthday present for the other!). Such sharing is, after all, merely an implication of the mutual commitment spouses make to one another of a complete sharing of lives; to think of the internet as a domain of privacy against one’s spouse is a serious error, both in principle and in practice.
Part Three of Crouch’s book is titled “What Matters Most,” and turns on two commitments: to make music together and to “show up in person for the big events of life.” Having missed more weddings and funerals than I ought to have, I was chagrined by Crouch’s first words in his final chapter: “Early in our marriage . . . [we] decided that every time we were invited to a wedding or funeral, unless circumstances made it truly impossible, one of us would go.” To return to one theme of his book, and this review, that is a commitment that honors the importance of our bodily existence, that recognizes that “being there in person” means being there in the flesh.
Music also matters. Crouch focuses on the connections between music in a family and family worship; singing together, especially when that is a form of worship, is a bodily cooperative engagement in pursuit of a shared good, and one that opens out to our wider church community, and thereby to the ultimate reality toward which that community is oriented. It is in that reality, Crouch argues, that true wisdom and courage—and we might add, justice and moderation too—are to be learned.
But here too, he thinks, technology threatens, encouraging us once more to passive consumption of an amplified choir, rather than personally lifting our voices to God. I think Crouch’s warnings and advice here are well-taken; both families and those engaged in music ministry can learn much from this chapter.
Let me end where I started. Are Crouch’s “ten commitments” implausible as a blueprint for a restoration of certain orders within the family? I do not think so. Yet I worry that Douthat was right in suggesting that “versions of these ideas will be embraced within my lifetime by a segment of the upper class and a certain kind of religious family”—and only by these.
His concern that “the masses” would remain addicted absent a more widespread and paternalistic social or political intervention may well be correct. Yet whatever the wisdom of that prediction, it is a necessary first step that we put own homes in order, and Crouch is to be commended as an especially thoughtful and practical guide in that essential project.
Christopher O. Tollefsen is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and a senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute. He is the author of Lying and Christian Ethics (Cambridge, 2014). Republished with permission from The Public Discourse.