Can We Be Human in Meatspace?

A new book asks whether revolution against tech starts at home.
Subscriber Only
Sign in or Subscribe Now for audio version

In thinking about technology, three questions are fundamental. What is technology for? What are we for? And how is our answer to the first question related to our answer to the second?

Since the Enlightenment, we have come to take for granted that there really is no relation, because we cannot publicly agree on what humans are for. We can answer that question only privately. But technology is public, not private. We create it for common use, ostensibly in the service of the common good. If we cannot broadly agree on what we are for, then how can we reason together about what our technology is for?

Reviewed in this article
Convergent Books ~ 2022 ~ 240 pp.
$25 (cloth)

It appears that we cannot. While the question about human purpose is now cordoned off from public debate, the question about the purpose of technology has vanished altogether. We no longer ask why we are making the latest widget. Its existence is self-justifying. Only listen to a Silicon Valley mogul talk about the newest invention or cutting-edge research. It is a dismal menu of options: the fantastical (immortality, uploading your consciousness to the cloud), the terrifying (digital surveillance, sentient robots), the shallow (streaming videos, the metaverse), the banal (smart thermostats, voice assistants), and the meaningless (“greater connection,” “enhanced creativity”). The last category alone is damning. We are meant to be connected and creative. Connected how? Creative to what end? A terrorist cell is deeply connected and highly creative. So is a local chapter of the Klan. Indeed, such groups are often among tech’s early adopters.

What we need is a recommitment to public argument about purpose, both ours and that of our tools. What we need, further, is a recoupling of our beliefs about the one to our beliefs about the other. What we need, finally, is the resolve to make hard decisions about our technologies. If an invention does not serve the human good, then we should neither sell it nor use it, and we should make a public case against it. If we can’t do that — if we lack the will or fortitude to say, with Bartleby, We would prefer not to — then it is clear that we are no longer makers or users. We are being used and remade.

Andy Crouch’s new book, The Life We’re Looking For: Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World, is at once an intervention and a therapy. It is an attempt, that is, not only to reenergize the public argument about human and technological purposes, but also to propose answers for our common consideration. Crouch is a prolific author on culture, religion, and the arts. A former executive editor for Christianity Today, he is a partner at Praxis, an organization that fosters what it calls redemptive entrepreneurship. He is perhaps best known for his 2017 book The Tech-Wise Family. In my classroom, we refer to it simply as “the digital bible.” It is one of a handful of books from the last decade — written by authors like Maryanne Wolf, Matthew Crawford, Cal Newport, Alan Jacobs, and Oliver Burkeman—that succeed in helping their readers navigate the practical challenges of living and raising children in the world that Zuckerberg and Jobs have wrought.

The Life We’re Looking For builds on Tech-Wise while setting its sights higher. Crouch wants to do at least three things with the book. First, to offer an account of what it means to be human. Second, to outline a diagnosis of how and why the technological world we have made for ourselves, far from enabling our flourishing, enervates it. Third, to suggest both an alternative framework for conceiving of the good life in relation to technology, and concrete steps by which we, or at least some of us, might begin to live that good life now.

It is important to see at the outset that Crouch’s book primarily offers a moral and social anthropology, even a politics, and only secondarily a critical treatment of technology. Our devices and platforms are both cause and consequence of our collective misfortunes. There are deeper forces at work, then, and in this respect Crouch interprets our digital distempers as symptoms of a larger problem. That problem goes to the heart of who we are and what we are meant to be. But we must have a picture of health — what it means to flourish as a human being — in order to see our present unhealth, much less to mend it.

Crouch therefore grounds his proposal in a simple anthropological axiom: human beings are persons. What does he mean by this?

His answer calls for a preface. Crouch is a Christian, and his book is Christian through and through. But it’s not — or not meant to be — for Christians only. It’s intended to proffer Christian wisdom for common benefit. This conjunction of a particular perspective articulated for the sake of society at large is not unique to religious writers; it’s the nature of all public writing. Nevertheless, it’s worth flagging here lest suspicious readers spy a Trojan horse. More to the point, this perspective creates a certain tension in the argument, to which I will return below.

As for Crouch’s answer. First, human beings are made in the image of God; we are image-bearers. Among other things, this means we are invited to look at others in contemplation, not exploitation, beholding their dignity “without regard for their usefulness to me.” Second (following the philosopher Robert Spaemann), a human being is a someone, not a something. Third, our personhood is a gift, in the sense that we receive it from without, and it is a given, in the sense that it cannot be taken away from us: “You do not have to become a person. You do not have to prove you are a person. As long as you have been and as long as you will be, you are a person.” Our personhood may be developed, however. For although you cannot lose your personhood, “being a person means you are designed to become something greater than you are.”

That “something greater” refers to the objects of our loves: kinship, friendship, eros, and charity. The relationships denoted by these terms “are all schools of personhood, a lifelong invitation to a deeper and better life than we would know on our own.” “To be a person,” he writes, “is to be made for love. This is both the indelible fact of who we are and the great adventure of each of our lives.”

Spelling this out further, Crouch turns to the famous command from the Hebrew scriptures, the Shema, which enjoins upon Israel an exclusive, comprehensive love for God. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” — to which Jesus would later add mind. Or, in Crouch’s pithy formulation:

Every human person is a heart-soul-mind-strength complex designed for love.

For the rest of the book, Crouch uses this definition as a standard by which to evaluate how well a form of life or a technology contributes to human flourishing. Does it enlarge and enliven our animating passions? Does it touch the hidden depths within? Does it engage and enrich our intelligence? Does it affirm and sustain our physical bodies? Or, in any of these areas, does it deaden, mitigate, and enervate? Does it act as a sedative for our unquenchable aliveness?

As these questions show, Crouch is not anti-tech. Though he jokes in his previous book that his approach to technology amounts to being “almost almost Amish,” he sees no problem with homo faber. The making of things — whether arts or tools — is part of human nature. The question is whether the work of our hands serves the loves that constitute our lives as persons. Regarding specifically digital technology today, Crouch’s answer is largely in the negative.

Crouch employs two striking images that illuminate how our digitally mediated world often diminishes us. One of them he calls “the dead zone,” which is like sitting in an airport. Nothing really happens there; one is stuck in a purgatory of strangers, tired and stressed, eating bad food in uncomfortable seats beneath fluorescent lighting. Screens are everywhere. If the natural world can be seen at all, it is glimpsed only at a great distance, separated by glass enclosures and concrete paving in every direction. Each individual who mills and shuffles around in the airport dead zone is a person — by definition — but no one’s personhood is developed by or in such a place. One merely suffers the interminable wait until the blessed time to depart arrives. It is “a place where we are never recognized, where no one knows our names, where no one names our souls.” Does that sound familiar?

If the airport is a dead zone, the airplane exemplifies the concept of how we most easily escape it: “the superpower zone.” It means power without effort, in this case sitting in a metal tube hurling through the air at hundreds of miles an hour, in effect teleporting us from one place to another. The same goes for social media: friendship at the click of a button. Crouch contrasts this with what psychologists call “flow,” a sense of elevation and joy in the very experience of effort. For example, a bicycle enhances human power at human scale while requiring human effort. Superpowers eliminate friction. Ride a bike for a dozen miles, and you’ll grow all too familiar with friction.

Crouch’s point isn’t that we ought never to use air travel. His point is that technology is about tradeoffs, and more and more of the modern world is suffused with technology offering the superpowers of an airplane without informing us of what we must give up in order to gain those powers. To ride in an airplane is maximally passive by design. It does not demand your heart, soul, mind, and strength. You are a patient, not an agent. By contrast, the bicycle — in its own way an impressive feat of human ingenuity — will not function apart from your total engagement. To ride well entails the activity of one’s whole self. If the technologies we regularly use are to serve human nature, they should wherever possible be on the model of a bicycle, not an airplane.

But they rarely are. Instead of playing an instrument, we turn on Spotify. Instead of cooking, we order DoorDash. Instead of enjoying the outdoors with a friend, we Snap while strolling. Instead of getting to know a person slowly face to face, we swipe right on Tinder.

Our sin is not pride or lust or even greed. It is acedia. We are listless, lethargic, and lonely. Our hearts are anxious, our minds benumbed, our souls alienated, our bodies sick (Crouch calls metabolic syndrome “the defining illness of our time” and “the hallmark of an inactive life”). And the technology that has so seamlessly integrated itself into our lives in recent decades is almost always near the nerve center of the problem. If it isn’t the source of our ills, then it is their enabler. We need a cultural shift.

Such a shift must begin with a true telling of the technological story. That story has always in part been a quest, not for the benefit of humans, but for power. It is the story of the sorcerer’s apprentice, in which the desire for magic unleashes spirits that cannot be controlled. Crouch thus describes modern technology in terms of the alchemist’s perennial dream for the kind of power that can remake the world as we see fit. This dream is fulfilled in our day; we have come face to face with awesome power — “but it is one that masters us, not the other way around.”

Why? Because the spirit of impersonal power, of the technological superpowers that denude our personhood and deflate our loves, is money. Actually, it’s not just money. Following the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 6:24, Crouch defines money demonically. He calls it Mammon. Mammon is the someone behind and above and suffused within the something of money. It is a power, an agent, with a “will of its own.” Riffing on the title of Kevin Kelly’s 2010 book, What Technology Wants, Crouch writes:

What technology wants is really what Mammon wants: a world of context-free, responsibility-free, dependence-free power measured out in fungible, storable units of value. And ultimately what Mammon wants is to turn a world made for and stewarded by persons into a world made of and reduced to things….

God wishes to put all things into the service of persons and ultimately to bring forth the flourishing of creation through the flourishing of persons. Mammon wants to put all persons into the service of things and ultimately to bring about the exploitation of all of creation.

Crouch never goes quite so far as to say that he is referring to a literal demon who is himself the veiled force at work in our global economic system. He seems to mean something just short of that. But if the spookiness of the suggestion is still a bit much for you, you’re welcome to demythologize it. Just call Mammon by his modern name: Capital.

If the technological world we inhabit is increasingly dehumanizing, then what are we supposed to do? So far I have left unmentioned a structural device Crouch uses in The Life We’re Looking For. At the beginning, middle, and end of the book Crouch invites the reader to sit at a table in the city of Corinth in Greece, about twenty-five years after the crucifixion of Jesus. At this table is St. Paul together with some of his friends: Gaius, his host; Tertius, his scribe; Phoebe, a deaconess; Erastus, the city treasurer; and Quartus, perhaps a household servant. The scene comes from the close of a long letter Paul wrote to the church in Rome; each of these characters makes an appearance or even voices hello in the final chapter of what we call the Epistle to the Romans.

At this table Crouch sees a revolution in embryo. It is a revolution of personhood in an empire of dehumanizing cruelty. At the time, there was no reason for Rome to suspect that Christians were in any way a threat to the imperium. Their leader was crucified and his first followers were eventually hounded, arrested, stoned, beheaded, or likewise crucified. Even when they were tolerated, they did little more than gather together in homes to share a meal, pray, and sing. What could six powerless individuals gathered around a table possibly do to frighten a Caesar?

Yet gather and eat, pray and sing they continued to do, until it was emperors who were kneeling to Christ, and bishops who were baptizing Romans, and communion that was being celebrated in converted pagan temples. Furthermore, the masses of unpersons so labeled by imperial authorities now found themselves recognized and welcomed as whole and equal persons by the church: slaves, women, children, prostitutes — there being, as Paul himself had said, neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for all are one in Christ.

Crouch believes this revolution has lessons for us today. We too live in a decadent empire on the verge of some new epochal moment. We too live in a time of simultaneous social upheaval and political impotence. We too live in a world that makes us unpersons by category (race, gender, class, sexual identity) or by subgroup (the unborn, the disabled, the elderly, the immigrant). Certain categories render one “other”; certain groups render one discardable.

To sit with Paul in Corinth, Crouch argues, is to realize not only that another way is possible, but that it is possible right now. It can be imagined and begun in the present, not on some distant day when we have figured out all the details, set our lives into working order, enacted the right policies and elected the right candidates. That day will never come. What we can do now is sit down, with whoever will join us, and get started. Whether or not a revolution follows, and whether it comes in a decade or in centuries, we will have done what we could do in the time we have been given, which is the only thing we can ask of ourselves.

But we should ask it of ourselves.

Beyond the suggestion of following the example of Paul and the early Christian communities, there are three elements of Crouch’s proposal. First, that we prioritize instruments over devices. Second, that we foster households over families. Third, that we privilege blessing over charm. Together, these three give us a sense of Crouch’s vision for the good life—a life lived neither wholly for nor wholly against the rule of technopoly (to use Neil Postman’s term), not of it yet still in it.

Consider the first element: instruments over devices. Devices are impersonal; they de-place and displace us. They promise much, especially release from drudgery, without revealing what they will take from us or what they will require of us. The cycle is always the same with new gadgets: “It begins with initial excitement, ends in a terminal state of boredom or at least indifference, and along the way delivers a healthy dose of unintended consequences.” As Crouch sees it, the likeliest endgame of artificial intelligence is not Skynet, just “boring robots.”

Instruments, by contrast to devices, make no empty promises; they demand much of us in terms of energetic, intelligent engagement; and they do not entail the loss of healthy habits or human know-how. One example is the telescope. It greatly expands our powers of sight without either pilfering our preexisting practices (we can still walk outside and look up at the stars) or bypassing our agency (only a person with training, knowledge, and skill can use a telescope with any profit).

Another example is one I didn’t expect: an app. Crouch tells the story of his friend Jessica Nam Kim, whom he calls “a serial entrepreneur.” After caring for her mother in her last days of suffering from pancreatic cancer, Kim realized how overwhelming and byzantine the health care system can be even for those most equipped to navigate it. The app that resulted is called ianacare — its first four letters taken from “I am not alone” — and its purpose is to facilitate small networks of local support for family and friends who find themselves in the role of caregivers for loved ones. The app qualifies as an instrument because its scale is fit to persons, it serves human flourishing, it meets a genuine need, and it refuses any incentives that might work against these aims.

From here Crouch moves to household over family. His point is not to downgrade the family; rather, his use of the word “household” is meant to signify exactly what “family” refers to elsewhere in the world as well as in the premodern West. But his thesis is a bold one: “If you are looking for a single proximate cause of the loneliness that is epidemic in our world, it is the dearth of households.” For Crouch, a household is “a community of recognition.” It is both a place and a people, not all or always biologically or legally related, who live under one roof (or nearly so), who know one another intimately and love one another anyway. Such an intensely shared communal life impinges on our autonomy, and that is precisely the point. As he writes, “for some people, the quiet of a room of one’s own has turned into the isolation of a screen of one’s own. Even when we are in the same room, we may rarely fully see and be seen by another face.”

To see and to be seen reminds us that our personhood is not an achievement or an open possibility but a gift given just in virtue of being alive. To suppose otherwise is to fall victim to the lure of the charm. Charm, for Crouch, is the accidents of good fortune: health, wealth, and external appearances. Charm is the Instagram feed of your best life now. Charm is what influencers are selling you. Charm is what prosperity preachers are selling you, too.

Charm is not blessing. Blessing is the gratuity of existence, in all its unalterable fragility. The good life, then — a common life of persons linked together by and in households of recognition and mutual care — is defined not by one’s accomplishments but by being known, whatever one’s capacities, deeds, beliefs, or virtues. Whereas Mammon has no part for the “unuseful” to play, Crouch argues that any society, great or small, that does not go out of its way to honor the unimpressive and the needy — “the least of these,” in Jesus’s words — is compromised at the source. A boy with Down syndrome, an elderly widow, a man with advanced dementia, a girl in a wheelchair: these are not unproductive cogs in a machine, gumming up the works of the economy. They are esteemed members of the beloved community.

Technology has the potential to serve this community. The care we offer to vulnerable, hurting, or dependent persons — which we must remember includes every one of us at some or even all moments of our lives — often employs wisely devised instruments: walkers and scooters, ramps and elevators, feeding tubes and catheters, hearing aids and closed captioning. These are tools that empower. They have dignity as their end. They are acts of technological hospitality, expanding outward the circle of our life together in order to avoid, insofar as possible, excluding persons who belong with and among us.

But technology in the service of Mammon — of magic, charm, and superpowers — is deliberately inhospitable. The unuseful are unproductive, and when value is indexed to efficiency, the unproductive are found to be in the way. Far from aiding us at the beginning and end of our lives, when we are most vulnerable and dependent, our technology instead deals death. We suppose dignity is something that can be lost with age, and so death with dignity must be death chosen and administered by the self before we cross that invisible threshold. We imagine life with Trisomy 21 too atypical or unbearable to be worth it, and so we “cure” the “problem” of Down syndrome through prenatal testing and abortion. The circle of our life together is thereby diminished. The contraction is never complete, though. The circle keeps shrinking. Before we know it, there’s no one left inside.

There is a revealing moment late in the book when Crouch writes the following:

To rebuild households would begin to undermine Mammon itself. If we lived this way together, we would begin to fundamentally change our economy in the most literal sense and eventually change the structure of economic life more broadly — what we value, measure, and reward. To begin this kind of economic restoration does not require us to change the practices of Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, or the European Central Bank — or even to know, exactly, what ought to replace them. We just (just!) have to redirect our energies away from Mammon’s domain and turn toward a realm where Mammon has nothing to offer. And then we need to invite others to join us under that new shelter.

This approach is consistent across the book. The radical change to which Crouch is calling the reader begins with an audience of one: you. In the words of Rilke: You must change your life. From the individual are born small households of resistance, not unlike the home of Gaius, Paul’s host in Corinth, and these in turn become cells of moral and social revolution measured in centuries and millennia, not weeks or years, or election cycles. For Crouch, the arrow of change runs from the imagination to the culture to the material world; without following this sequence, “even genuine quests for a renewed kind of community can be hijacked.”

The best-known name for this view is the Benedict Option. Call it the Tech-Wise BenOp. Not the popular caricature, mind you, but the real article. In a postmodern, post-Christian, re-paganized world of tech run amok and the gift of personhood called into question, Crouch wants us — where “us” means not only Christians but all women and men of good will — to create and to join local incubators of virtuous habits, aesthetic excellence, shared possessions, hospitality, and technological noncooperation. But instead of looking to St. Benedict, Crouch would have us imitate St. Paul; instead of monasteries, he holds up households; instead of retreat from the city, he wants us to stay put.

But the idea is the same, and the proposal is a sensible one. It may be the best one on offer, at least for those who share Crouch’s diagnosis of the situation. It does raise a few questions, though.

First: Whom is this for? I don’t mean which community — religious, national, or other. I mean: Does this vision apply to any but the valiant few? The examples Crouch offers are of people one can’t help but deeply admire. But far from inspiring, they take the wind out of one’s sails. Must one be that virtuous, even entrepreneurial, to survive the perils of technopoly? If so, we are doomed. Salvation must be for normies, not heroes.

Or maybe I do mean which community, for the Christian lens of the book also raises a basic ambiguity. Is the life we’re looking for, the life of flourishing that Crouch compellingly elaborates, a life available to all persons, from every walk of life? Or is it principally a life found in, even made possible by, the Christian community? The ambiguity may be productive, but it is not resolved by the time one closes the book.

Next, the scale of Crouch’s vision does not match the scale of the problem. If his description of the challenge we face is accurate — and I believe it is — then it is difficult to see how a tiny network of tiny household-communities can possibly resist the power of that unholy marriage of Mammon and Digital. Imagine you are stuck for a weekend in a small, windowless room with a hundred other people. A third of you have Omicron. Not one of you is vaccinated. What difference would it make if three people put on a mask? Practically none.

The technological forces bearing down on us are, like the pandemic, global, invisible, and highly contagious. Nothing short of a response equal in size and scope has any chance of making a difference. I freely admit: Perhaps such a response is impossible, either in principle or not without grave injustice. If so, we must indeed follow Paul and Benedict alike, hunkering down for the long defeat and hoping for generational transformation in the long run. That, however, is a seriously dispiriting thought.

In what way and by what means social transformation occurs, though, is the third question, and it is an empirical one: Does change run from the local, individual imagination to the cultural, and thence to the material and political? I’m not so sure, at least not as a rule. Sometimes politics is downstream from culture, and sometimes it runs the other way. In both cases, I am persuaded by James Davison Hunter, for example in his book To Change the World, that it is networks of elites whose influence trickles down into both culture and politics. This is the very problem we are considering: Who’s running the show, and how can we give them the boot?

Let me put it this way: In The Life We’re Looking For, not one word is out of place; there isn’t a single untruth in its pages. But another way to say this is that none of its words or pages has rough edges. At times one senses Crouch nearly pitching into religious or revolutionary fervor, only to draw back, smoothing out the potential bumps in the rhetoric. Calm wins. Should it, though? At times I longed for the text to leap out with something more: more political, more ecclesial, more reactionary, more defeatist, more metaphysical. I conjured the image of Andy Crouch as Howard Beale, finally reaching his breaking point, telling us all to rise from our seats, stick our heads out our windows, and yell, I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!

As it stands, the book brings to mind some recent radical critiques of technological society, like those of Byung-Chul Han, Paul Kingsnorth, and Wendell Berry. For example, Crouch writes that few read Berry “without wondering if we should simply roll back the whole modern project — if we could.” Aye, there’s the rub. He continues: “Perhaps it is not entirely too late to change course — not to reverse course, but to choose a different vision.” The unanswered question, though, is who the agent of this choice is. My household? My church? My city? My state? My country? The implicit answer of the book is the smallest unit possible: my household. And we have seen why. In the distant past, Christian households of powerless persons not only persevered in the face of ostracism and persecution; they eventually transformed an empire. In the present, the commanding heights of law, culture, and technology are united against the ordinary flourishing of persons as persons. Besides, it is their impersonal character as a mass phenomenon that lies at the root of the problem in the first place. To counter one top-down hegemon with another would be a difference only in degree. Crouch believes we need a difference in kind. Start by gathering around a table in your household, and see what happens.

The counsel is wise. But I worry that it understates the problem we face, particularly the extent to which it has infiltrated, and is already integrated with, each of our households. For Crouch agrees that the evils of Mammon and Digital and Acedia amount to something like a globalized conglomerate or racket. Before such an overwhelming power, how could my household be in a position to “choose a different vision,” even for its own members? We are too beholden to the economic and digital realities of modern life — too dependent on credit, too anxious about paying the rent, too distracted by Twitter, too reliant on Amazon, too deadened by Pornhub — to be in a position to opt for an alternative vision, much less to realize that one exists. We’ve got ends to meet. And at the end of the day, binging Netflix numbs the stress with far fewer consequences than opioids.

This is the burnout society, as Han calls it; or the Machine, in the label of Kingsnorth, who learned it from R. S. Thomas. We are sick. It would be unfair to fault Crouch for lacking the cure. The terrifying fact may be that there is none. Moreover, Crouch insists as a matter of principle that the life he commends to us is a life worth living for its own sake, not because it will Change The World. He is right about that. He is right as well to warn against the temptation to look for a magical elixir in the manner of the alchemist. That way lies danger: the quest for power to match the might of Mammon. As he writes, most people who want to influence the culture want to be a force, whereas “Jesus calls us to be a taste.” The book succeeds in offering us a taste, and it is unquestionably a taste of the good life. Whether that life is truly available to most of us, and how, is another matter.

What we need, to borrow a term from Jonathan Lear, is radical hope. Hope, in the sense that we believe or confess that beyond the dead end in which we find ourselves lies something better; radical, in the sense that at present we know not on what grounds we decide for such hope. Must such hope be reserved only for the life of the world to come? That, too, is a crucial question, and a troubling one.

Brad East, “Can We Be Human in Meatspace?,” The New Atlantis, Number 69, Summer 2022, pp. 81–92.
First published online on May 2, 2022.
Header image: Yew Hui Tan via Pexels

Delivered to your inbox:

Humane dissent from technocracy

Exhausted by science and tech debates that go nowhere?