Nurturing Our Relationships in a Digital World

In the first two installments of this three-part series on the role of technology in our lives, I addressed practical questions: How do we help kids navigate a technological world? How do we discern what technology to adopt? There are also fundamental philosophical questions that new technology raises that often go unaddressed: How does technology change our understanding of what it is to be human? What assumptions does digital technology carry about what makes a good life? Our answers to these deeper questions silently guide the choices and habits we embrace in our daily lives.

My friend Andy Crouch has thought deeply about these and other questions raised by our increasingly technological world. He is the partner for theology and culture at Praxis, a Manhattan-based organization that helps start and grow nonprofits and for-profit businesses that are committed to social change and repair. He is the author of five books, including “Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling” and “The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place.” I spoke with him about his most recent book, “The Life We’re Looking For: Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World,” which was published last year. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Why did you write a book about technology and recovering relationships?

In “The Life We’re Looking For,” I define a person as a heart-soul-mind-strength complex designed for love. The world we’ve built using technology is less and less good for the most important thing about us, which is our design for love. From the moment we come into the world, what we are most looking for, most in need of, most designed to learn to give and receive from others, is love — intimate, profound, mutual relationships of giving and receiving, even at great cost to ourselves. That is truly what love is. In the psychiatrist Curt Thompson’s beautiful phrase, we’re all “looking for someone looking for us.” None of us were born looking for a screen. We were all born looking for a face.

Are you pitting love and technology against each other? I think some might say that technology connects us to real relationships. Are these communities online real?

There’s something real about mediated relationships. But I think that all mediated relationships generate a hunger for full presence. When we read a great book, we want to meet the author. When we hear a great interview on the radio, we would like to meet the interviewer and the interviewee if we could. And to the extent that relationships start online, they generate a hunger to be present in person, as they should.

It’s relatively rare that I hear someone say, “I would rather be friends with these people online than in person.” What I hear is, “I do not have anyone in person who attends to me the way that this online community does. And if I could be with them in person, I would, but I can’t.” It’s less a validation of the intrinsic good of a mediated relationship as a recognition of the failure of the immediate relationships around people that cause them to take refuge in online communities.

And it’s striking how social media is trending away from relational engagement. The whole premise of Facebook, including its name, was that you saw the faces of people you had known at some stage in your life and you continued that originally immediate relationships in mediated ways. Then we got things like Twitter where you are very likely to encounter people you’ve never met and engage with them. Now TikTok is celebrity driven. It’s a one-way relationship between the performer and a very large audience who is aggregated through algorithms, not through any kind of lasting community. So the trend of what’s best for the social media platforms — the most revenue generating, the most attention generating — is not toward greater community online. It’s toward greater and greater performance, celebrity and influence.

I was fascinated by the part of your book where you discuss the idea of magic and how it relates to technology. When people think of magic, they often think of fantasy or perhaps archaic beliefs. Technology seems like the opposite of that — it’s scientific, modern. So how is technology like a quest for magic?

The fundamental dream behind our technology is impersonal power, power that does not require us to be in relationships with persons to get things done in the world, power over nature and other people that operates independently of relationship with nature or people. This can be traced back to the ancient dream of magic, which was the dream of command of the world and command of other people, of seeing change happen in the world without having to change ourselves. What if I could have an effect in the world by waving a wand, putting on the sorcerer’s hat or learning a spell? That would be an extraordinary kind of power, since most changes I want to see actually require me to change.

In pretechnological times, to get certain kinds of work done, I or somebody had to become a strong person. Or we had to find an animal that was strong and develop a relationship with that animal such that it would do the work for us. To do that requires you to grow and change in profound ways.

But now a machine will do it. Someone else will build a whole technological system that will get done what I want done in the world. I don’t have to change at all. Now I can press a button, and something happens. That is the dream of magic.

So what are the downsides of this quest for magic or effortless power?

There are things that our technology and our pursuit of this dream of magic are undermining — our relationships with each other, with our institutions. We’re missing the development of persons. Our capacities in the world — our physical strength, our heart, soul, mind and capacity for love — these things matter more than we realize for getting the good that we really need in the world.

Technology often undermines the development of relationships and of bodies. It is a delicious dream that a button press away is whatever I want. But the flip side of that dream is the dwindling of my actual knowledge and capacity in the world.

Before, if you wanted music, either you or someone you physically knew had to make it. Now you just have Spotify or YouTube Music or Apple Music, and music fills your home. But there are no people you have relationships with who have actually cultivated the life of a musician. Whereas it used to be that if you wanted music in your house, someone in the house had to have cultivated the life of a musician. So there’s this dwindling.

The second thing I would say is that it tremendously increases the fragility of our lives and decreases the resilience of our lives. If I’m now dependent on this vast technological system to give me what I want, with no effort or change on my part, that also means that I’m kind of at the mercy of this vast system that I actually know very little about and that I have very little ability to affect. I am purely a consumer. Magic is an illusion. Our sensation of magic is purchased with the toil of people who we have no relationship with and never see — and at the limit, a kind of degradation of other people who I will never see and never feel responsible for.

Talk to me about artificial intelligence and your concerns about it. How will this tool affect our humanity?

I think there are two paths ahead for what we call A.I.

The most likely path is the path technology has taken so far, which in the book I call “boring robots.” The idea here is that before any given technology is fully implemented, we think it is going to transform human existence. And when it actually arrives, we find it’s far more boring, far more banal than we projected. Ten years from now, we will look back on the furor about the G.P.T. models and kind of laugh at how excited we were. I think we’re going to find they’re kind of boring in the way that your dishwasher or your Roomba is boring or that in a certain sense, your smartphone is boring. Of course, it’s given us tremendous power. It’s also done a lot of damage. But the damage is not because it’s so powerful; it’s because of what we dream it will do.

There is another possibility: not boring robots but the sorcerer’s apprentice. This is where the broom that you want to do your work takes over, develops a mind of its own and heads off in its own trajectory. And I don’t think it’s totally out of the question that these A.I. models could, as Geoffrey Hinton and others worry they will, start to operate quite independently of what we ask them to do.

Digital technology is everywhere now. I recently wrote about a kind of technological fatalism that sets in. Is there a way to fight to preserve our humanity amid technological changes?

I do not believe we have to wind back the clock to a time when we didn’t have these capabilities. Because I think we can redirect and redesign them in ways that actually are good for heart, soul, mind and strength complexes designed for love. In the book, I talk about this as pursuing the way of instruments rather than the way of devices. Because instruments — scientific instruments, medical instruments, maybe most beautifully musical instruments — can be very high tech, in that they have a lot of complexity. They draw on science and industry and so forth. But instruments, by definition, are used by human beings in ways that require quite a lot of skill and engagement and human presence. So the first thing is to get back on the track that we were on for millenniums as human beings, which is the development of tools, tools being things that we employ to extend our capabilities in the world but without disengaging us and without this dream of magic or effortless power.

The beautiful thing in some ways about the smartphone, for example, is that my robotic vacuum will never do anything but vacuum instead of me. But my smartphone can be an instrument in that I can decide every time I pick it up whether I’m going to use it in a way that actually develops my heart, soul, mind and strength that is subordinate to and for the purposes of love.

If I pick up my smartphone and I develop a relationship with people I’ll never meet — influencers and celebrities — by watching videos, that diminishes me. But if I pick up my smartphone and I call my daughter or FaceTime her, that activates love and relationship. Basically, it’s using the thing to more deeply engage with the world rather than to retreat from my investment in the world.

And don’t give up on neuroplasticity. We have been rewired to be dependent on these things, but we can rewire again if we choose to put some limits on how we use them. And when you go through any big rewiring, whether it’s learning to play an instrument or detoxing from a dependence, you go through this stage of dysregulation and difficulty where it’s really hard because your brain has become accustomed to operating in a certain way. But on the other side of that is a much better way. It’s so worth it.

Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and the author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”

Have feedback? Send me a note at [email protected].

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