11 min read

This is an outstanding book, and one that I think every person in our society could benefit from slowly reading, pondering, and reflecting in light of their own experience. Crouch’s exposition of the problem we find ourselves in (Ch. 1-6) is the best I’ve read in its simply clarity and penetrating insight. Some of his recommendations for redemption (Ch. 8-11) may be a little far-fetched, but he offers some nice vignettes into the possibilities of rethinking the way we engage technology and other people. I especially appreciated the device vs instrument distinction in Chapter 9.

Chapter 1 - What we thought we wanted: The loneliness of a personalized world

  • After framing the discussion around the newborn’s instinctive search for faces to focus on, and the critical role personal faces play in our development, Crouch discusses the role of technology in simultaneously increasing personalization in every aspect of lie while also creating an epidemic of loneliness.
  • In a society that has succumbed to the impersonal, our deepest desire is personhood - both to encounter it and to have it recognized in us.
  • The meetings of the early Christians will be instructive in knowing how we can reclaim this.

Recognition is the primary task of infancy. (1)

Is it coincidence, or just a kind of grand irony, that loneliness has spiked just as our media became “social”, our technology became “personal,” and our machines learned to recognize our faces (12)

Chapter 2 - Heart, Soul, Mind, Strength: What we’ve forgotten about being a person

  • In our crowded deserts, we often lose sight of the fact that every person we encounter is an image bearer and a person, and taking a moment to contemplate it is impactful.
  • Personhood cannot be taken away from us, although we can often be treated as less than persons.
  • A great exposition of the Shema to draw out the nature of our humanity:
    • Heart -> driven by passion and sincerity
    • Soul -> a depth of being that us uniquely “us”
    • Mind -> Capable of thinking and reasoning and evaluating our world, reflecting
    • Strength -> Our “moreness,” both physical and otherwise, putting our all in We are born with these and exercise them but as we grow, we experience alienation and seek for ways to make up for that sense of loss of recognition of our personhood.

As long as you have been and as long as you will be, you are a person… while nothing can truly take away our personhood, only another person can fully give it to us… It is when another person’s face and voice recognizes us, not for what we can offer them (exploitation) but for what we intrinsically are (contemplation), that we know who we are…” (29)

Love calls out the best in us - it awakens our hearts, it stirs up the depths of our souls, it focuses our minds, it arouses our bodies to action and passion… Of all the creatures on earth, we are by far the most dependent, the most relational, the most social, and the most capable of care. When we love, we are most fully and distinctively ourselves. (35)

Chapter 3 - The superpower zone: How we trade personal growth for effortless power

  • Contrasting the experience of being in the zone vs tech-enabled superpower. One is energizing and fulfilling, the other draining and disappointing.
  • Using the analogy of athletes who focus on a particular area of their body and end up with serious deficiencies, so also we have a tendency to atrophy so many areas of our soul because we have traded in the exercise for cheap superpowers.
  • Note: This is the quintessential modern problem, which is accelerated and exacerbated in our hyper-digital age. In effect, what we’re experiencing now is the mental and social form of depletion through technology advance that earlier generations experienced with respect to physical labor and transportation. Perhaps because we didn’t appreciate that a good part of the value of a trip is the journey, we have sold our birthright for a cup of porridge. I’m reminded of my initial reactions to the idea of self-driving cars - while the idea of a long commute that could be productively spent focusing on something else was appealing for me, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I’m losing something in the process, some part of me that enjoys driving. I think this holds with any number of our advances that “save time” or “automate the process.” Search engines reduce the need to read and research or to memorize. ChatGPT-like technologies may just help alleviate the need to learn or problem solve at all, but to what cost? Certainly, the answer cannot be no technology, since it is a tool at our disposal to further human flourishing. More and more, I think the Amish have the right idea, even if I differ on the decisions they’ve made - what are the ways this technology will impact us? Based on the answer to that question, we can decide whether it’s something the community should adopt. It’s interesting to think through examples in my life that abound illustrating this principle. Bible software, which puts a searchable, indexed library of resources at my fingertips - the promise was that it would supercharge my Bible study efforts, but the reality is I don’t think I have nearly as much depth of thought and slow meditation on a passage and its difficulties as I did when it was a more manual process. I’m sure not everyone’s experience is the same, but it certainly feels that way for me. The hyper-media age has removed some of the human experience of such activities as watching live sports, or going to the video store to pick a movie for the weekend. While I realize that even these things are a technological leap from the generation before, it’s one I can point to that I received eagerly but upon reflection lament the personal element that was lost.

Chapter 4 - Modern Magic: The ancient roots of our Tech Obsession

  • Modern technologists are carrying forward the work of the ancient alchemists. The goal is not to understand the world but to control it, and in the process to achieve god-like qualities.
  • The promise is the same and it’s equally as delusional.
  • The alchemists set to conjure spirits to aid them in their quest but the spirits never tend to follow orders.
  • The dream for this power is so strong that we’re willing to treat people as machines in order to achieve it.

Quoting Arthur C. Clark -

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” (60)

The alchemists considered themselves to be performing magic - not in the sense of impressive or charming tricks but in the sense of unlocking and acquiring the ability to command nature. (66)

It’s amazing how often Clarke’s dictum is quoted with unironic reverence, as a genuine guide to the direction that the human race should go. In fact, anyone who really understood the distorting history of magic - its tendency to displace God, its quest to enslave nature, its recurring obsession with fashioning beings to serve the magician, and above all its stunningly consistent failure to actually deliver on its promises - would hope that a sufficiently advanced technology would be readily distinguishable from magic. (69)

Chapter 5 - Money and Mammon: How Impersonal Power Rules Our World

  • Money, and the power that comes with it, encompassed by the word Mammon, is the functional fulfillment of the alchemists dream. Without relationship, without dependence, and without effort, I can bend the world to my will.
  • Mammon was perceived by the early church as the demonic force behind money and power. This is perceptive, as it is the anti-God and drives us further from human flourishing.
  • Technology is fundamentally in service of Mammon. It is commercial profit that drives the direction of technology change and human flourishing, when it happens, is a happy side effect but hardly necessary. Technology/Mammon will pursue what it wants regardless.
  • The alternative is to pursue technology that emphasizes relationships, interdependence, and cultivation of human persons.

Chapter 6 - Boring Robots: Why the next tech revolution will succeed (and fail)

  • New technologies arrive, and they do change things, but in the end they don’t really change things. They become boring and become part of the background of our lives, which are still fundamentally human. This reality is most apparent by looking to the past and considering the present from their perspective. We are fundamentally unchanged, although many side effects are introduced in the process. The future we fear, where we are integrated into machines, is already basically here.
  • Great observation that truly autonomous machines require machine-like environments, and the more conditions are optimal for humanity, the more difficult they are for autonomous machines.
  • The push by mammon will be to create more inhospitable spaces for autonomous machines, removing elements of personhood from our lives.
  • The dirty little secret in many amazing tech companies is that they are only able to do their work on the backs of thousands of human beings. Even artificial intelligence like OpenAI has had to pay tens of thousands of Africans to moderate the disgusting stuff its models generate. Crouch talks about the social media moderators as the garbage collectors of our digital age.
  • The humans driving these systems are often treated like robots.

Speaking of how a great-great grandparent would be awestruck by the technology we take for granted today (dishwasher, robot vacuum) and assume life is leisure-filled.

It would be so deflating to tell my ancestor the truth: Robots have arrived, and I am no more fulfilled. I am quite happy to have a dishwasher, but having one has not change me in notable ways. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if not having one would have had a more significant effect… Robots, it turns out, are amazing - but only before they arrive. (90-91)

We speculate about future ‘cyborgs’, organic beings enmeshed in digital systems, without realizing that in all the most important ways, we already are cyborgs… The boosters of a future singularity urge us to cast the next spell, while the detractors warn us about its dire consequences. But the spell that really counts has been cast. The singularity, such as it is, has already arrived. (93-94)

Maybe instead of trying to reengineer human cognition in silicon… we will realize it is far more cost effective to achieve our desired end of increasing the supply of available intelligence, to simply… make babies. (99)

Peer behind the curtain of any quasi-magical technology, and you find toil. (108)

Chapter 7 - Intermission: The Body of the Messiah in the Emperor’s Court

  • Contrasting the very impersonal and slave-driven Romans world, with the community of Christians we find represented in Paul’s letter, including his scribe taking dictation - a man named Tertius (third), indicating his insignificance, and Phoebe, who had the honor of bringing Paul’s letter to the Romans.

Chapter 8 - Existing the Empire: Redemptive Moves for an Impersonal Age

  • Just as the early Christians were subjects of the Romans Empire, today we’re are all subjects of a larger empire called Mammon.
  • The world is obsessed with making an impact - a force that brings about radical change rapidly. The example of Jesus and the Christians is about patient influence over a long period of time. Today’s magical devices wear out in a year or two and end up in a landfill. We are called to be like the olive trees of the middle east that take 8 years before bearing fruit and lives for thousands of years.

Chapter 9 - From Devices to Instruments: Truly Personal Technology

  • Technology offers benefits with tradeoffs:
    • Now you’ll be able to … <-> Now you’ll have to …
    • Now you won’t have to … <-> Now you won’t be able to …
  • Distinguishing between devices and instruments. Devices facilitate the benefits with varying degrees of the tradeoffs, instruments generally offer the benefits w/o adding much in the way of the tradeoffs.
  • There may be no going back, but can we rethink going forward to focus on solving human problems, and fostering relationship and creative outlets.

Chapter 10 - From Family to Household: Living Together as Persons

  • Households are the fundamental community
  • Not simply family because common place is critical and it may include non-family. Do you have people who know you day to day on an intimate level.
  • Not simply living together but sharing responsibility and fellowship.

You are part of a household if there is someone who knows where you are today and who as at least some sense of how it feels to be where you are. You are part of a household if there is someone who moves more quietly when they know you are asleep. You are part of a household if someone would check on you if you did not awaken. (153 - and much more beyond on 154)

Chapter 11 - From Charmed to Blessed: The Community of the Unuseful

  • Charmed - everything goes well and no problems from a health or prosperity view
  • Blessed - The deep joy of communion w/ God and others in the midst of suffering
  • Forming communities where we don’t sideline those who cannot contribute economically may help us to be more robust, truly blessed and truly human.