In the spirit of full disclosure it’s not uncommon for a movie, play, or even a novel to choke me up but for a non-fiction treatise to bring me to tears is indeed a rare thing. Add to this the fact that I’ve never written a book review and a kind of ‘caveat emptor’ may be in order as I begin.
The Life We’re Looking For is only the most recent installment in Andy Crouch’s long-running discussion of technology, society, and faith, especially how the former can erode the foundations of the latter. But where books like The Tech-Wise Family focus on practical steps for a thoughtful soul-seeking technological balance, his new book borders on a manifesto and for all the best reasons.
The book is full of vibrant and useful metaphors that invite us all into a more insightful discussion of modern life but I will focus on just a few. Central to the book is its exploration of ‘personhood’ and the ways in which technology can amplify or attenuate our individual or collective expression and experience of such. By Crouch’s definition any technology that stifles or restricts our fullness of personhood, namely the “heart, soul, mind, and strength” that Jesus requires we bring to our love of God, diminishes our humanity and ought to be treated with appropriate caution. He invites us to distinguish such technologies by calling them “tools.” Contrarily, any technology that enhances extends, or deepens our personhood he calls “instruments.”
As a point of illustration consider a bicycle. Riding a bike requires our attention and tests our strength. When we’re done, we realize that the experience required something from us as a person and returned something life-giving in the process. But this is not merely ‘work’ for the sake of physical exercise. A bicycle extends and amplifies human capacity as one of the most energy-efficient modes of transportation available.
Now compare that experience to “riding” in an airplane. In the most superficial and mechanical ways, an airplane beats a bike in speed, capacity, and range but is costly to the rider.. To board a plane is to confine ourselves to very little motion in very little space for as long as the mechanical magic carpet requires to reach its destination. Our tastebuds fade. Our hearing, or rather our listening, contracts. Our strength isn’t only unnecessary, it’s strongly discouraged. To ride a bike is to become more alive. To ride in a modern passenger airplane is to endure a little death.
This dichotomy — how any given technology might empower or enslave us — is central to another poignant metaphor from the book, the ancient allure of magic. For Crouch, the way technology is typically sold sounds too much like the lure of Mephistopheles to be accidental. The tech-fueled pitches of “superpowers” or “peak performance” almost always come at a cost of our real strength –, our human powers –, and in time erode our souls. The seduction of magic is always an offer of power without work, knowledge without learning, and desired results without the risk, mess, and unpredictability of relying on other human beings. All too often, that is the same offer being made by the newest ‘magical’ gadgets, and with the same disappointing results. After seeing all the Devil had to offer him Faust ends his tale…bored. All the magic, all the power, all the knowledge were ultimately dissatisfying; Crouch points out the analogous experience we’ve all had with one more iPhone, another kitchen marvel, or the newest coffee alchemy.
And surely, ‘alchemy’ is the right word. Arthur C. Clark famously quipped that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ The book points out something about this quote I’d never noticed. I’ve always read it as a celebration of the unlimited potential of technology to do amazing things. But another, darker view is equally valid. Where “science gave us the tools, alchemy gave us the dream.” When combined we can see that the more advanced a technology becomes, the more likely it carries the same burdens, the same risks, and the same Faustian calculus, namely the potential to lose our personhood, AKA, our very souls.
I was about halfway through the book when I had the opportunity to speak to Andy and look a little deeper into his research and intentions for The Life We’re Looking For and came to realize that for all the well-articulated thoughts in the book, there is still much, much more on his mind. Consider this statement by Andy in our conversation:
“We are persons in a personal world but we have dreamed of impersonal power in an impersonal world…based on an impersonal cosmology.”
For Andy, the notion of becoming “impersonal” is not merely a human matter, but also a spiritual one. Whenever we forsake other people we are stepping out of the heavenly order. When we neglect or disconnect from our neighbor we are neglecting God. And yet, the profound social fragmentation facilitated and encouraged by our technology, is increasingly “the inescapable cultural reality of the West.”
At one point in our conversation, Andy noted that “technology wants something from us” and I felt a chill go down my spine. To think of Technology as an entity reminded me of Jesus’ warning about Mammon, a seemingly intentional personification of wealth that also seeks our allegiance and threatens our souls.
It’s worth noting that Andy is not the only person writing on this topic. The late Dallas Willard, John Eldredge, and John Mark Comer have all taken their turn tolling this bell, and share a similarly sobering prognosis. On the other hand, there are many enthusiastic futurists and transhumanists who think the eventual transcendence of our mortal coils and the ensuing singularity couldn’t happen soon enough.
For all this, in the end, Andy comes away optimistic about our future, at least in the long term. While much of the West is willingly feeding more and more of its humanity in service of impersonal ‘tools,’ fortunately there is parallel growth in humanizing ‘instruments through wise application of science and technology. Without question, the scientific endeavor and its attendant technological advances have brought immeasurable good to the world and lessened human suffering by a staggering amount. The Life We’re Looking For is in no way a screed against technology, but rather a call to diligently avoid compromising ourselves on the altar of convenience.
I started this review by noting how this book made me cry, twice It’s worth a few additional words to explain why. What struck me so much was the deep sense of compassion in a book about technology. It is a book full of touching stories, slices of life, and Andy’s own reflections on the ways in which his life has succeeded or failed to maintain his own personhood in the midst of urban American life. The book is so full of well-rendered people, and their various lives that it regularly touched my heart in ways I was unprepared for. Several of these stories tugged at my heart, sometimes powerfully, and one, in particular, brought me to tears. Read the book and see if you have a similar experience.
Of course, it also helps that Andy writes beautifully; at times his prose approaches poetry. I was often struck by a particularly lucid turn of phrase and as word-nerdy, as it may sound, it was the beauty of a particular passage that made me cry the second time. Don’t judge me.
To wrap this up, The Life Were Looking For comes to us at an important time in human development. For people of faith, it asks us, in the most winsome way, to stay mindful of our incarnate humanity and to be wary of the intoxicating allure of each new and improved release from the increasingly influential world of BigTech. It’s a powerful, insightful, and charming book.
Thank you, Andy Crouch.
Editor’s Note: The Life We’re Looking For will be released to all major book outlets on April 19. We’re pleased that author Andy Crouch recently joined our AI and Faith expert community as an Advisor.