Open Thread: The Unmachined Coffee House
Questions, reflections, discussion, and FPR conference recordings
Note: For those of you who prefer to read off paper (as I do), I have added a pdf version of yesterday’s article (see link at top of post). If you have not had time to read it yet: Enjoy and discuss!
“To begin with, we fully acknowledge that it is an oxymoron to meet online to discuss “unmachining”.”
-Ruth and Peco’s opening to the Unmachined Coffee House
We face a conundrum. We recognize the need to step away from dehumanizing technology, yet it can serve as a scaffold to help us connect and find a way through an age of upheaval together. Last Saturdayand I had the pleasure of hosting The Unmachined Coffee House, where we had subscribers from all over the world join us, ranging across the US from Seattle to New York, the UK, and even Australia. While it was a far cry from actually sitting around a café table with each other, it was wonderful to put faces to names and engage in lively conversation. We had three special guests, , and , who reported on various talks given at the Front Porch Republic Conference.
We have summarized some of the discussion questions that were raised by attendants, and would like to open the floor to you to add your reflections in the comment section. I have numbered the questions (although they are not listed in any particular order of importance), so that you can refer to them more easily in the discussion.
In the days after the meeting, Hadden, Dixie, Tessa, and I continued our conversation via e-mail and they have kindly agreed to let me share some of our exchanges with you.
Finally, I have also included links to the video recordings of the FPR conference talks. I was so pleased to learn that they had been posted in their entirety and I hope that you will take time to delve into them. The talks would certainly make for a great conversation starter for gatherings with friends and family! Be sure to listen to Tessa Carmen’s talk “The Joy of Tech Resistance”, which she discussed during our meeting.
Discussion Questions - Please chime in your thoughts!
How do we define what “tech” is, and how do we talk about these concerns with others who don’t know anything about it?
How do we address the loneliness caused by social media?
How do we talk about the negative impacts of digital technology without being pigeonholed into a political ideology?
How do we talk about the negative impacts of digital technology without coming off as pessimists?
What are we to do if we live in a city and are not interested in agrarian life?
Why do solutions seem to overly focus on traditional life styles and a return to Amish-style living? Are there solutions for others who are not interested in this type of life?
What can we do if we are not surrounded by like-minded people?
Are most of the people concerned about the Machine conservative/ Christian? If so, does it have to be this way?
How can we demonstrate a different way of living?
What are examples of anti-Machine behavior that might prompt others to reexamine their own technology use?
The Conversation Continues…
After our meeting Dixie, Hadden, Tessa, and I continued our conversation via e-mail (thus these are not polished essay-type insights but are more conversational in nature). The following are some excerpts that may offer some additional food for thought:asked:
One thing on my mind following our conversation is the question of tech resistance for more private or introverted people, those for whom conviviality is indeed necessary but who do not do well hosting or socializing to the degree we were discussing. I worry that this kind of person will feel exhausted by our excitement about togetherness and the exchange of ideas and hosting and reaching out.
Those of our friends and family who are introverted tend to be very open to attending the play readings/music nights/all-ages feast days we host and are sometimes the most loyal attendees (and sometimes the large gatherings are where it's easier to find a quiet place to chat one-on-one!). So a couple thoughts:
1) Perhaps it's even more incumbent on us hosting types to invite others who may not express how much they'd be interested in a gathering, but who are quietly yearning for more (I quite enjoy dabbling in friend-matchmaking); but also
2) there's so many different kinds of gathering and socializing! One crying need is for the sort of gathering where men in particular get together and simply build or fix things—where talk is naturally kept to a minimum. This is also one lovely thing about campfire-type or pub-type gatherings: there's room for folks to chat but also to sit quietly and whittle and look at the fire. Of course, part of the challenge here is that it's so hard to recover ordinary human interactions, like a friend dropping by a friend's porch just to sit quietly together, since so much of our overscheduled/built environment works against it (though all the more reason to be creative with what we're given!).
How do you deal with/mitigate the time when children are inevitably exposed to screen technology, especially the time when as a parent one is not around? It is increasingly hard (esp in England) to keep children 'shielded' (is that the right word?) from tech and tech-free communities are even harder to find than in US. I ask this in particular as I have in my memory a dear family who tried to do tech-free and I saw what happened when their kids were exposed to tech – they were hooked and captivated -- it was as if they had no natural immunity to tech. So how do new prepare children for a tech-immersed world/the time when they are exposed for the first time?
Perhaps there a few categories we could give initially, the worldview categories (admittedly simplistic, but hopefully helpful) I was raised with: Do we 1) accept culture/the world, 2) reject culture/the world, 3) or make culture?
Too often the first category involves a mindless acceptance of whatever junk is the going thing—since, after all, can't everything be redeemed, it's asked? The second category, a sort of complete shielding from something or other, is no better, and you only attempt that sort of purist experiment if have a non-classical view of human nature. But if humans are born persons, and our task as parents is to raise flourishing persons who are made in the image of God and are therefore sub-creators themselves (even without a Christian worldview I think you can make the case we are made to make things), and that we need to grow into the ability to freely choose the good, then that means any all-or-nothing conception of child-raising just won't work.
Both (1) and (2) are improper to the human being, since one entirely gives over personal sovereignty to the zeitgeist, and the other encourages a kind of control over other persons that can simply become the other side of the coin—no human person can be controlled by another person. (But that doesn't keep cults and legalistic communities from trying!) And the task of raising free persons rather than slaves — to appetite or fashion or whatever — is an age-old task, so happily we have a lot of wisdom of the ages to draw on.
There are certainly things we ought shelter children from more than other things, and this is the task of the parent to figure out when and where is something appropriate for a child to experience (indeed, we often shield them from death and the ordinary cycle of life—such as happen on a farm—more than we ought, perhaps, and we also ignore the grimmer fairy tales at our peril). For instance, there's a lot of twisted things in the world that we very much ought to shield our children from—and smartphone-accessed porn is probably one of the most concerning things, and it's on a completely different level from mindless television.
A lot of how I think of this question goes back to how I was raised myself. My brothers and I had too much TV time, in my view, and yet we had common-sense limits (I was shocked that other kids didn't have to ask to turn on the TV!), and my parents often noted the line that your brain would turn into a marshmallow with too much TV—that sort of thing. (We also enjoyed a lot of family viewings of Bonanza and were great fans of Sergio Leone films.) We also grew up amidst a really strong extended family culture; we didn't grow up next to family after the first few years, but the farm was always a place we would to go to work and play, and we took a lot of pride in working harder than anyone else. In a lot of ways the farm was a training ground in reality for my brothers and me, as different as we all are, such that I am working on getting my kids to experience real farm work (as well as Bach and Monet!) as much as possible, even though we live in the suburbs. As Josh Gibbs has written (echoing Ruth), if we fill our children with good things, they'll be able to detect the fake far better and to have less of a taste for it; they'll be "wasted on Babylon."
One, have you all had a chance to read the passage from Corrie ten Boom's "The Hiding Place" about the suitcase? Her father avoids telling her about the birds and the bees prematurely by having her pick up their suitcase, which is too heavy for her to carry. He explains to her that for now, he will carry the suitcase for her; but when she is a little bit bigger, she will carry the suitcase herself.
We have found this story very useful with explaining bans and restrictions to our children without making the banned thing taboo. We can now just say in our family, "Dad and I are going to carry this suitcase for now, but in a year or two we'll show you how to carry it." The kids tend to feel respected by this way of approaching things…
Two, my dad was extremely negative about pop culture and TV and video games and such as I was growing up. He was negative about our culture in general and would say things like "the society we live in is sh*t." Now, really, in some ways that was true, but it made me feel guilty for my natural need to learn how to function in that culture. I'm actually very grateful to have been kept from a dependence on TV and such, but I wish it had been done in a way that wasn't so vehemently negative about my generation.
So one thing I try to do is to point out good and bad aspects of things; my children are often very curious about why someone else would do something that Mom and Dad think is bad and this creates great discussions that help form their moral imaginations….
I think this can apply to tech. Our kids have never used laptops (and we don't have tablets or smartphones), for example, but our older two (9 and 12) have started learning to type on them this year with a really fun, interactive online program. Over time, we'll try to keep introducing different uses of tech to them, though probably not for a while. We're still a few years away from it, but we're planning to give them access to tech generally in their last couple of years at home before college so that we can be there with them through that transition. Hopefully we can help them make choices instead of being controlled by these things.
When our children were growing up we had almost zero screen time around them when they were little. We lived with my mother-in-law who liked to watch tv during the day, but adjusted her use so that it was not on while the kids were around. When we visited relatives' homes, we would ask whether we could turn the tv off so that we could converse more easily, and many were happy to do so. When our library started playing videos in the kids reading area, I spoke with the director to have the screens turned off, except for scheduled screenings. All this to say, it took continuous effort to kindly and gently direct people around us to turn off unnecessary screens when possible.
However, I think complete shielding can backfire, because screens can then turn into the forbidden fruit. It is normal for children who have almost no screen exposure to be completely mesmerized by screens. As the children got a bit older (around age 5) we had some weekly movie time that we shared as a family. Keeping the exposure low helped to demystify screen time, while at the same time giving reality precedence.
Our children grew up with the understanding that reality was more interesting than screens. When they were over at friends' places who were used to video games or tv, they would often offer more engaging activities that they could be doing together. Now that they are older, they still continue to use screens in moderation, because they recognize that too much time on the screen takes time away from reality around them.
The captivation that you talk about Hadden is difficult to circumvent, especially with little kids. I think one way to mitigate the mesmerizing effect is to bring the relational into the screen situation, to converse, to retell, etc. which connects the experience back to reality.
Please feel free to add your thoughts to this conversation in the comment section!
Front Porch Republic Conference Recordings
, “People, Place, Prayer”
Imagining Life Beyond the Machine
Eric Miller, “The Instructed Imagination”
Jason Peters, “Imagination: Not Whimsical but Fatal”
Paul Kingsnorth Keynote Address, “The Blizzard of the World”
Human Responses to Technology
Jeffrey Bilbro, “Where Now Are Wayland’s Bones?”
Cassandra Nelson, “Median Humans and the Life That Really is Life”
Tessa Carman, “The Joy of Tech Resistance”
Adam Smith, “The Politics of Reenchantment”
Mark Mitchell, “Politics in Babel”
John Murdock, “Back to the Future of the Religious Right”
Living Outside the Machine
Ashley Colby, “Doomer Optimism: Life Adjacent to the Machine”
Bill Kauffman, “Off the Empire, On Wisconsin”
For some additional reflections on the FPR conference see also’s and ’s posts:
I hope you enjoyed this recap and the recordings.and I would love to hear your reflections on the discussion questions, the continuing conversation, and the conference talks. If there are questions that you would like us to address in future writings, please add them as well!
Until next time,
Ruth and Peco
If you found this post helpful (or hopeful), please consider supporting our work by becoming a paid subscriber, or simply show your appreciation with a like, restack, or share.