Questions, reflections, discussion, and FPR conference recordings
I've been really enjoying this discussion and I'm sorry I missed the chat, but I deeply appreciate the recap! Here are some scattershot thoughts for how we manage tech in our family.
1. The shortest version of the strategy we use right now, which we say to our children frequently is, "Phones are tools for grownups, not toys for kids." Our children do not touch our phones unless given explicit permission. We don't have games or social media apps on them and we try to minimize our use of them in the sight of our children, except when we are using them as tools (to play audiobooks or music, to take photos, to navigate in a new city, etc)
2. We don't have iPads, Kindles, any video game systems, or a smart TV. Our older kids use iPads at school and we ask them to tell us about how they use them as part of our dinner conversation. We also talk to their teachers about tech in the classroom so we know what they're being exposed to.
3. Video games at friends' houses are not allowed. I tell the parents of their friends this when I drop them off, and our kids know it too.
4. We let our kids have access to media (which we differentiate from "tech") via other methods beyond phones and computers. Our kids have a small collection of music and books on tape/CD and a cheap boombox to play them on, so they can listen to music or stories without having to go through us/our phones. We listen to our local sports teams on the radio while we work in the yard together or drive. We watch movies together as a family, sometimes via streaming but also via DVDs from the library. Basically, we don't want to promote the idea that all access to the outside world comes via a phone or a computer.
5. One thing I would like us to improve on is using our tech as a tool to mitigate loneliness/build community. I wish we had more people over for dinner, I wish we knew more people whose approach to tech and community was closer to ours. Unfortunately, given our complete shunning of social media, it's hard to make those connections without it! But unmachining takes time, I suppose!
Something I keep coming back to is Tsh Oxenreider's saying of "machine or tool"... is the tech serving as a machine - to replace a human function- or is it a tool - making something human easier. I think it's a tricky thing to discern. Interactions on Substack can make me more of a human when they give a chance to connect and encourage with like minded people I may not meet in my real life. They can be a tool. They can also be a machine when I use the adulation or information overload to numb out of my real life. But so much of this comes down to how we are using technology, and requires us to be brutally honest with ourselves. Like others above me have pointed out, this can look a variety of ways in different seasons. We aim for limited screen time but are not at all militant about it. I will gladly put on a Youtube video of off road trucks being towed out of sand if the alternative is me being so frustrated that i'm yelling because it's a long day, my husband has worked 14 hour days all week and I haven't slept in a month. I think sometimes the militant attitude about tech can feel superior or defeating (and I do not think that's what the FPR folks are getting at!) but I really think we need to look at this as an issue of addiction, and addiction always has a cause. What are the factors in a family, or an individual or a culture that make us so desperate for connection and dopamine that we're likely to fall easily into a tech addicted hole? The digital detox without curiosity about the function and purpose it's serving in our life and why we're so attached to it in the first place is bound to perpetuate a shame inducing spiral.
I observe in my children that they are not obsessed with screens though we're not super strict about limiting them. I hope that the approach of doing other things first leaves movies and screens as a last resort instead of being the go-to solution. There have been seasons when I have used a lot of screen time while very sick or with newborns barely staying afloat. I think what I would hate is for people to assume that it must be an all or nothing proposition. We have some rules - no access to tech in their hands (they don't have access to our phones or ipad) all the tech use is supervised, we carefully screen WHAT they watch, but not always how much. It seems that it may be similar to creating a healthy relationship with food - if a child is well nourished, given more good food than junk and has a healthy gut they tend to be pretty good at self limiting... I don't know. My kids are young. We haven't crossed the phone bridge yet, but we talk regularly about tech use and things like pornography, how you can't trust everything you see or read. I hope we're giving them a foundation of truth. And I'm trying to lead by example in taking consistent small steps to wean myself away from my own addictions.
All this to say: It's complicated. I'm trying. Shame is a terrible motivator and yet we have to take action in some small way and not give up.
My take on 5: “What are we to do if we live in a city and are not interested in agrarian life?” -- this is me; I deeply admire the ideal of rural living for those who are called to it, but I simply couldn’t do it. But if what we are drawn to is the “natural” human environment: it’s worth considering that cities in themselves are natural! We’re meant to live near those we work with and work near those we live with. To collaborate, to share resources, to rejoice and grieve together, to know our neighbors (because it’s hard to love those you don’t know).
When--because of historically almost unimaginable prosperity, which is in itself a good thing!--our environments grow beyond our control, it’s still worth forging these hyper-local and interpersonal connections and relationships. I think it can be done even online (at least, we’ve been doing it for going on 18 years at Dappled Things magazine). While the city is growing like crazy, you look around and ask: How can this thing we want to do be done on a *human* scale? That may mean, among other things, not scaling up as fast as the cultural pressures around you. But what if what grows slowly grows strong?
This really interests me. I grew up in NYC with a large extended Puerto Rican family. There's a vein of truth here (recovery of handiwork, conviviality and community-building, - and I don't think I know anyone who disagrees the amount of screentime children get is toxic; Haidt, Twenge, etc.)
But a lot of the examples given for culture recovery are highly culture-bound, regionally specific. I think that's what your discussion questions are getting at. New Yorkers don't do farm work or have campfires and porches; my friends are more interested in a night at a museum than a night reading plays; most ideas shared above would make me feel like I was LARPing. In my experience, it's mostly academics and ex-homeschoolers who find this kind of thing appealing. I share both dispositions (work adjacent to academy, was homeschooled) but honestly, most of my cousins, and the friends I've made in adulthood, absolutely would not take interest in an evening of singing round a campfire.
My greatest childhood memories include eating Fruit Loops and watching Mulan with my grandmother in her Brooklyn apartment after a sleepover. Junk food and screentime - both verboten, right? But she was animated by love. Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith. Perhaps what I am looking for is acknowledgement that we are trying to find our way out of an isolated, alienated, and cold modernity; we are looking for a way to live that is animated by love and care; but that is going to look *different* depending on your upbringing, culture, context, environment, and disposition. I continue to watch the FPR project with interest, but at a remove, because of this.
I am with Wendell and Paul Kingsnorth. In Paul's analogy of the 3 legged stool -- People, Place, and Prayer -- the stool won't stand without all 3 legs. I'm hearing many people saying they'd like to leave off Place because agrarianism isn't realistic or isn't important or something like that. The problem that I see with de-emphasizing Place is that it is ultimately impossible to care for people without connection to the more than human; the soil, the water, the people who manufacture our junk, the insects and so on. People cannot exist and cannot experience health or flourishing for very long if these other areas fail. The fact that some people have grown up in cities and like them and have done well in them doesn't negate the fact that cities by definition exploit other places and other people in order to exist and concentrate resources. We now have an unprecedented percentage of the globe living in cities and we are likely to suffer horribly as this becomes impossible to sustain (economy, energy, agricultural systems all precarious). I grew up in a suburban area and in a church environment that was heavy on People and Prayer but not Place at all. It seems to me that this tends to breed a complacent hubris, a lack of healthy limits. There were many kind and genuine folks in our church genuinely trying to "fight worldliness" with varying success. And of course we all know someone who is so obsessed with Place in an arrogant way that neglects People and maybe Prayer, too... imagine the self-righteous organic goat farmer who despises his country neighbors. Nevertheless, deep authentic connection to place helps us to see and feel that we must limit ourselves in order to love our neighbor and to love God. In the city or suburbs one is removed from all the destruction and pollution that our "normal" lifestyles cause. We may be very convivial with our immediate neighbor but we are disconnected to where most everything we use, eat, wear, etc comes from so we are unable to consider some of those who we impact the most. One can begin to believe it is OK to buy unnecessary gadgets as long as we don't feel they are dehumanizing us, without thinking about how they are harming enslaved people, polluting African rivers, etc. Life on the farm, on the ocean, or in the woods helps to humble us.
Imagine the owners of large slave plantations discussing whether or not it was important to have people over for dinner more, to dance and converse, or whether it was addictive to smoke tobacco. These might be good considerations but the fact that they are wealthy and comfortably living off the labor of others is a much larger moral consideration! Sorry to sound ornery but I have been thinking this ever since the coffeehouse.
When I first stumbled across social media back in 2010, I was a new mother and was just feeling alone in the sleepless blue that is newborn life. It was nice to make connections with others albeit online, and it helped me feel less alone during that particular time. Also, I think being an introvert, it helped me feel connected.
Fast forward to the past few years and I had hit a point where social media made me feel awful. It did make me feel lonely and it seemed that everyone was in cliques and I felt like I was seeing the underbelly of social media. I didn’t like it.
I’ve made a point to cut the time I spend on both Instagram and Substack. I try and put my phone down as much as possible and I am trying to be more in my real life. I joined a Bible study this autumn and it has been life giving and I am enjoying real life conversations.
I’m just going to riff here and see what comes of it.
I think many of the problems of the internet come from the way that it puts us to sleep and makes us (intellectually, spiritually, morally) lazy and pessimistic. The internet today implicitly offers a set of assumptions and presuppositions, if not a worldview, which too many seemingly accept. ‘It’s just the way things are’. Says who?
You have to be an influencer to create, you have to monetise, you can’t act differently, everyone is becoming more divided. And on an on. Blanket statements that are affirmed by the echo chamber nature of the very system itself. But like money it is on some level only true and only real because we have bought into this.
On some level the kids these days are stupid(or whatever) because we *believe* they are. The old people are facebook-addled ideologues because we *believe* they are. Dopamine reward systems being hijacked is the problem because we believe it is. These are articles of faith. Assumptions. There are counter examples.
In a post truth, fake news world their are ‘facts’ to prove any thesis. So why do we default to the most doom and gloom one? Could it be because there is a secret payoff in despair and pessimism? Is it because this makes less demands than hope and optimism which always carries the implication of pulling up your sleeves and actually doing something, actually attempting something?
My answer to everything is to essentially reject the form of the question asked (are you a this or are you a that?) and to bring about what I want to see in the world (whether online or offline) in the spirit of hope.
I don’t see an interesting collective for writers- I’ll start one. There aren’t any good communities for writers online any more- I’ll make one. And on and on. Whether any of this amounts to anything is in God’s hands but when you try and build something an awful lot of angst magically vanishes. The form of social media makes you see everything top down, of a structure collapsing inwards. Whereas true creativity and community is something that emanates outwards. A light.
So the answer for me, as simplistic as it may sounds is to simply be a light, to be the person that *you need* but to be that person *for others*
And then the rest will all work itself out.
Ruth and Peco, you're on to something here. Keep going, please.
10) When I think of anti-machine behavior that can truly prompt others to reexamine their own technological use, my mind goes to the personal stuff. Being the only friend one has who mails them hand written, thoughtful letters is anti-machine. Those around you may notice this, realize how nice it is and follow your lead. Putting my phone away and building a bench for our prayer garden from left-over lumber is anti-machine behavior. My wife and children and maybe grandchildren will actually be able to point to something I made by hand because wasn't distracted by digital technology. Maybe they too will want to build something. Maybe they will put away the tech and do it. Growing a garden is anti-machine and can have a big impact on your neighbor when you share your home grown food with them and they realize it tastes way better than what they buy at Walmart.
We had three kids in three years, my husband was/is traveling half the month for work, and we didn’t have a lot of family or community support (at the time). So I can safely say we’ve never desired to be completely tech free. However, really strong boundaries helped us navigate the early years and tech. The kids were only allowed to watch tv on the physical tv that sits in the family room where I can always see it (no computer/iPad/phone etc.). The tv was only allowed on at certain times of day (when I was making dinner or nursing a baby down while my husband was gone) and we rotated through the same 10-15 approved toddler shows. Any whining or fighting about the tv resulted in swift loss of tv time. I found these boundaries worked really well for our kids while also giving me much needed breaks!! Now that our kids are “older” (7,5,4,1) and life is generally more manageable for me, we have no tv time during the school week & we get DVDs from the library for family movie nights on the weekends. My kids made the transition from tv shows during the week as toddlers to no tv except weekend movies really easily so that is my encouragement to anyone who is worried some toddler tv time is going to turn their kids into maniacs! 😅
Thanks for opening this thread! With the caveat that I have only read a portion of the above so far (will read in full throughout the weekend), I look forward to the conversation in the comments and I hope it stays lively for quite some time!
I was disappointed to miss the FPR Conference and last week's online gathering, but I missed them due to a) coaching local youth soccer and b) our downtown Fall Festival, respectively. It was a good reminder to embrace doing the things of local community that we talk about and about which we are all so passionate!
One of these days, there will be a localism gathering right here in Stamford, Texas, for all of you and more!
Regarding the loneliness caused by social media and solutions to it, I've found (beyond the obvious like cutting it—along with news and most television—from my life) that it has been helpful to pursue relationships with younger people. I'm only in my 20s, but developing friendships with teenagers in my congregation is helpful for both them and myself. My wife and I try to make our house a hangout spot for friends, coworkers, church members, etc. in an effort to be a place where community can happen. We're lucky to have a vibrant culture of this kind of behavior in our church and many others are doing the same.
Regarding the first question, I've found Ellul's analysis to be helpful. Humans have always sought progress and technology ever since the plow and the axe, but I do think something fundamental has changed since the industrial revolution: broadly, as a society, we see technology and progress as both inevitable and inherently good. I think it is helpful to slow down and think critically about what technology or media or any other tools I bring into my life, and ask questions about it. Often I find myself deciding I'd rather not have it.
One challenge of the modern world is that it's so often more difficult to see our neighbor—and we can get distracted by what someone says on a website (and it's easier to take offense or misunderstand what's not communicated in person), which then takes away from our duties to those entrusted to our care. And it's not merely digital devices but also the built environment that isolates us: so many apartments, suburban strips, etc., are built to isolate—not to be homes, not to be gathering spaces, not to be places of beauty, not to be neighborly.
To demonstrate another way of living, to un-Machine, means to see anew our neighbor. We've been dealing with division—between ourselves and God, and between ourselves and each other, and between ourselves and all of creation—ever since the Fall, and it's when we recover seeing all of creation and each other as gift, as given, that we can start to recover that lost communion.
I have these words by St. Ephrem of Syria on my mind today:
“One person falls sick—and so another can visit and help him;
one person starves—and so another can provide him with food and give him life; ...
In this way the world can recover;
tens of thousands of hidden ways are to be found,
ready to assist us.”
6) I think solutions seem to focus on traditional style or Amish-style living because on some level we all have to admit the Amish are doing something right. I do think there are solutions for others, but it will take effort. I think finding time to spend with others, and even alone, with no technology can be done anywhere. People in cities can still get together for dinner together and decide to put their phones in another room. Or leave them in one persons apartment while you go out and explore the city together. City for can join book clubs, or go to trivia nights or sporting events or concerts or anything or take a walk in the park without their phones. They can pick up a tangible cook book and work through a recipe without their phones. It may look like living in a city back in the 1970's, but it's possible.
4) For how to not sound like a pessimist, find ways to harp on and encourage the good things that come from refraining from digital tech. We cannot just be all negative. We can talk about how much better are relationships are. How much more fun we have with our families when not distracted by technology and point our the hope that these good things are available for everyone. These are benefits everyone can get. We have to find ways to express the hope we have found when we resist.
"However, I think complete shielding can backfire, because screens can then turn into the forbidden fruit."
Yep, we've seen that with our kids and relaxed our limits some, but have just tried to direct them toward slightly better shows and computer games (we don't let them have computer time until they're 5 and just in small doses.) Computer games are a very powerful motivator for our oldest and definitely better use of her brain than just passively watching a show. Tech is a tool and like any other can be used for good or for ill. We choose to try to use it for good while engaging our kids in plenty more "human" time than screen time.
And Dixie, thanks for asking the question for the rest of us introverts. Tech has been a very beneficial way for me to still engage with people when my energy is so low (my little kids wear me out) that I can't make it out somewhere in person. Is it as good as in person? No. But is it better than no interaction with friends? YES.