It’s not every day that you get to sit down with a Cornell student who has just written a generation-defying piece of work.
That said, Nov. 19, 2020 was my lucky day and Amy Crouch ’22 was that extraordinary student. We were about to discuss her debut book, My Tech-Wise Life: Growing Up and Making Choices in a World of Devices. Though we sat six feet apart, I realized there were still ways to foster safe connection, even in a global pandemic that has reduced most social interaction to the screen.
As I hit “record” on my Voice Memos app, I was initially worried that my iPhone would be a proverbial serpent in our no-tech table of Eden. My anxiety revealed just how little I knew about what it meant to be “tech-wise.” It didn’t mean “no tech;” it meant putting tech in its proper place and using it to further reaffirm our humanity rather than take away from it.
I have transcribed our conversation below, editing and omitting parts of the interview for clarity.
Lee: Congrats on the release of your book, Amy! What was the inspiration for the project and how did it come about?
Crouch: Thank you! So three years ago my dad published a book called The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place. He wrote specifically about the big and small things that our family instituted in regards to technology: We didn’t have a TV until I was 12 years old, my brother Timothy and I didn’t have smart phones for a while, we took a collective break from technology on Sundays, etc. I wrote the foreword for his book from the perspective of being one of his “test subjects.”
My dad and I saw a need in my generation. My generation has a unique experience with technology, and if we want to know how to make good choices in that world, it’s never going to be helpful to just have rules imposed upon us by our parents.
Out of that need came my book. At its core, it is a combination of statistics and stories. The stories consist of me and my dad sharing what it was like to live through this tech-wise life as a family. I go into the ways in which we succeeded, failed and are still growing. The statistics, gathered with the help of our partnership with Barna Group, come from surveying young adults from across the nation, ages 13 to 21, about their use of technology. Those data are a really good and important counterpart to my own individual experience because my own story doesn’t speak for everyone.
Lee: The way you write really does connect well to our peers, even if our experiences may be vastly different from yours. In your book, you make the distinction between “tech-wise” and “no tech.” What does being tech-wise actually mean, and how does that fit in the spectrum of completely rejecting it to the uncritical embrace of it?
Crouch: For me, being tech-wise is about being fully and deeply human. Unfortunately, so much of the technologies that have been created for us are about making us less human. They’re about making things easier for us. It’s about glossing over our imperfections, but at the same time, glossing over the very deep connections that we can form with other people. So being tech-wise is about rejecting the false promises of technology in order to essentially turn us into little gods or goddesses who can be in charge of everything in our own lives.
Lee: Earlier, you mentioned how technology can take away our ability to be still and wonder. How does a high-tech life inhibit our ability to delight in wonder, and how does a tech-wise life reclaim it?
Crouch: Technology is deeply captivating. Most of the technologies which we use on our devices, such as social media and even our phones, are designed to keep us hooked. I think this is a great shame because the world is just not engineered to give us the kinds of dopamine rushes that Instagram can provide.
But the rewards of spending time in the 3-D world around us are much greater. I worry that living a high-tech life is living a life in which everything is so engineered to please you, that you have forgotten how to seek out the much deeper and better choices right around you. A tech-wise life is about cultivating the ability to sustain and pay attention, to be looking out for those kinds of really rewarding moments rather than having them watered down and served to us right away.
Lee: You, likewise, make such an important distinction about how being “tech-wise” doesn’t mean being out of touch; you were able to enjoy things like Netflix, Instagram, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. How did you come to enjoy these things while not letting them be all-consuming?
Crouch: The most powerful way to combat the lure of technology is to spend time engaging with the much more meaningful experiences of the physically-embodied world. If, ultimately, we are prioritizing embodied time and enjoying things that are beautiful,that make us think and that engage all of our senses, I think that kind of promise is much more powerful than one that might suggest to “just go throw your phone into a gorge.” Technology is really good at catching us in the moment and sucking us in. Practically, we need to focus on eliminating everything from technology that is trying to pull us in without our thinking about it.
Lee: It seems really providential that you’re releasing My Tech-Wise Life in 2020. In your mind, what does it look like to be tech-wise now when the majority of our vocations and social interactions have to be mediated through screens?
Crouch: I would emphasize that it’s all about intention. What is crucial more than anything else during a pandemic that forces us to spend lots of time in front of the screen is paying attention to how our screens are shaping us when we use them, and what our intention is going into them. It is absolutely true that, right now, we’re seeing something really good, which is that with technology, we can kind of maintain these positive ways of living, which we otherwise would have lost during the pandemic.
However, at the same time, everyone is noticing that those replacements really are not sufficient.
So for instance, before the pandemic, after a long day of in-person classes, you might’ve gone home and watched some Netflix to rest and relax. That might’ve been a choice that was helpful for you at the time, but I really don’t think that after eight hours on a screen for school work, it would be then a good idea to then go on another screen for leisure.
Lee: Reading your book, it’s evident that there’s a spiritual element in your desire to be tech-wise. This is a big question I know, but where does faith (specifically your Christian faith) fit in with this worldview of being tech-wise?
Crouch: I believe that humans are created in the image of God and that we are called to both worship him and his incredible works, the creation and also to be creators. I think that belief fundamentally informs my approach to technology because if technology is helping me to more fully see other people as created in the Lord’s image and beloved, then that is a wonderful use of technology.
If it is something that is flattening down other people who are created and dearly loved by God, inflating my own self-image at the expense of others, preventing me from paying attention to what God has done and is doing in the world, then I think that is deeply destructive.
This is what governs my approach to technology. In the book, I intentionally want to leave that more open. While I am Christian you can come to understand the importance of being tech-wise from so many different perspectives. I also have been really heartened to see that so many people — even those who don’t share my faith tradition — recognize, like me, that there is something wrong with the way we’re relating to technology today and want it to change for a better future.
After the interview ended, I had another meeting to attend, this time on Zoom, and she had another interview with Veritas Forum about her book. This screen time roulette is a common fixture of this school year, but after we spoke, I didn’t feel as fazed by it. For all the weary who feel there’s life worth living outside of the screen yet feel that we don’t have to get rid of our gadgets altogether, there is hope. Enter into: the tech-wise life.
Zachary Lee ’20 is a recent graduate of Cornell and of The Sun arts department. He can be reached at email@example.com.