- "It's totally understandable that our young people are experiencing such distress. The world we're asking them to live in, this world of easy everywhere, is not good for them." Tweet This
- "The basic problem with the superpower zone is that…it’s actually quite diminishing of us as persons in the fullness of what we were meant to be." Tweet This
- "What is uniquely seductive and dangerous about social media is how deeply it taps into our human need to be recognized as persons." Tweet This
Andy Crouch opens his new book, The Life We’re Looking For: Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World, with a lovely reflection on the human quest to be truly seen and known—a quest that begins the moment we are born. Crouch, a former producer and executive editor at Christianity Today, is a partner for theology and culture at Praxis, and the author of five books. In his latest, he argues that the ease and lure of technology is preventing us from flourishing by not developing our hearts, souls, minds, and strength. “[It] is no wonder,” he writes, “that the defining condition of our time is a sense of loneliness and alienation.” The answer, he contends, is to rebuild a “community of recognition,” one built on the in-person interactions and relationships we were designed to have. I recently spoke with Andy about these topics and more. Our conversation, which has been edited for clarity, will run in two parts.
Alysse ElHage: You write that “before we knew to look for a mirror, we were looking for another human face.” To me, this quest for recognition explains the draw of social media—our desire for recognition and the lure of giving too much of ourselves away in the process of seeking it. How does so much of our technology today not only interfere with our natural desire to be truly seen and known, but also corrupt that desire?
Andy Crouch: I think what is uniquely seductive and dangerous about social media is how deeply it taps into our human need to be recognized as persons. We all desire recognition. I think we're designed for it. And no one really flourishes as a person unless they have other persons in their life who know them, who reflect back to them who they are, and reflect their experience of the world and what they're thinking or feeling. That is meant to happen, and it happens truly interpersonally—that is, between two real human beings through a real community, where we are actually seen by other persons.
What social media gives us is a very convincing simulation and partial version of that experience. We get clear signals that other people are liking our posts and following us, sometimes clearer signals than we get in “real” life. But that interaction happens through a very narrow channel compared to the face-to-face embodied interaction that we were looking for when we arrived in the world. The baby is not looking for a virtualized interaction. Parents put their babies on Instagram, but it's not what the baby wants. The baby wants and needs an actual person.
Every human being in the whole history of the human story has found that these face-to-face human relationships are difficult and are disappointing in certain ways. Then along comes this sort of cleaned up simulation of social likeability. Indeed, other people are more compelling on social media—more attractive, more outrageous, funnier, more articulate—than they are in real life. Since we can just select what we present, this gives us the sensation of control over how other people see us, which we lack when we're present in person. And so that's what makes it seductive. Because in many ways, once we've been hurt by other people, the control and choice afforded by social media in terms of how and when we're known and by whom we're known is very appealing. But the dangerous thing is we are not really well known through these media. They don't really give us what we truly need. And they don't give us what we were originally looking for when we were born. That's the heart of why it's so appealing, especially at kind of formative stages of life, like the teen years. So much of adolescence is about figuring out how to relate to other people. It’s reassuring to have a channel that I can control and have more choice over than what complex, real-world embodied relationships afford me.
"It's not healthy to be anxious, lonely, and depressed, but it is a very normal, natural response to a world that is not asking you to become anything, is not giving you confidence that you can overcome difficulty, and that's dissociating the different parts of you, compelling you to spend a good part of your time with your body disengaged and your mind occupied."
ElHage: You define the human person as “a heart-soul-mind-strength complex designed for love.” Yet you argue that we have traded our personhood for effortless power, which you call the superpower zone. Tell us more about this superpower zone, and do you think it has anything to do with the rising rates of loneliness, depression, and suicide we are seeing today among young people?
Crouch: In the book, I describe the superpower zone as the exhilaration of effortless power; the exhilaration of having some technologically-assisted ability, whether it's pressing the accelerator in a car or scrolling through huge amounts of information or photographs online. It's the sensation that I am getting a great deal done with very little effort. It's quite habit-forming, because when we are operating as heart-soul-mind-strength complexes, which is what we really are, getting things done is difficult and often slow and complicated. And what the superpower zone gives us, and what the superpowers in technology afford us, is a reduction in complexity, a reduction in the sensation of effort, and an increase in the sensation of efficacy. That's like a drug for a human being. But the superpower zone never fully involves or develops all four of those constituent parts of the human being. You always leave something behind to take advantage of it.
When I sit in my car and press the accelerator, my strength is not being used at all. It takes essentially no strength to press the accelerator. Whereas, when I get on a bicycle and pedal, I'm fully involved with my strength, my heart, my mind, and my soul. And it fully involves me and develops me as a person. When I get off a bike after a vigorous ride, I’m stronger than I was before. Whereas the longer I sit in a car, the more my physical capacities diminish. The superpower experience itself is not tapping into the fullness of human capacity, which, again, is really different from my experience on my bike, when my mind is quite engaged. And I do a lot of creative thinking on my bike. My heart is engaged, maybe even my soul, and my sense of self as a creature in a good world. The basic problem with the superpower zone is that…it’s actually quite diminishing of us as persons in the fullness of what we were meant to be.
So how does this relate to trends we're seeing mostly among adolescents in the most technologized parts of the world? Well, I don't think there's a simple or maybe even linear connection here. And part of the reason is that we're not seeing the exact same pathologies develop in all the countries that have adopted the Western industrialized technological stack. We're seeing very dramatic issues of mental health in young adults in places like Korea and Japan and the States, but we're seeing less of that in Europe.
I don't think there's one simple correlation between the adoption of some technology and mental health outcomes. But I do think it cannot possibly be helping human beings at these formative stages of life to miss out on experiences of full personhood and instead be handed something easier. I can't prove it, but my hunch is that if the paradigm of life is easy, and if you spend your days in activities that don't really involve and develop you, that is a recipe for an alienated person who does not feel like they belong in the world, and a diminished person who's not sure they have anything to offer the world. And what's the opposite of resilient? A fragile person who is not sure they can handle difficulty should it come their way. And I would say those results must correlate in some deep way with the disruptions in mental health that we're seeing right now.
ElHage: And let me ask you, because I saw a tweet from you recently that is related to my previous question. You tell your students that if they're feeling anxious or overwhelmed or depressed, basically, “Don’t worry; the way you are feeling is actually normal.” Is that kind of what you're getting at here?
Crouch: That's exactly what I'm getting at. What I say to students is, you are not unhealthy people in a normal world, despite these statistics that show how anxious, lonely, and depressed young adults are. What you are is normal people in an unhealthy world. It's not healthy to be anxious, lonely, and depressed, but it is a natural response to a world that is not asking you to become anything, and is not giving you confidence that you can overcome difficulty—one that's dissociating the different parts of you, compelling you to spend a good part of your time with your body disengaged and your mind occupied. It's totally understandable that our young people are experiencing such distress, because the world we're asking them to live in—this world of easy everywhere—this world of superpowers, is not good for them. It would be very odd if, in this world, people were doing just fine. It's not at all surprising that they're struggling and feeling disconnected.
Read more from our interview with Andy Crouch about his new book, The Life We're Looking For, next week on the Family Studies blog. Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.