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The Life We’re Looking For: A Book Review

Andy Crouch's book on technology and human flourishing calls us to resist the urge to control and open ourselves up to deep relationships

Every so often a book comes along that puts a finger on the cultural moment in a way that directs, elucidates, convicts, and encourages. Andy Crouch’s book The Life We’re Looking For: Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World is one such book, and has shaped the way I view technology, human nature, and the centrality of vulnerable relationships to a life well lived.

As implied in the title, the book contains pertinent themes to the concerns of Mind Matters: how do we hold on to human uniqueness in the midst of technological change and upheaval? The question is arguably as dire as ever with the emergence of impressive new AI systems like ChatGPT and Midjourney, which pose possibilities as tools but also tempt people to think they can be “replaced” by machines. Dr. Gary Smith, professor of economics at Pomona College, has argued at Mind Matters that’s it’s not necessarily AI that poses the threat, but our unabashed tendency to depend on it more than we should. RELATED: The LLM Deep Fake—Follow the Money | Mind Matters

Alchemy, Magic, and the Technology of Today

Crouch has similar concerns over new technologies and their overlords, calling attention to the practice of “alchemy,” an ancient method of “folk science” that he believes is connected to how many people view technological developments today. Crouch writes,

The alchemists considered themselves to be performing magic–not in the sense of impressive or charming tricks, but in the sense of unlocking and acquiring the ability to command nature. The word command is essential. Magic is not essentially about understanding the world, especially if we note the word’s humble implication that true knowledge involves “standing under” something. Magic is about standing over, not under. At the heart of magic is the belief that, given the right code words —”abracadabra” being the schoolchild’s imitation of the magician’s incantation — a human being can gain unquestioned control of the forces at the heart of the cosmos (p. 66).

-Andy Crouch, The Life We’re Looking For

Crouch’s comments on alchemy and magic, and how the former seeks particularly to mine precious metals that can be transmuted into gold, calls to mind the “one ring” in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, forged by an evil lord Sauron intent on enslaving all of creation. Technology, in the positive sense, Crouch notes, should make us more fully human the more we use it. But unfortunately, the “spirit” behind much modern technology is not so foreign from the will of Sauron: to dominate, manipulate, and weaken human lives instead of strengthening them. One thinks of the business model of Big Tech companies like Google, Meta, and Amazon. As the viral Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma painfully revealed, these organizations, despite their proclivity to extol human flourishing and connection as their zeitgeist, are designed to addict users, mine our personal data for profit, and even influence what we think about culture and politics. Crouch thinks we need to resist such impersonal iterations of technology and focus more deeply on what really matters: concrete, personal connection.

The Beauty of the Useless

Relationship and vulnerability, he writes, stands in the way of a civilization bent on technological control. This is especially true when it comes to the relations between men and women. What’s more unpredictable than bringing children into the world? Crouch writes,

Countless mothers who have chosen to bring children with Trisomy 21 into the world can testify to the amount of formal and informal pressure they experienced to abort their children. Tellingly, this pressure is applied in places with very different political regimes, from China to northern Europe to the United States. What binds these disparate nations together for children with Down syndrome is not a single political goal but a spiritual one: their avid pursuit of “what technology wants.” Wherever policy is made and preferences are shaped by the dream of escaping the vulnerabilities, givenness, and interdependence of human life, our bodies will be despised and those who treat embodied persons with reverence will be mocked (p. 200).

This paragraph calls to mind the important work of policy expert and Chair of Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism Wesley J. Smith. Smith has written extensively for decades on the value of every human life, whether that be a child with Down syndrome or an elderly person whom larger society might deem “useless.” For Crouch and Smith, no human life is worthless. In fact, those whom society might deem useless may just have the most to teach us about what it means to be human. “It is the ‘useless’ who matter the most,” writes Crouch. “Because if they are persons — if they are seen, known, welcomed, and given places of honor in our households — then all of us are set free from our usefulness.”

Crouch’s compassion, insight, and deep wisdom are brimming in this book. I’d highly recommend it as a guide for these rapidly changing times.

Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is a prolific fiction writer and has written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and is a contributing writer and editor for Mind Matters.

The Life We’re Looking For: A Book Review