This May I taught a summer course called “Technology and Freedom.” We read many of the usual suspects, including some great Christian critics of technology like Ivan Illich and Jacques Ellul. But the course wasn’t really about ideas.
Informally we called it “the tech-free dorm course.” The students spent the entire month living together in one of the campus apartments, where they went “tech-free.” They traded their smartphones for cheap flip phones. They had no screens of any kind—no Netflix, no TV, no video games. They did all their coursework with pen and paper. When we met to discuss the course texts, their talk was full of close reflection on the bedeviling details of actual experience.
Molly Worthen’s wonderful essay on “Why Universities Should Be Like Monasteries” came out in the New York Times just after our “tech-free dorm course” had wrapped up. I sent it to every administrator I knew. Her proposal is radically sensible: “Colleges should offer a radically low-tech first-year program for students who want to apply: a secular monastery within the modern university, with a curated set of courses that ban glowing rectangles of any kind from the classroom. Students could opt to live in dorms that restrict technology, too.” Indeed!
Worthen is right to say “universities that do this will be surprised by how much demand there is.” For a few years now I’ve been pitching the tech-free dorm idea in all my classes, and at least 20 percent of the students are always keen. I’m now working with a small group of people—students as well as faculty—to make it happen. The summer course was our pilot project; the goal is to establish a permanent “tech-free dorm” option. I don’t think we’ll have trouble finding residents.
I’m tired of reading books about how bad it is. I’m tired of reading statistics about anxiety and depression and suicide; tired of reading about monitoring and surveillance; tired of reading about device addiction and porn addiction; tired of reading about the atrophy of social life and the dominance of anti-social media; tired of reading about how no one knows how to read anymore. I’m a philosopher, but I’m tired of arguments; I’m itching to do something. And the time is right, because it’s not just me. The itch is spreading.
Still, I am a philosopher, and I can’t help adding another argument to the pile. Worthen’s proposal is aimed at all universities, secular and otherwise. But what about we who are “otherwise?” Do Christian colleges have any special angle on what Heidegger called “the question concerning technology”—the question that these days seems increasingly like the question at the root of all others?
Christians in higher education are used to contesting the claim that non-Christian universities enjoy a kind of “neutrality” that enables them both to assess truth claims more objectively and to avoid “imposing values” on their students. Along with many non-Christians, we insist that such neutrality is not available to human beings. “Everybody worships,” as David Foster Wallace put it in his famous Kenyon College commencement address. If a university proclaims a Christian message, so does the secular university proclaim a particular “message” just as freighted with metaphysical and moral commitments.
But I have often wondered what Christian colleges would look like if they took seriously Marshall McLuhan’s famous insight about “the message.” If we have seen more clearly than our secular colleagues that neutrality with regard to the message is impossible, we have been just as blind as them to the truth that the medium is the message—and that it is by no means “neutral.” Everybody worships; and everybody worships through something.
Roy Clouser wrote a book about “the myth of religious neutrality.”1 We’ve been pretty good at busting that myth. We’ve been really bad at busting what we might call the religious myth of technological neutrality. It’s been harder to see that for the myth it is—harder to see it for the rival religion that it is—because it’s the water we all swim in, Christian and non-Christian alike. But one good thing about all these new devices, or more specifically about the accelerated pace of change since their introduction, is that the water’s getting hotter. Quite apart from the messages they carry, our media carry us in certain directions, toward some goods and away from others. They order—and disorder—our loves.
If Christian colleges can broadcast their commitments more openly than secular ones, they should also be able to embed those commitments in their classrooms and their dorm rooms with more boldness and with more coherence. Secular universities face an obstacle in their ability to “do something” that Christian institutions do not. For the same reason that secular universities cannot explicitly proclaim a “message” about human flourishing, they cannot coherently impose a certain “medium” in light of that message. Of course, they do impose a medium, just as they impose a message. But Christian universities can dispense with the pretense on both fronts. If our gospel is a peculiar one, we can certainly risk getting weird with our tech policies.
It is certainly possible to create a “secular monastery” within the secular university, and we ought to applaud and support such efforts. But it is only logically possible because even secular universities have religious commitments. Monasteries, after all, are explicitly designed to instantiate such commitments, not in a message but in a medium, a “rule of life”—a technique—that takes the bedeviling details seriously. To speak of a “secular monastery” is to give the game away.
Christian universities are in a better position than secular ones to act decisively in the face of the threats to the human person posed by the devices that now dominate our lives. Christians ought to be at the forefront of responding collectively to this growing awareness that technology has its own effects on our souls and our relationships. So far, we are not. If we call our institutions “Christian” and want them to live up to that name, then we’re all going to have to start thinking more like the Amish and less like the boosters in Silicon Valley.
The Amish, contrary to popular perception, are not “anti-tech.” To think like the Amish is not to reject some abstract thing called “technology,” but rather to emphasize and to grapple seriously with questions that technology always raises “behind our backs,” so to speak. More precisely, the Amish have an established practice for bringing these easily hidden questions to the forefront, so that they can discern together what should and should not be used. For most of us, the only question we ask when deciding whether to use a new device is “will it be more convenient, more efficient, and more fashionable?” For the Amish, the primary question is: how will the use of this technology affect our relationships to God, to one another, and to ourselves? If the Amish are “radical,” it is not because of the specific decisions they make about what technologies they will and will not use, but because they actually make decisions, rather than allowing the decision to be made for them by something called “progress.” And if I sound “radical” for recommending their ways, I think it is in part because the burden of proof in this conversation has been successfully thrust from the shoulders of those who push new technologies, which is where it belongs, and onto the shoulders of anyone who pushes back and insists that technology is not a technical but an ethical question.
There’s plenty of resistance to our tech-free dorm project. But it’s mostly from administrators, not students. And I get it: the logistical problems are many and obvious. How will students do their homework? How will they stay “in the loop” when it comes to campus events or particular courses that use social media to keep people connected? What about students with disabilities, who would not be able to participate without the use of certain hardware or software? What about students in certain disciplines (such as computer science) where screens in particular are obviously indispensable? What will students do with the smartphones they already have?
Such questions deserve careful and practical consideration from those of us who are eager to experiment. But one thing we have learned from our own experiment is that, at least so far, most of these problems have solutions. Flip phones can do everything a smart phone can do, when it comes to emails and text messages. “Tech-free” dorms can have a single computer, set up in the common area, for all to use. Library hours can be extended. Exceptions can be made for people with disabilities. In general, I would suggest that the idea of “making exceptions” is very much in the spirit of the experiment; the point is to discern, to say “yes” to this and “no” to that. For example, one of the things we discussed was whether to allow movies or not. The students in this course opted to do without them, but as a general rule we decided that a “tech-free” dorm could certainly have a single screen, equipped to play DVDs, without violating the spirit of the project. Precisely because “community” was our standard, we made a distinction between a policy that allowed people to retreat to their private devices, all watching different things alone in the dark, and a policy that encouraged people to enjoy the same movie together, as a social event. This is an example of “Amish” discernment. Others might make a different decision; but that is not really the point. The point is to think like this about it.
It is the status quo that insists on blanket solutions, that makes exceptions impractical. I would also suggest that it is actually the status quo that is the real “experiment.” Our situation was never so plain to me as when someone in a faculty meeting remarked that we would probably need to get IRB approval for our tech-free dorm – as if the introduction of smart phones was not a massive social experiment with the potential to cause immense harm to people and communities. We are thinking about things backwards. If we are responsible for considering how going “tech-free” might affect students with disabilities, we are certainly responsible for admitting that the tech from which we seek freedom has disabled an entire generation. The logistical problems are real, but the need and the opportunity are far more pressing. It’s time to solve those problems so we can offer something radically different—maybe even something radically Christian. What might our universities look like if we thought less in terms of communicating a Christian message, and more in terms of creating a Christian medium? What if all our dorms were tech-free?