Crouch's Razor
ThisIsEngineering / PEXELS

If our modern culture ever had a honeymoon with technology, the honeymoon’s been over for quite a while now.  From nuclear bombs to carbon emissions and social media, we are at least as aware of the drawbacks of technology as we are of its benefits, especially when it comes to what communications and information technologies have done to the way we interact and govern ourselves.  But what can an individual do to make things better? 

Andy Crouch, a Christian author and entrepreneur, thinks he has some answers.  A few years ago he wrote The Tech-Wise Family:  Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place.  And now he’s broadened his scope with another book:  The Life We’re Looking For: Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World, which I learned about in a review published in The New Atlantis, a journal of technology and society.

The reviewer, a professor of theology at Abilene Christian University named Brad East, wasn’t entirely happy with Crouch’s latest.  And having just read the book myself, I tend to agree with some of his criticisms, namely that while Crouch offers some first-rate analyses, he is a little weak on specific solutions. 

Handy concept

This may be because Crouch is not a terribly systematic thinker.  But where he excels is in brief, pithy aphorisms, one of which I want to highlight today.  You may have heard of a thing called Ockam’s Razor.

It refers to William of Ockham, a 14th-century monk and scholar who had a major influence on the progress of medieval thought.  His “razor” — a thing for cutting off needless fuzziness, as you may say — is summarised in the Wikipedia article on him as “one should always opt for an explanation in terms of the fewest possible causes, factors, or variables.”

Scientists have seized upon Ockam’s Razor as a way to choose among several different explanations for a given physical phenomenon.  While no more infallible than most of philosophy, the Razor has come in handy numerous times as an argument against a needlessly complicated explanation of something that can be explained much more simply.

All this is preliminary to Crouch’s Razor, which I shall state as follows:  In considering the purchase or use of a new technology, ask whether it is a device or an instrument.  And of course, you need to know what the difference is.

Whither humanity

Crouch attributes to the philosopher Albert Borgmann his special meaning for device:  a thing that replaces earlier tools or means of doing something by making the activity so much easier that human beings are not really required at all.  A good example of an early device is a phonograph used to play music.

Formerly, to hear a symphony orchestra, you’d have to go to a concert hall with a lot of other people (unless you were rich enough to afford your own orchestra), and the musicians would have to put in years of practice and rehearsal to produce a decent-sounding piece.

But after the device called the phonograph was invented, a ten-year-old could wind up the crank and put the needle on the record and hear something that approximated the same symphony.  And now, of course, it’s infinitely easier to hear music at any time or place, and public spaces are filled with music (of a sort) for the production of which no human being’s services are immediately required — the Muzak-makers play themselves.

An instrument, on the other hand, is something that augments human ability but also requires of us a certain amount of effort, concentration, and practice, keeping us in the loop as humans, so to speak.  A ukulele is an instrument in this sense.

I can testify from personal experience that a ukulele does not play itself.  You have to practise on it until the fingers of your left hand (if you’re right-handed) have little calloused patches that make it less painful to hold down the strings (notice I didn’t say painless!) so the chords come out clearly.  And you also have to learn which strings to hold down where.  In the hands of a good musician (which I am not), the ukulele can be a thing of joy, or at least happiness — if you like ukulele music, that is. 

Primary purpose

As a Christian, Crouch has a clear anthropology in mind:  he says, “Every human person is a heart-soul-mind-strength complex designed for love.”  Any new technology that helps people use or develop one or more aspects of that complex on its way to its designated purpose is to be sought, because it’s an instrument.

On the other hand, if a new technology resembles a “superpower” — reducing what used to be the complex human achievement of one or more skilled workers to the programmed machinations of gears and bits — it’s probably just a device, and you use it at your peril.

Crouch is not so simplistic as to issue blanket condemnations of things like mobile phones.  While he recognises that the profit-driven social-media system that uses phones as its primary interface is probably one of modernity’s worst devices in many of its aspects, he highlights an instrument that uses phones: an app developed by a friend of his to help sick people organise networks of helpers during their illnesses.  He urges users to ask, in effect, “Why am I getting this new piece of technology?  Will it help me become more of what I ought to be?  Or will it just let me satisfy my animal urges more easily?” 

Even if you can’t quickly categorise an innovation as purely a device or purely an instrument, these are good questions to ask, and they aren’t asked frequently enough. As reviewer East noted, Crouch has no industrial-scale solutions to the problems caused by our embrace of devices that move the world ever closer to a single buzzing, clacking process with humans playing the roles of cogs in a machine.

The next time you are invited to take up or buy a new kind of technology, try applying Crouch’s Razor and ask yourself:  is this a device or an instrument?  And if it’s a device, think twice before you proceed.

This article has been reposted with permission from the Engineering Ethics Blog.

Karl D. Stephan received the B. S. in Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1976. Following a year of graduate study at Cornell, he received the Master of Engineering degree in 1977...