Caldwell, ID. Back in December 2022, mired in frustration over the recent release of ChatGPT into the wild, I read an encouraging article about a group of cheerful and courageous parents hoping to offer their children something better than a lifetime of staring at screens. It was the good news from a distant land that Solomon compares to cold water for the weary soul. Together, the group took what they call the Postman Pledge (the full Postman Pledge is copied at the end of the interview). The article’s description of the group struck me as particularly powerful, as they frame their endeavor less as a restriction than as an attempt to recover goods that can be so easily ignored, forgotten, or lost.
This summer I emailed the group’s founder, Jeanne Schindler, and, as I was on a serendipitously timed trip to Maryland to visit my family, I was invited to conversation and dinner. On a Sunday night in the Schindler family’s living room in Hyattsville, Maryland, special guests Renaud Beauchard and Ken Myers offered their perceptive insights on the ways the new forms of AI, such as ChatGPT, might shift our understanding of ourselves, our world, and God (Front Porch regular Tessa Carman and her family were also there; she has written about her experiences with the Postman Pledge here and will be speaking further on these themes at the FPR conference this October).
My wife and I took our very active toddler, whose giggles and shrieks were joined by those of two other babies and yelps from the family dogs. Surrounded by bookshelves, a piano, and the humidity of a July night in Maryland, about thirty of us shared our thoughts regarding raising families in this moment. My wife and I left encouraged enough to think that we would like to start our own group in Idaho. To better facilitate that effort and, perhaps, the efforts of other groups, Postman Pledge founder Jeanne Schindler graciously agreed to an interview.
Stewart: Let’s start at the beginning: what is the Postman Pledge, and how did it begin?
Schindler: The Postman Pledge is a statement of intention (inspired by the insights of media critic and educator Neil Postman) signed by parents who aspire to create a lower-tech environment for their families and who recognize that to change the ethos of a community requires a common effort—hence the mutual pledge.
It came into being two years ago when my husband and I realized that our soon-to-be teenage son was already facing peer pressure to get a smartphone, use social media, and enter a technologically saturated mode of existence from which there would be little chance of return. We sent out a general invitation to parents in the main groups to which we belong—mostly parish and homeschooling-based—to join us for dessert and coffee in our living room and discuss the problem of technology and culture facing our families, as well as the desirability and feasibility of creating a lower-tech environment for our children. Twenty-four couples attended those discussions out of which the Postman Pledge was born. Today there are roughly thirty-five families onboard.
Stewart: When you say “lower-tech,” what shape has that taken?
Schindler: Because we’re urban dwellers and inescapably connected to the grid, we’ve not forsworn all technological communication but have focused on those forms that seem to undermine the bonds of community most directly. In our estimation, these are the smartphone and social media; the former because it radically undermines the capacity for sustained attention and awareness of our surroundings, the latter because it reduces our capacity to build and sustain natural relationships in their proper shape and scale. While we are encouraging our members—parents and children alike—to try and reduce their reliance on electronic technologies generally, we’re asking that families specifically forgo the smartphone and social media for their children.
Stewart: I especially appreciate that the Pledge is framed positively—you focus less on the fact that your group is resisting tech saturation and more on the community attempt to spend time doing other good and valuable things that would otherwise be lost to the screens. Could you say more about this decision?
Schindler: Yes, the Pledge is grounded in a strong doctrine of creation: the created world is good, born of the wisdom and love of God, so we want to become and we want our children to become the sort of people who can recognize and celebrate the goodness of the world, of what is real. As John Senior said, “… [W]e are a rooted species, rooted through our senses in the air, water, earth and fire of elemental experience.” Were Senior alive today, he would be aghast at the alienating effects of technological media, removing us ever further from our rootedness in real things, elemental things. Sensitive to this problem, our Postman Pledge group is attempting to foster our connections to real things, like the natural world, through face-to-face activities in beautiful settings (e.g., family picnics and field days in the park, Christmas caroling by lantern light under the stars, singing in front of the hearth). These things, of course, include not only elemental realities but also the rich traditions devised by man to understand and celebrate the elemental things. This is why Postman Pledge activities involve traditions of meals and music and dance and games—the vital means by which human culture has always passed from one generation to the next.
George Bernanos rightly, if dramatically, contended: “You understand absolutely nothing about modern civilization unless you first admit it is a universal conspiracy against all interior life.” He was correct in this, and so we have to say “no” to those forms of technology that most quickly and possibly irreversibly rob our children—and ourselves—of our interiority. The Pledge thus involves a “no.” But this is in the service of a profound “yes.” Yes to the universe, yes to our homes, yes to our friendships, yes to the living presence of God!
Stewart: What kinds of responses have you observed, two years into it? What has been surprising? Have you met any other groups doing similar things, or seen any other Postman Pledge groups form?
Schindler: The responses among the families who have signed the pledge and have participated in our activities have been overwhelmingly positive. Parents and children alike have enjoyed each of the events and have expressed an eagerness to do more together. In that sense, we have achieved one of our main desiderata: to show especially the adolescents in our families (those particularly vulnerable to the lure of technological culture) that a more natural approach to social life is not idiosyncratic or strange, but normal and joyful. At the same time, I have to say, not every teen in our group is equally enthusiastic about the enterprise. One of our children, for instance, has been mocked by his other peers for being backwards and out of touch; it’s been painful and alienating for him, and he threatens to get an iPhone the minute he turns eighteen. We hope, though, that his many positive experiences doing real things will eventually temper his determination to adopt a conventional mode. We will have done what we could, but it’s hard to swim against a current that’s as strong as a tsunami. It will ultimately have to be his decision—as it is for all of us.
We have not met any other groups doing the same thing, but we have had inquiries from different parts of the country by people who want to start Postman Pledge groups of their own.
Stewart: Your response reminds me of a line from Wendell Berry that has stuck with me for a long time: “it is easy for me to imagine that the next great division of the world will be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines” (FPR editor Jeff Bilbro discusses this sentence in a recent Plough essay that explores the same themes as this interview). What might you say to fellow Christians who affirm the doctrine of creation, but fall into the “these are just tools that can be used for good or evil” mode of adapting to new technologies, and tend to be closer to the status quo for daily screen time, etc.?
Schindler: I am very sympathetic to Berry’s contention here, and I think that his prediction has come true, even among Christians. As my father-in-law, the late David L. Schindler, observed, in the end, the question is whether your critique is fundamentally moral or ontological. A moral critique of technology regards the medium as neutral and only the content as value-laden, but this doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. As Marshall McLuhan famously said, “The medium is the message.” When a parish near us installs large screens flanking the altar and beams up the readings so as to aid the congregation, it fails to recognize that the medium has changed the message. The Proclamation of the Word has failed. It’s now the reading of the Word by each individual congregant who no longer listens to the scriptures being proclaimed from the ambo but rather watches the electronic relay of the words.
Likewise, when the elements are being consecrated, a miracle is taking place; earth is brought into the precincts of heaven. All eyes should be on the altar and the priest as an alter Christus, not on schmaltzy public domain graphics of wheat and grapes. But the congregations’ eyes are on the screen. There is a law of optics at work—the eye gravitates to moving images, especially electrically illuminated ones. At play is a natural reality, a physiological fact, given the kind of creatures we are. When the screen comes to colonize even our churches, the form of the liturgy and the sacredness of the sanctuary have been seriously compromised. Similarly, the social form of a meal is compromised when family or friends are on their phones at the table—whatever the content might be on their screens. The fact is, they are no longer having a meal together. Their attention is fragmented. They are no longer fully present.
An ontological critique of technology registers this. It recognizes that we are creatures with bodies, minds, and spirits and that certain modes of being in the world disintegrate us, pull us apart, internally and socially. We are no longer capable of attention and presence and a sense of wholeness. We need a constant surge of dopamine stimulated by the screen and the constant affirmation via social media that we exist, are recognized, are valuable. The pathologies associated with this new mode of existence are very serious, and they would all exist even if every Facebook post or Twitter feed were edifying. The mode is the problem, not just the message.
Stewart: To ask a more specific version of the question: what might you say to fellow Christians who are fighting tooth and nail against the sexual chaos of our time, but who think ChatGPT has the potential to be a useful tool?
Schindler: I think that an analogy is helpful here. There are some zealous environmentalists who passionately fight for the protection of the natural world because they perceive—rightly, I think—that we live in delicately interdependent ecosystems and that damage in one part will ramify. At the same time, these folks will promote hormonal birth control without batting an eye, failing to recognize that the body is itself an ecosystem, of sorts, with a delicate interplay of systems, all cooperating for the good of the whole, the organism; damage to one part will ramify. One has to approach the question of technology and culture from within a coherent vision of the world. The same kinds of questions need to be asked of ChatGPT that are asked of revolutionary interventions in the sexual sphere. Does this technology respect natural givens? Does it foster an integrated personality and mode of existence? Will it strengthen human bonds? Will it foster the development of the virtues, as those have been classically understood?
Stewart: Why Neil Postman? Where should the uninitiated start? I read Amusing Ourselves to Death a while ago.
Schindler: Neil Postman asked these kinds of penetrating questions. Because he did so from outside the predictable categories of the culture wars, his perspective is fresh, his criticism bracing. Of special interest to our members is his concept of “technopoly,” the last stage of the technological appropriation of culture. We are now living in that stage, the one Postman ominously predicted in 1992 in which society “no longer merely uses technology as a support system but instead is shaped by it—with radical consequences for the meanings of politics, art, education, intelligence, and truth.” Computation is king, contemplation obsolete. For many of us, Neil Postman was prophetic. Besides, his name lends an alliterative ring to the Pledge! As for Postman’s work, in addition to Amusing Ourselves to Death, I would also recommend Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future and Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology.
Stewart: My family is not yet a part of a Postman Pledge group, but in our own attempts to resist tech saturation we’ve tried not to make a big deal of how we differ from our friends and family. So far, it has been fairly easy. As our kids get older, we are probably going to have to make these boundaries clearer or just capitulate to the norms. There are so many opportunities to virtue-signal, and, in so doing, to make oneself obnoxious, proud, and inhospitable. How can we work against the grain of our culture and many of our communities on this issue, without adding to the clamor and division?
Schindler: I think that the answer to this is rather simple. Be hospitable. Precisely because your family is working on habits of attention and presence, exercise them by welcoming people into your home. Do real things together. Celebrate. Take delight in the world—together. Don’t feel compelled to broadcast your views about the dangers of technology. Let your life speak, but be prepared to give an account of why you’re living the way you are. And do all of this in a spirit of humility—knowing that we are all susceptible to the pull of the screen and a myriad of distractions—and do it with gratitude for the good world we have been given by a God who is goodness and love itself.
Stewart: Thank you kindly for your thoughtful replies. May the Postman Pledge groups flourish and grow!
Dr. Jeanne Schindler is a Fellow of the John Paul II Institute. Until 2013 she was an associate professor at Villanova University. Dr. Schindler’s intellectual interests are interdisciplinary, integrating philosophy, theology, and political science. She has lectured and published in a variety of areas, including Catholic social thought and democratic theory. She edited Christianity and Civil Society: Catholic and Neo-Calvinist Perspectives (2008) and co-edited with her husband, D.C. Schindler, A Robert Spaemann Reader (Oxford University Press, 2015). Dr. Schindler is a homeschooling mother of three children.
The Postman Pledge
As Christian parents, we recognize that everything God created is good
and that we have the great privilege of teaching our children to know, love,
and serve Him in the good world He created.
We also recognize that technological developments in the culture
undermine our capacity to inhabit the world and engage in social life as
richly or fully as we ought.
Therefore, we pledge for the next year not to allow our children to have
smartphones or use social media. We also pledge to conscientiously limit
our family’s use of electronic technologies in general and to cultivate the
habits of attention and presence that allow us to grow in love of one
another and of God.
Knowing that we were created for deep bonds of community, we pledge,
finally, to foster friendships among our families in the natural, traditional
ways human cultures have always done.
Signed November 28, 2021, the First Sunday of Advent
Image credit: via Wikimedia Commons