Summer 2013

Scent of Lemons

William R. Hamant Download Article

Jonah Lynch, The Scent of Lemons: Technology and Relationships in the Age of Facebook (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2012).

The great accomplishments of this short and accessible book are two: first, it lays bare the ontology that is embodied by and spread through technology; and second, that it criticizes this ontology without at the same time falling into either fatalism about its inevitable and lamentable triumph, or romantic nostalgia for a more innocent time before its advent. Throughout the book Lynch refuses to oversimplify the questions that arise from a consideration of technology. This is no small feat when he himself admits that his observations are admittedly generalized for the sake of brevity (p. 48).

Approaches to technology often fall into one of two camps. Either technology is viewed as “neutral,” meaning that it is good if used “properly” or for “good ends,” and bad if the contrary obtains (p. 33); or it is in itself a flawed way of interacting with and making use of the world, a “structure of sin,” the defects of which are the cause of the problems that flow from any use of it. What is refreshing and challenging about Lynch’s approach is that he is able, first, to insist that the use of technology is a moral question, without at the same time rendering technology “neutral”; and second, to acknowledge the link between technology and its attendant problems without at the same time rendering technology “inherently evil.”

Most of all, Lynch maintains throughout an optimism that stems from his Christian faith in the goodness of God, who created the world, and who calls people of every age to salvation. “I am a Christian and I don’t believe that my era is an age in which it is impossible to live well. It would be a lack of faith to believe that one can know God, love one’s brother and live in peace only after having destroyed this or that ‘structure of sin’” (p. 17).

Lynch’s book explores several characteristics of technology, which are, as might be expected, closely bound up with one another. First, technology tends to eliminate our connection to time and space, with its rhythms and particularity. The clock, for instance, divides the day equally into twenty-four separate units, the consistent duration of which contrasts with and lessens the relevance of the fluctuations of the seasons (p. 42). Electric light, similarly, in spite of all of its obvious benefits and convenience, overpowers the gentler and God-given light of the stars, disconnecting us from the nature in which humanity has always been deeply immersed (pp. 41-42). Finally, devices such as the cell phone are invented precisely to render where one is more and more irrelevant. Previously, someone from my work would only call me at home in cases of real emergency; now I can be reached (and am expected to be reachable) wherever I am.

Second, the increasing irrelevance of time and space makes personal growth more difficult. Technology tends to eliminate physical or emotional “distance”: a child on her first field trip or away at college still tethered to her parents by the umbilical cord of the cell phone, for instance. Healthy individuality is stunted by unhealthy dependence (p. 34). Similarly, even one’s society is prevented from allowing for one’s personal growth, because, as Lynch points out, the “memory” of the internet is eternal (pp. 65-68). Anything I post on Facebook, any web search I conduct, leaves an unerasable trail. And herein lies one of the greatest shortcomings of technology, where it fails us insofar as we are persons: we make mistakes, we commit sins, and we need forgiveness. Unlike the mind of God, however, the internet has no mercy. Yet: “If… forgiveness were not possible, if every one of my acts should remain fixed forever without appeal, I could only despair” (p. 68). To this problem Lynch can think of no technical solution; and it seems to me that no technical solution is possible. The simple recording of data as data is an atomistic memory, capturing each instant and disconnecting it from the whole. This is not the memory proper to persons, for whom memory always takes into account and is affected by one’s knowledge of the entirety of a life. Living with a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for several years, for instance, makes one realize how great was the victory over past difficulties; for the “memory” of technology, the victory is just one moment among all of the others, leaving the pain of the time before the victory as fresh as when it first occurred.

Third, today’s technology leads to a lack of patience. It embodies the view that what is done more quickly is done better (p. 43). Here the “could” quickly becomes “should”: it is wrong, wasteful, to take a slower approach, if a faster one is possible. Inevitably, however, “faster” come to mean “shallower.” The reading habits of the current generation, Lynch argues, are non-linear: we skip around on a web page, looking for something more interesting than what we presently are reading (p. 27). He himself admits to being less able to concentrate on an argument (pp. 12-14). And this is not by accident, he maintains: the internet, cell phones, and so on, “are structurally ordered to a type of reading that is superficial, a type of research which is more similar to hunting than to contemplation” (p. 28). My own sense is that Lynch is correct in this assertion; I do, in fact, read the same article differently if it is printed, versus on computer or tablet screen. It would be an enlightening addition to look at studies that help explain why this is the case [see other reviews in this issue – Ed.].

Fourth, our greater “interconnectedness” is actually accompanied by a profound – and perhaps hitherto unexperienced – solitude. Some of the observations Lynch makes to support this point are limitations of technology that could imaginably change as the technology develops; for instance, the unnaturalness of Skype conversations in which, because of the location of the webcam, one cannot simultaneously look into the other person’s eyes and appear to the other person to be doing so. But most of Lynch’s points on this score are subtler, and depend upon and develop an understanding of bodily presence to show the deficiencies of technology.

To be present with another person physically is a unique kind of presence that cannot be duplicated; the attempt to overcome time or space in communicating with another person always loses something fundamental. Recent innovations in technology (the internet, the cell phone) are in fact for Lynch not alone in this deficiency: a letter – even if it is handwritten – or a phone call fail to include aspects of self-communication that are possible only in the body (pp. 55-7). “The language of love, like the language of religion, needs personal and bodily communication. You can trust a person, not a message. You can entrust yourself to a person and follow him, love him” (p. 56). Disturbingly, we sometimes prefer the more impoverished form of communication; Lynch will often hear his students tell each other, “See you tonight on Facebook,” and wonders why they don’t simply go out for a beer together. He worries that it is due in large part to the fact that such forms of “hanging out” make it possible for me to put up a virtual version of myself that may not correspond to the real me (p. 59).

In sum, technology contains and communicates a certain ontology. This ontology, Lynch argues, is reductive, and teaches us to believe that everything is reproducible. It is reductive because digital reproductions by definition result in the loss of data; an image or a sound is always an approximation. Whether or not I notice the difference, the fact remains the same: “Digital is structurally incapable of shades of meaning, it has to atomize the world into little fragments, even if perhaps with a resolution that is beyond the limits of human perception, in order to measure them and recompose them in another place.” Lynch continues, “[T]his approximation of the world contains a powerful and hidden ontology. Digital pretends that things can be decomposed into the elements 1 and 0, at least up to a resolution you can perceive” (p. 46).

For this reason technology promises reproducibility: one of the most disturbing losses that follow from technology’s reductivity is the loss of the uniqueness of the individual or the original. A recording of a song can be reproduced an infinite number of times, and each “copy” is purportedly the same as the first. No one would deny the practical benefits of this. Harder to see is why this is problematic. To help make this point clear, Lynch asks why an original painting, for instance, is so much more valuable than an even very highly deceptive copy. He observes the feeling of disappointment he has had upon realizing an apparently personal letter was a form letter. It is, he argues, legitimate that an original painting be more valuable than a copy, or that a form letter means less than an individual letter. Proper to the person is irreproducibility; one of the greatest attractions of technology is its perceived ability to reproduce everything.

In spite of his desire to confront the problems inherent in technology, Lynch is refreshingly optimistic in both his treatment of technology’s shortcomings and his proposals for addressing these shortcomings. This is not to say that he imagines that any solution would be easy. I personally found Lynch’s use of Neil Postman’s approach helpful: “1. What does this thing promise, what problems will it solve? 2. Am I interested in its promise? Do I really have these problems? 3. What other problems will it create?” (p. 86). It is, Lynch warns, impossible to answer these questions on the basis of criteria proposed by the logic of technology. Technology’s problems have no technological solutions; technology must be judged by criteria that are not themselves technical, buthuman (pp. 84-5).

For this reason the real solutions will not be the easiest. We can put no programs in place that will make us “use” technology “just the right amount” and in “just the right ways.” Living fully in every age is always a personal and free decision. But here Lynch has a refreshing faith in the ultimate appeal of life beyond the screen. Reality is full enough, genuine relationships are rich enough, and silence is satisfying enough, that its appeal can never be silenced entirely. There will always be important dimensions of reality, like the scent of lemons, that technology will never be able to communicate.