The Scent of Lemons. Technology and Human Relationships in the Facebook Era

The Scent of Lemons. Technology and Human Relationships in the Facebook Era

Jonah Lynch, The Scent of Lemons. Technology and Human Relationships in the Facebook Era , Lindau 2011, 144 pages.

One of the merits of this book that won me over page by page is definitely its sincerity.Sincerity united to simplicity, above all by the author in confronting the issues in the book, which he experienced in the first person. Simplicity in describing the changes that can happen in our mind through an indiscriminate, or dare I say “adolescent” or “immature”, usage of the new Internet technologies, e.g. Facebook. In 2009, Dr. Federico Tonioni opened the first public clinic for curing Internet dependence through the Gemelli di Roma Hospital in Italy.This is not an abstract book. It is rather very practical, and even at times overly concrete. The text is divided into four chapters: “Neurological surprises” , The Stubbornness of the Material, Education, Conclusion.

A brief run-down is given of the history of humanity in regard to reading and writing, such as the invention of punctuation in the 800’s by Irish monks. From that point on, “it became physically easier to read quickly and with greater attention. From that context, a reflexive capacity was born; while one reads profoundly, he thinks profoundly.” The author then exposes what is, in my opinion, the fundamental principle of the whole book. It is explained on several occasions, always in more detail: while a person reads in a profound way, it creates “connections in the memory between that which is being read and that which one has experienced and thought in the past. In this inward and outward flow of ideas crossing the memory, new and stronger connections are formed […] A small time lapse is necessary so that the information that enters the short-term memory can be transferred into the long-term memory. If the short-term memory is filled with other information during this passage, the first bits of information are cancelled out. Here the author resumes the studies of Maryanna Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brain.

Lynch is not a nostalgic “conservative” of the Middle Ages or the Inquisition; nor is he a “progressive liberal”. He comes off as a realist. He does not launch condemnations against cell phones or the Internet. His intention seems to always be to order man’s instruments. In fact, he opposes “the unconditional surrender of fatalism, the naïve hope of social evolutionism, and the cowardice of he who is content with complaining about what is wrong, without proposing a path toward improvement.”

In the chapter on Education that I hold to be key, the author seeks to respond to the question: But now what do I need to do? How can I teach people to wisely use the technological means of communication? He wittily proposes a fast. That word -and practice- have practically disappeared from our cultural horizon…and the proposal is a technological fast. A fast that teaches us freedom: “Freedom means to live the essential, to not get dispersed, to not float on the surface of feelings”. The technological fast is geared towards helping people confront themselves regarding the growth of their human relationships. Let’s give a simple example that could be useful, as the author explains, for individuals, for families, or in the formation of consecrated persons or priests: shut off the cell phone when at the table with friends, family, or members of the community in order to prefer their real presence . Certainly a fast opens the door to freedom, but a fast alone is not enough: it’s necessary to propose an ideal. The technical questions- well, how can I use the Internet? When should I use the cell phone?- should be defined according to the ideal. You don’t need a case study manual. Rather we must ask ourselves: For whom do I live? What is really important in my life? Is Facebook a way to live my relationships better? Is it an exercise of your vanity or an impoverishment of the quality in the quantity? The cell phone, the iPad, the blog…does it free you or chain you? Lynch writes: “Education is to help incarnate the ideal in the concrete situation…The work of an educator, of a father, of a mother, consists in this: to know how to live an ideal that is convincing in itself, and then propose the ideal to one’s own children or students. Certainly, it will be their choice in the end. But if they do not receive a captivating and achievable proposal, it will be easier for them to go astray. It seems that this is the only path to take: freedom oriented by a great ideal.”

Therefore, before any technological gadget, we must ask ourselves:

  1. What does this thing promise me? What problems will it resolve?
  2. Am I interested in its promise? Do I really have these problems?
  3. What other problems will it create for me?

These are the questions brought up in an interview of the media theorist and cultural critic Neil Postman. The video of this interview can obviously be reached… on YouTube!