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Discerning the fruits of the digital age

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We use technology more wisely when we recognize how it affects the way we see the world

by Father Jonah Lynch

Several years ago, I was walking in an orchard of lemon trees in Italy and picked one of the fruits to smell the delicious perfume. Immediately, it made me think of my mother; I would have liked to share that lovely scent with her. But how? This was something I could not email to her or post on Facebook. This was something wonderful that technology could not transmit. I had to wait several months until her next visit to Rome. The experience prompted me to think about different ways to communicate, whether via an email or a handshake.

Telephones, email, the Internet, and the constantly changing array of new technology can be very useful. But each has limits as well as strengths. As I began to think about my relationship with technology, I came to realize that there was much more going on than I first thought.

Several years ago, I was walking in an orchard of lemon trees in Italy and picked one of the fruits to smell the delicious perfume. Immediately, it made me think of my mother; I would have liked to share that lovely scent with her. But how? This was something I could not email to her or post on Facebook. This was something wonderful that technology could not transmit. I had to wait several months until her next visit to Rome. The experience prompted me to think about different ways to communicate, whether via an email or a handshake.

Telephones, email, the Internet, and the constantly changing array of new technology can be very useful. But each has limits as well as strengths. As I began to think about my relationship with technology, I came to realize that there was much more going on than I first thought.

THE LIMITATIONS OF TECHNOLOGY

When it comes to the limitations of modern forms of communication, many examples could be given. For instance, speaking via webcam allows you to see the other person, but it is impossible to look him or her in the eyes. Either you look at the person’s eyes, or you look at your computer’s camera — but not both at once.

Likewise, instant messaging can be a nice way to check in with someone you see “present” online, but it too has limits. I once asked a friend, “How’s your girlfriend?” on chat. He took a few minutes to respond with one word: “OK.” I wondered what his silence meant. Was he unsure of what to say, or was he just busy? On the phone or in person, that silence would have told me a great deal. On chat, it was simply meaningless.

When I spoke about such experiences, I often heard it said that technologies are “neutral” and can be used for good or ill. But through much reading and thinking about these experiences, I discovered that technologies are not in fact neutral. That is not to say that they are evil, but that every technology carries with it a change in our approach to and relationship with the world. Each communication technology influences the content it relays.

In his seminal book, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), Neil Postman recalls the 27th president of the United States, William Howard Taft. Postman asks: Could a 300-pound, multi-chinned candidate have much hope of victory in today’s television-dominated election campaigns? Not likely. This means that the technology (television) is not content-neutral, but tends to favor certain types of speakers over others. Not only do good ideas count, but also a good appearance.

In a sense this is old news, but it bears repeating, because we are less aware of the influences of more recent technologies.

For instance, consider how cell phones have profoundly changed our relationship to space. Not long ago, there were clear distinctions among home, office, theater, church, beach, shopping center and so on. With cellular technology, the lines are blurred. We find office work taking place at the beach, comments being tweeted during a homily, and texting or chatting among distant friends during work hours. The space around us can end up seeming like an indifferent scenography for whatever activity we currently feel like doing.

Remember when the home telephone was almost sacred, when your boss could call only in a dire emergency? The rise of cell phones has completely changed the situation. It is now much more normal to receive work calls during off-hours and the weekends, interrupting home life, in part because cell numbers are not linked to any specific place. The caller does not usually know where you are and therefore feels less shame in disturbing your privacy.

We could examine many other technologies and make the same point: technology influences our relationships with other people and with the world. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is certainly something we need to recognize and correct accordingly. In many places, this is already happening. For instance, some companies have started to shut down their work email servers during off-hours, allowing employees to have time away from the office.

CULTIVATING FACE-TO-FACE COMMUNICATION

There are moments that require our undivided attention. Many people recognize the need to protect certain silent times and places such as church or family dinner, where even a silently vibrating phone can be a disruption. Deciding that nothing can possibly be more important than the person in front of me — and turning off my phone — can be very liberating.

Some families have found it useful to leave their cell phones in a basket by the door, to help their children appreciate the home as a place of togetherness and sanctuary, where family relationships have priority. Home is where we start from; if those relationships are strong, it is much easier to have security and courage in the outside world. Some limitation of outside distractions can help keep these relationships healthy.

What seems most important is to think freely and critically, and not blindly assume that devices are “neutral,” without any influence on my life. When I observe their actual effect on my way of living, I notice that many things have changed, some for the better, and some for the worse. This means that I need to discern which technologies, and which uses I make of them, can actually improve my life.

Recent neurological research shows that the very structure of the brain is modified by experience. In a very real way, we are formed by what we see, what we read, what we do. This discovery helps me to understand why it is that my increasingly “frictionless” technologies are teaching me to be impatient with anything that requires me to wait. The elimination of any time lag between desire and satisfaction rewires my brain to expect instant gratification, as if everything in life could be like flipping on a light switch or clicking a link on a high-speed Internet connection.

I sometimes end up more interested in efficiency than in other human beings, who are often inefficient, messy and needy, just like I am. When that happens, I try to remember a summer day many years ago.

I was a young seminarian spending the summer helping a chaplain named Father Vincent. One hot July morning in the hospital, we heard screaming. The voice came from a room where a woman named Rachel was dying of cancer.

The chaplain followed the sound. He entered and closed the door. Then he got on his knees and started yelling with her. She screamed, “Oh God!” and he screamed, “Oh God, help her!” He held her hand so that she knew someone was praying with her. We were there for a long time. At a certain point, her screams changed from, “Why, oh why, God?” into “I offer, I offer it!” In the last moments of her life, despair became hope.

The only thing good enough for Rachel that July morning was Father Vincent’s hand in hers. The only possible response to her need — after every medicine had been tried, every palliative care given — was the hand and the voice of a human person in the same room with her. There was no way to multiply Father Vincent’s effectiveness through advances in communication technology. No long-distance care would have been sufficient.

When I think of that experience, I try to remember that many of the most important things in life require patience and tenderness, and can happen only in person, as God himself taught us by physically becoming man and living together with us. He did not just send the message of the Good News. He sent his Son.

FATHER JONAH LYNCH is rector of the seminary of the Priestly Fraternity of the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo in Rome, and author of The Scent of Lemons: Technology and Relationships in the Age of Facebook (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2012).

Reprinted by permission of Columbia magazine, courtesy Knights of Columbus Supreme Council, New Haven, Conn. Columbia is published monthly by the Knights of Columbus.

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