Happy birthday, Walden.
Today in 1854, Henry David Thoreau released his nuanced and readable account of two years that he spent largely alone in a cabin near Concord, Massachusetts.
"His distillation of two years living in relative seclusion offers deep insights not just into the natural world and humanity's place in it, but how that relationship was being impacted -- and degraded -- by the Industrial Revolution," Wired's Randy Alfred reminds us. "It remains to this day a trenchant criticism of the excesses of technology,"
Walden is a fantastically good book, and Thoreau's unadorned style feels shockingly contemporary, even if his analysis of networks differs from our own. "We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate," he wrote. And in one of the most famous and beautiful passages from the book, we read:
We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man.... The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you. And every few years a new lot is laid down and run over; so that, if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail, others have the misfortune to be ridden upon.
Looking back at Thoreau, though, it's important to realize that he was as out of sync with his own times as he sometimes seems with ours. He's part of a long-standing American counterculture, the one that wonders whether all of our irritable striving to build and buy things is worth the bother.
The prominent journal, The North American Review declared as early as 1832 that "the general sentiment is decidedly, so far as we have been able to ascertain it, in favor of machinery. A few apostles of the opposite doctrine have arisen here and there; but their converts have not been numerous." The American love for machinery was widespread, and as historian Hugo Meier noted, "perplexed European observers."
In a country where so many gamely adopt the latest new gadget, we need our Thoreaus, not to stop the profusion of technology, but simply to remind us to use them well. There are spaces shot through our massively complex society to find "Simplicity! Simplicity! Simplicity!" by simply deciding to look for it.
Take another grave and important personality of the time, Abraham Lincoln. His views on technology, delivered in a series of speeches on "Discoveries and Inventions" in the years directly after Thoreau's Walden, were more positive. For Lincoln, technology did not debase humanity, as Thoreau would have contended, but it also wasn't a magical staircase leading to a better world under the label of Progress.
"Although convinced that 'discoveries and inventions' had rescued humankind from savage beginnings, produced abundance, and put genuine democracy within reach, Lincoln recognized that advancing technology alone would not guarantee freedom, but might bring new forms of mastery," the historian Eugene Miller summarized in a 2001 article for The Review of Politics. "Lincolnian statecraft seeks to moderate or limit this advance not through stringent controls, but by a moral teaching that builds on the natural to oneself and includes a doctrine of labor."