Thoreau On Technology

What about technology? Must the simple liver indiscriminately renounce it? Thoreau thought that it is certainly better to accept than reject the advantages, though so dearly bought, which the invention and industry of humankind offer – provided, of course, that they are genuine advantages.[1] But he warned that often with these ‘modern improvements’ there is ‘an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance…. Our inventions are want to be pretty toys, which distract us from serious things. They are an improved means to an unimproved end.’[2] It is all very well to invent or be able to afford some new gadget, Thoreau was saying, but we should look upon new technologies with a measure of scepticism, for however ingenious and marvellous the invention may seem, it will likely have unintended side-effects and even shape who we are as persons, in ways that are not always obvious or positive. Looking to our own day, the television, for example, is a remarkable human achievement, and yet, aside from sleeping and working, the television now consumes more time of the typical North American or Briton than any other activity, and other ‘advanced societies’ watch almost as much.[3] One does not have to be an ‘elitist’ to have doubts about whether this is really the best way to spend our freedom. The point is that if we do not know what to do with technology, then it can be life-debilitating rather than life-enhancing.

Trying to get us to question the purpose of various technologies and whether they actually improve our lives, Thoreau wrote:

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…. As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly. We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.[4]

The problem is that technology is often just there – fascinating, new, socially celebrated, affordable, and available – and it is so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that, since earlier generations did without it, we ‘moderns’/’postmoderns’ must therefore have progressed, that we are necessarily better off. Pernicious nonsense, Thoreau would say. We must show some discrimination in terms of what we choose to celebrate. If some new technology genuinely furthers our life goals and does not distract us from more important activities, then, by all means, we should take advantage of it. But Thoreau warned that all too often – in insidious ways – technology costs more than it comes to.

Two reasons that made Thoreau particularly suspicious of technology were (1) that we have to spend time working to earn money to afford technology, and he wonders whether we might oftener be better off without the technology and with more free time; and (2) that technology tends to distance us from the natural environment and can affect our life experiences for the worse. Both these points are masterfully illustrated in the following passage:

One says to me, “I wonder that you do not lay up money; you love to travel; you might take the cars and go to Fitchburg today and see the country.” But I am wiser than that. I have learned that the swiftest traveler is he that goes afoot. I say to my friend, Suppose we try who will get there first. The distance is thirty miles; the fare ninety cents. That is almost a day’s wages. I remember when wages were sixty cents a day for laborers on this very road. Well, I start now on foot, and get there before night; I have travelled at that rate by the week together. You will in the meanwhile have earned your fare, and arrive there some time tomorrow, or possibly this evening, if you are lucky enough to get a job in season. Instead of going to Fitchburg, you will be working here the greater part of the day. And so, if the railroad reached round the world, I think that I should keep ahead of you; and as for seeing the country and getting experience of that kind, I should have to cut your acquaintance altogether.[5]

Travelling by train might seem to be the most ‘efficient’ way to travel, but Thoreau challenges us to rethink how this new technology affects our experience and what are its full costs, comprehensively defined. And although Thoreau’s example here considers transportation only, the points he makes are generally applicable to all our decisions relating to technology.

To the objection that Thoreau is advocating an unsophisticated primitive existence, the appropriate response is twofold: first, that although he often damned technologies as debilitating luxuries he did not deny that they could also be enabling tools worthy of praise and exploitation; secondly, Thoreau suggested that just perhaps there is a sophistication and elegance to the clothesline, the bicycle, and the water tank, that the dryer, the automobile, and the desalination plant, decidedly lack. Conversely, perhaps there is a certain primitiveness to technological gimmicks. As Leonardo da Vinci once wrote: ‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.’

[1] Henry David Thoreau, ‘Walden’ in Carl Bode (ed), The Portable Thoreau (1982) 295.

[2] Ibid 306.

[3] Richard Layard, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (2005) 86.

[4] Thoreau, above n 1, 307.

[5] Ibid 307.