“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end…”
This is one of those times when Thoreau sounds anti-technology. I don’t think he was against technology so much as he was against its thoughtless adoption. Earlier in the book he speaks of the opportunity to use modern materials “to become richer than the richest now are, and make our civilisation a blessing.” (For example, you can learn how to make better pencils.)
You’ve got to start by asking what your goals are. What do you value? Then you can figure out how best to get there. The phrase “improved means to an unimproved end” is not only pithy, but a useful way of generating these kinds of questions about new technologies. OK, you’ve found a better way of doing x. But is x even worth doing? And even if it is, what are the trade-offs?
For example, Henry might ask us, “OK, you’ve got 24/7 connectivity. How does that affect your life and your ability to stop and think for yourself? Remember what I told you about the benefits of building some solitude into your life. And, by the way, tell me again why you need to be connected all the time? What is it that you have to say?”
In fact, Henry addressed the very issue of communication technology. More about that next time.
(About “A Year in Walden”)