“The nation… lives too fast. Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour…” — Henry David Thoreau, “Where I lived and What I Lived For,” Walden
We can laugh at this, but one generation’s future shock is the next generation’s nostalgia. Thoreau is writing so long ago that things that seem quaint to us were for him starkly modern, fast, and representative of a new industrial age. But notice that he’s not calling for a return to the technology and expectations of the sixteenth century — in other words, to times as remote to him as he is to us.
You can imagine how he’d write this today. He would take for granted the technology mentioned above and complain about the ubiquity of smart phones and social media.
This is how it is with every generation in recent history. So it isn’t the technology itself, but the perception of change that’s the issue. At any point along the timeline since the Industrial Revolution (at least) people feel that the world is speeding up and that our lives are getting more hectic. And generation after generation, thoughtful people like Thoreau look around and conclude that much of the activity around them is unnecessary, a chasing after the wind.
I find this strangely reassuring. It tells us that there isn’t necessarily anything uniquely wrong about our time. This is just the human experience of adjustment to societal and technological change.
But there’s a darker side to all of this… more about that next time.
(About “A Year in Walden”)