Thoreau on technology and time (Walden 82)

The arrival of the railroad changed life in Concord, linking the town more closely to the outside world. It changed the economy, but also changed people’s sense of time. Thoreau describes the effect:

“The startings and arrivals of the cars are now the epochs in the village day. They go and come with such regularity and precision, and their whistle can be heard so far, that the farmers set their clocks by them, and thus one well-conducted institution regulates a whole country. Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented? Do they not talk and think faster in the depot than they did in the stage-office? There is something electrifying in the atmosphere of the former place. …To do things “railroad fashion” is now the byword; and it is worth the while to be warned so often and so sincerely by any power to get off its track. There is no stopping to read the riot act, no firing over the heads of the mob, in this case. We have constructed a fate, an Atropos, that never turns aside.” (“Sounds,” Walden)

(Atropos, “in Greek mythology, one of the three Fates, who cuts the thread of life” according to Annotated Walden.)

Not only the railroad, but also factory labor and the Industrial Revolution as a whole, changed our sense of time. Because it was important to schedule and coordinate activities in distant places, clocks and watches became more important, and later in the century the railroads would develop standard time zones, rather than each locality setting its clocks according to the noontime sun.

The changes made sense, but we lost something even as we gained something. I don’t think too many people would want to go back to a pre-industrial society, but we’ve mostly lost the sense of regulating our day according to sunlight and natural cues such as hunger and sleepiness. The clock rules us all.

Henry saw this growing emphasis on what we might call artificial time. (Hours and minutes are arbitrary divisions, after all.) In our generation we’ve seen the growth of artificial distance… or rather, the artificial compression of distance due to the ubiquity of web access and smartphones. It’s great — and this blog is part of that virtual world — but it comes at a cost. Every day I see people walking across a beautiful campus, past trees and flowers and sculpture and other people, and seeing none of it because they’re not really present — they’re looking down at a glowing little screen as they hurry along, railroad fashion.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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