Tag Archives: technology

Nostalgia for an open fire (Walden 164)

What could be more nostalgic on a cold winter’s night than an old cast-iron wood stove with a blazing fire inside, radiating warmth and just a hint of smoke from when you last opened the door to throw in another stick of wood?

Can you imagine a time when said stove was a modern intrusion, a triumph of efficiency over aesthetics?

Thoreau lived in such a time, when the efficient stove was replacing the time-honored but wasteful fireplace: Continue reading


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.) Continue reading

“I could easily do without the post-office.” (Walden 61)

“For my part, I could easily do without the post-office. I think that there are very few important communications made through it. To speak critically, I never received more than one or two letters in my life … that were worth the postage. The penny-post is, commonly, an institution through which you seriously offer a man that penny for his thoughts which is so often safely offered in jest.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” Walden

Just think what Thoreau would say about email, or blogs, or Twitter. (And what would you think if you’d ever written him a letter?! Was mine one of that one or two? What if you had written him a dozen letters? Would you be inclined to write him any more?) Continue reading

The railroad rides upon us, the sleepers (Walden 60)

“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, an Irishman, or a Yankee 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.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Where I lived and What I Lived For,” Walden

Thoreau is playing with the word “sleeper,” which referred to the wooden ties on which the rails were laid. He paints a disturbing picture of each sleeper as a man, his life expended in the backbreaking labor of railroad construction, and without the time or energy to awaken in the sense that Henry described in the previous pages. It is not so much a criticism of technology as a plea for economic justice. Continue reading

Living too fast… at 30 mph (Walden 59)

“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. Continue reading

Thoreau on the nineteenth century Internet (Walden 32)

“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.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden Continue reading

Improved means to an unimproved end (Walden 31)

“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.) Continue reading