One hundred and sixty-seven years ago today, on July 4, 1845, Henry David Thoreau moved into a small cabin near Walden Pond in Massachusetts. He used the next two years to develop “Walden,” a book that contemplates the promise of nature and the perils of progress.
Today’s anniversary, coincidentally the same day as America’s birthday, invites a question:
If Thoreau were to move to Walden today, would he bring the Internet with him?
At first glance, that idea seems silly. Thoreau is, after all, one of the world’s most celebrated skeptics of technological innovation, and his barbs about advances in speedy communications and commerce are legendary.
“I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper,” he told his 19th century readers. “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas,” Thoreau famously complained, “but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”
He could be equally nonplussed by the increasing speed of transportation. “We do not ride the railroad,” Thoreau memorably lamented, “it rides upon us.”
But there’s a different side to Thoreau’s relationship with technology that’s also worth remembering, since it says so much about our continuing struggle to strike the right balance between individual serenity and an interconnected planet.
Ralph Waldo Emerson revealed this aspect of Thoreau in a remembrance after Thoreau’s death.
Thoreau, Emerson recalled, went to the Harvard University Library to get some books.
The librarian refused to lend them, as did the university president, mentioning that the collection was available only to current students, certain alumni, and residents who lived within 10 miles of campus. Apparently, the management didn’t want treasured volumes wandering too far.
But Thoreau, hitting upon a clever argument, noted that the advent of the railroad “had destroyed the old scale of distances,” presumably meaning that books could now travel farther, and more safely, than they once did. By simply following the old rules, Thoreau contended, the library had compromised its mission.
Compelled by Thoreau’s logic and a few other arguments, the president relented. Thanks in part to the presence of the railroad, an institution about which he could be critical, Thoreau now had convenient access to a wealth of learning.
Thoreau was aware of the need to reconcile the wonders of the wild with the benefits of urban centers. In a journal entry from 1851, he mentions visiting libraries at Cambridge and Boston, which makes him consider a contradiction that confronts many a naturalist.
To study the woods, he has to get away from the collected works of other naturalists – the bounty of big-city libraries – that would help him appreciate what he’s seeing. “Those who have expressed the purest and deepest love of nature,” he muses, “have not recorded it on the bark of trees with the lichens ... if I would read their books I must go to the city ... so strange and repulsive both to them and to me.”
Thoreau speculates about how wonderful it might be to have an unobtrusive library of natural knowledge out in the woods, so that landscape and literature are one.
The ideal that Thoreau describes invites a parallel with today’s laptop, which allows us to bring a universe of knowledge to a verdant meadow, a shadowy forest, a gurgling brook. This relationship between retreat and engagement – sometimes helpful, and frequently frustrating – is something that many of us will experience this summer as we take our computers and portable phones on beach vacations and mountain getaways. We’ll still have much of what the world a click away, but this claim on our attention might give us more of the world than we want.
Thoreau seemed aware of this tension between repose and connectedness, and even he wasn’t a purist in trying to square it.
Perhaps his greatest insight into the information revolution was his simple recognition that this bargain exists – that every transaction with the wider web of discourse does, indeed, exact something from us. Throughout his work, he invites us to consider what we stand to gain – and what we’re willing to pay – for having what we want when we want it.
The terms of that trade-off will be different for everyone this vacation season, as we make our own compromises between getting away from it all – and having it all at our fingertips. The trick is to think critically, to remember that we don’t always have to think or see or feel as quickly as the tweets, texts, and e-mails speeding their way to our hammocks and beach chairs.
“After all,” Thoreau writes, “the man whose horse trots a mile in a minute does not carry the most important messages...”