Packing For Walden

Posted: May 12, 2013 in Column, GT, Opinion

I’m probably going to be consigned to whatever level
of hell is reserved for pretentious editorialists for
saying this, but sometimes when I’m trying to
evaluate some new piece of technology, I consider
whether Henry David Thoreau would have taken it to
Walden Pond with him. Wait, just give me a second. I know how it sounds.
Let me explain. I’m not some Neo-primitivist who thinks we should all
go barefoot and use calorie-impoverished diets to
extend our miserable lives. On the other hand, I’m
suspicious of things people invent that have no
purpose except a slight increase in convenience. Yes, time is the only thing that we, as privileged first-
worlders, can’t purchase. Convenience is the nearest
thing to buying time, however, and it commands an
understandable premium. That said, I can’t help but
feel that our connected world (inclusive of the web
and the devices we use to interact with it) is being populated with tools that would not look out of place
in Skymall. Google Glass is one of them (and I expect to see a
knockoff in my complimentary seat-back magazine
soon), but the objections against it are so obvious
that I abandoned several articles enumerating them
as unnecessary (one working title: HUD Sucker); at
any rate, they have been expressed perfectly well by others, and I don’t plan on duplicating their efforts.
Now that you know this isn’t about yet another opinion
on the thing, you can move your cursor away from the
“close tab” x, unless you’re reading this on Google
Glass, in which case I beg to inform you, sir or
madam, that it is not becoming. But to proceed: Technology is about empowerment,
and in fact I think that Thoreau’s modern analogue
would find many useful tools to bring with him on his
sojourn in nature. The man was, after all, hardly a masochist or even
what we would now call a Luddite, not that he had
many technologies to which he could object in those
days (“glow-shoes, and umbrellas”). He brought a
grinder with him in the days when mortar and pestle
were still in vogue, and of course many books, which were one of the primary means of entertainment,
along with drinking and conquest. Picture this modern Thoreau embarking on his
hermitage. He is not trying to return to the necessities
of cavemen — he wants to carve and fill a niche that
is big enough to hold him, his needs, and his edifying
pleasures — but no more. So while it seems unlikely he would find room in his
bag for a Slap Chop or personal air conditioner, there
are many marvels of modern technology which he
would be happy to utilize. If he could bring the entire
Western canon on an iPad (or e-reader, to conserve
power), surely that would be preferable to choosing a bare two dozen paper books. A compass would be
essential, but surely a GPS unit would not be amiss?
If a knife, why not a multitool? And if I’m honest, if
paper and envelopes, why not Twitter? But there
things begin to unravel. Enablers and facilitators Anyway, the point is not to make an inventory of
Thoreau 2.0′s bag (heavy waxed canvas, I think), but
to express that the criteria he might use to select
what goes into that bag are useful ones. The idea is
to find things that extend our own natural powers, or
grant us new ones. There is a real difference between the tools, digital or
physical, which empower us with new actions, and
the tools which merely make existing actions easier.
If you want to chop down a tree, it is not realistic to
do it with your teeth. Yet once a man has an axe, it is
only a continuum of difficulty between felling the tree with that, and felling it with a chainsaw. The
difference between the two is only effort. Similarly, if you want to communicate with someone
across the world, or retrieve information hosted on a
server thousands of miles away, you will need a tool
— even the most stentorian or far-sighted among us
could not hope to work in place of the most
fundamental element of a phone or the Internet. But once that connection is made, as you add speed and
modes of consumption, past a certain point you are
no longer enabling new actions, but rather facilitating
existing ones. I’ve always liked Samuel Warren’s description of
difficulty in Ten Thousand A-Year: “What is difficulty? Only a word indicating the degree of strength requisite
for accomplishing particular objects; a mere notice of
the necessity for exertion; a bugbear to children and
fools; only a mere stimulus to men.” Do we all need the digital equivalent of chainsaws,
reducing the necessity of exertion to its absolute
minimum? Note, I don’t think we’re quite there yet –
our devices and networks are still developing. But
once you see that something is not actually new, but
only does what another thing did before faster or cheaper, isn’t it a rational choice to draw a line there
— whichever side of that line you choose to stand
on? For more powerful tools carry risks and problems of
their own, and some find that the cure is worse than
the disease. It’s a mistake to write off such people as
simply old-fashioned, or ignorant, or afraid of the
future. There are sophisticated objections to these
things on the tumultuous outmost margin of technology, every spasm of which is breathlessly
extrapolated into some magical future by pundits with
brief memories and narrow considerations. Sometimes, on reflection, I find myself among their
company. That’s why I like this little Thoreau
exercise. A simple question: Does this add something
new, as an axe or a mobile phone does? Or does it
make something easier, as a chainsaw or Google
Glass? And in either case, at what cost? The answer is rarely surprising, but the process helps
clarify what exactly it is that I think I need from these
things, what they really provide, and what may come
in the future to replace them.

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