Thoughts on Thoreau

Expressing disdain for the recently invented and popularized telegraph, Henry David Thoreau said these words:

“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end,… We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”

He has me thinking about how new technologies reconstruct the way we run our lives. Thoreau wants to argue that these changes are inherently destructive as they mutate our perspective of what is important. I do not think I agree with the philosopher’s attitude about the telegraph.

I’m confused by what Thoreau considers important. He says these technologies are “improved means to an unimproved end.” That sounds rather cynical. I wonder if he believes in the existence of an improved end at all. According to his claim, if there is an improved end, we have been distracted from the path by networking tools. If Thoreau says there is no reason to connect Maine and Texas, then he must want us to localize our focus. Maybe he means that we must look at ourselves and immerse ourselves in self-reflection.

I have a problem with this egocentric  perspective. I see no reason to condemn networking. As much as we talk about the evils of social media, etc., its hard to believe that things like the telegraph have not improved our human existence. We are encouraged to discover things that have nothing to do with ourselves, which I think is beneficial. Before these technologies became very egocentric (today’s social media), they were tools to connect and broadcast information and ideas. I’d argue to Thoreau that we can use the information to enhance our knowledge, which sounds worthwhile to me.

I do, however, recognize how the cyclical nature of technological progress and invention continues to present danger. As discussed in Pencils to Pixels, every new development comes with the opportunity for hacking, theft, misrepresentation etc. But, eventually these risks are mitigated by the advantages these new things bring to the table. While Thoreau thought that one of the first signs of the developing Information Super-Highway (the telegraph) was a corrupt siren’s song distracting people from their purpose, I think its benefits outweigh the danger. Still, I cannot understand what Thoreau’s point was. Maybe his words were simply a backlash against the economic threat to his family’s pencil business like the article suggests…

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