"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Thoreau Gets Into the IT Debate

There's an interesting article over at the incomparable ReadySteadyBook site by Alan Wall on the future of the book. It has attracted some interesting discussion. If the technophobes sometimes sound a bit reactionary the technophiles on their side are sometimes uncritical in their adulation. It pays, pace McLuhan, to think about ends as well as means. I am currently reading Henry David Thoreau's 1854 American classic, Walden, about the life of self-sufficiency in the woods "on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts". Discoursing on "modern improvements", by which he probably meant the Atlantic telegraph rather than text-messaging, he wrote: "Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an improved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York." A valuable thought which put simply is: let's judge things by how useful they are rather than just by the fact that they are here.


Ms Baroque said...

Of course; but there is a sort of usefulness which is simply about fitting in with how things are done. Not having email nowadays, for instance, is actually a serious inconvenience to other people who might need to include you in a discussion about something. Even in Thoreau's day, refusing to take the train because "I don't do trains" would havegot you the reputation of a crank, especially if other people were going to be waiting for you at the station. (In other words, usefulness evolves, because [social] need evolves according to what's available.)

My aunt, who refuses to ring mobiles, is always complaining that I'm never home... "I've been trying to ring you all week! Where have you been??" In fact, I'm the easiest person in the world to get on the phone. But you have to ring the right phone!

Nicholas Murray said...

That's a good point but what I was driving at is that there is a sort of technological determinism around that says: the iPhone exists therefore I must have one rather than: what exactly does the iPhone add to my life and how necessary is it to my experience of being human? I think it is good to ask questions (as Thoreau does) about the ends and means of life. Capitalism, Marx argued, creates "false needs". Microsoft and Apple and all the other corporations want us to feel restless and hungry for their new products so that they can keep on making money from us. In Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" someone says "a love of nature keeps no factories busy" so country pursuits are frowned upon. Today, of course, you can't ride a bike or take a ramble without being kitted out in lots of expensive product from the sportswear industry. Living the simple life is probably being a bad citizen because you don't keep enough factories busy and could put people out of work.

There's a second issue here about how much communications technology dominates our lives (eg workers being bullied into taking their Blackberries to Mykonos when they are supposed to be on holiday). We should be in charge of our own lives and one way to do it is to keep a critical distance from some of the techno-hype. That's not being Luddite. It's being human.

Andrew said...

I'm disturbed by your animosity towards the philosophical dictum of the age, "I consume, therefore I am."

Nicholas Murray said...

Indeed! That is the tramp, tramp, tramp of the secret policemen's boots that I hear, guided by Google, come to take me away.

Ms Baroque said...

Nicholas, of course your point holds - of course it does! I was just putting forward another point which, I'd say, modifies rather than contradicts it.

I'm well aware, to my own horror, how much I myself live in thrall to this culture of consumption. It may not be new, but it feels more pernicious than it used to. I'm not even that ld, but even when I was a kid it was socially acceptable - ad not uncommon - to wear homemade clothes. All our mothers sewed, and I made loads of my own clothes till I was in my twenties. Nobody does that now.

Nicholas Murray said...

Sorry, I wasn't implying any of us disagreed about the essential here. And we should add, I suppose, that if we don't stop mindless consumption there may be no planet left for future generations to be frenetic consumers in!