Modern Lyceum: Technology and Society (panel) 2.9.16

Modern Lyceum: Technology and Society (panel) 2.9.16


Welcome to Thoreau’s Legacy: A Modern Lyceum,
the first conversation in what we hope will become an annual series. Our Modern Lyceum
brings back the movement that was spawned adult education in America with public forums
that promoted thoughtful conversation and education about the social intellectual and ethical
questions of the nineteenth century society. Thoreau was active in Concord’s lyceum and
was even elected to serve as both secretary and curator between 1838 and 1840. More over
the Lyceum became both an important platform for Thoreau to share his work as well as an
instrument for his learning from others. In our Modern Lyceum, we will explore current-day
topics through the perspectives of Thoreau and his contemporaries as we know their writing
and philosophies still offer genuine wisdom that can be applied to the issues of today.
I am Whitney Retallic the Director of Education at the Walden Woods Project. A little bit
about the Walden Woods Project, it was started twenty-five years ago by recording artist
Don Henley to protect a specific parcel of land in Walden Woods that was threatened to
be developed into a large office park. Don had been hugely impacted by Thoreau’s ideas
and writings in his youth and thought, “if Walden Woods, this place that inspired the
incredible writings of Thoreau and others, if that place was not sacred, then what place
was?” The Walden Woods Project successfully protected that parcel and has since conserved
another dozen areas in Walden Woods. The Walden Woods Project now also maintains the Thoreau
Institute Library, which houses the world’s most extensive collection of Thoreau-related
artifacts, documents and offers a wide range of educational resources and programming to
students, educators, researchers, and the general public. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking
about the topic of technology and society in the months leading up to this event, reading
Bill’s book, which I do highly recommend, although it didn’t get here in time for today,
unfortunately! Perusing the various places where Thoreau comments on the technology of
his day, and I even subconsciously imposed and unintentional technology respite on myself
when I forgot my cell phone at home when I was on vacation last week. I am happy to report
that I survived and that it was actually quite wonderful. What would Thoreau have thought
of my intense discomfort in those first few phone-less hours and then about my resignation
and ultimately the delight I did feel of not being the tool of that tool while on vacation?
I look forward to gaining insight on that and much more from the conversation tonight.
Tonight’s moderator will be Dr. Sarah Luria who will introduce herself and the panelists.
Hi, thanks so much for coming, thanks to my students for coming, and any other students
who are here, thanks to WPI for hosting us and Jim for helping that out. I teach at Holy
Cross, I’m a professor of 19th century American literature. I work and write on Thoreau and
right now I’m working on a book called “The Art of Surveying,” for whom Thoreau was the
great starting inspiration. Let me introduce the rest of our panelists. We have Dr. Kristen
Case, who is an associate professor at the University of Maine of Farmington, teaching
courses in American literature, environmental writing, intersection of twentieth and twenty-first
century American literature and philosophy. She’s also the editor of the Concord Saunterer,
I’m calling you editor! After two/three year stint, anyway, great honor, the Concord Saunterer,
a journal of Thoreau studies, co-editor of “Thoreau at 200,” essays and reassessments
which is forthcoming. And she’s working with her students now to develop Thoreau’s calendar,
a digital archive of Thoreau’s phenoligical manuscripts the words she will decipher for
us later when she talks about that work and is making the calendar, Thoreau’s calendar,
available for the first time in its entirety. Jeffrey Cramer is the curator of collections
and the resident scholar at the Walden Woods Institute, Walden Woods Project Thoreau Institute.
He is consulted by hundreds of researchers and students and educators from around the
world each year in their studies of Thoreau and the transcendentalists. He is the editor
of numerous books, including a fully annotated edition of “Walden;” is that over there? It’s
really beautiful! “The Portable Thoreau,” which I use for teaching. “I to Myself” an annotated
selection from the Journal of Henry David Thoreau and most recently Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Check out the books after the session. William Powers got started as a journalist for the
Washington Post and his writing has appeared in the Atlantic, The New York Times, and many
other publications. He’s the author of the New York Time’s bestseller “Hamlet’s Blackberry:
Building a Good Life in the Digital Age,” which looks to Thoreau and a handful of other
thinkers throughout history for insight into better living living better lives during times
of technological expansion, such we’re undergoing now. He’s currently at MIT media lab with
a research group that’s trying to reinvent social media. Here! Here! So I though just
to get us started, a lot of people think that Thoreau was anti-technology, he’s the guy
that said “simply, simplify” went to live in the woods, so how do you understand
Thoreau’s relationship to technology and how would you understand phrases like “we’ve become
the tools of our tools” which certainly sounds or “that railroads, we don’t ride the railroads
the railroads ride us?”Sure I’ll start, I’ll say I think Thoreau’s relationship to technology
like his relationship to everything was complicated and changing and it changed in the course
of many years that he wrote in his journal and for the many years he wrote and revised
“Walden.” You know he is such a nuanced thinker and such a investigator of life that it’s
really, it’s very easy to find sentences that seem to make him for example a bit a vegetarian,
pro-hunting, anti-technology, pro-technology. But the truth is it’s I think it was quite
complicated for him and I think that he… the railroad for instance, I mean the passage
in “Sounds” is quite enamored of the railroad, whereas in the other passage he’s really condemning
it, so I think, you know, I think he… it’s hard to to pin him down to a simple one-liner.
I think he really believed in continual evaluation of things in our lives of the things that
we use and the ways that we use them, so I thinks that’s what he would’ve advocated more
than get rid of smartphones or get rid Twitter. Think about how we use the things that we
have and whether we want to use them. Yeah, and I agree with what Kristen said basically
we create the Thoreau we want to see. You could pull quotations, texts that create that
man that we want him to represent, but he is very complex and does most of his writings
question things constantly, constantly question to reevaluate, as well as say well hypothetical
sentences. But technology was in his day the “thing,” the railroad, steam had been improving.
He had a pencil factory, he used the best publishers of his day which was the best technology
to get his words out there. The train with which he had a complex relationship was also
a tool that allowed him to go to Boston, to the Athenaeum, or Cambridge to the Harvard
Library in a short amount of time. He definitely used those tools, he just didn’t let those
tools run his life. Just one example he talks about the train and how farmers used to be
able to tell time by the sun and by their experience with the land and with nature,
but grew to actually set their time pieces by when the train went by, so that’s an example
of that tool sort of ruling our lives. So I don’t disagree with anything Kristen and
Jeff said, but I want to share an impression I took away from this, and I sort of did an
immersion of Thoreau for my book where I used a bunch of philosophers from the past to help
us think about life in the digital age, and Thoreau’s one of them. And I did this kind
of a immersion, and Jeff, I was in touch with Jeff at the time and he helped me make sense
of, generously helped me, make sense of Thoreau. I came away feeling he has a bias against
new technology. Maybe because he was still wrestling with it, but I feel like, you know,
if it’s for example he seems fine with newspapers and books and that level of delivery of information,
slower delivery, but then once it can come by telegraph, he’s very angry that you’ll
be getting gossip from Europe instantaneously, you know that Princess Adelaide has a cold,
whatever that line is. Who needs to know that? So I feel like he’s one of these people, and
I have a part of me that’s like this, that is “stop, it’s too much and you’re intruding
on my piece and quiet that I really need right,” which is true! I mean technology does that
and he was speaking up for that point of view. But I feel like there is that leaning against
the new, and let’s not rush into it, basically. So technology’s a big word, can we get a little
bit more following up on what you just said. How would you want to compare what would you
want to bring out what Thoreau might appreciate about the technology of a pencil and what’s
got him riled about the telegraph, for instance, or how do those things compare? Pencil versus
an Ipod? Well I can jump in and say that he thinks of the pencil as just naturally an
expression of one person’s innermost thoughts, knowledge that they want to share, sort of
lends itself directly to that as just you using the pencil. Going out via, say a book,
to another person, so it has this wonderful kind of direct, you know, he loved depth,
the sort of depth of relationships. So it really seems a really natural way to do that:
person to person. The Ipad, all of a sudden you’re in touch with hundreds of millions
of people and it seems to me again this bias against the new and the too much. It would
strike him as, “what’s the point of that? It’s all going to be surface, we’re going
to be skating the surface, never going deep if we’re on something like that, an Ipad.”
I’m saying that would be his, maybe even knee-jerk response. Whereas I look at it a little differently
in that if Thoreau was an Ipad or laptop as a tool, as a writer, I don’t imagine any writer
today actually writes without a laptop, so I would think he would definitely use one.
The fact that Thoreau did so much research before he went anyway, Cape Cod, Maine, wherever
he was going. He went to the libraries and read books, looked at maps, did all of that
to be able to do that research sitting at his desk and be able to have that information
at hand I think would an amazing tool for him. However, if that little bing went of
saying “You have email, ” I don’t think he’ give a damn, so there’s that dichotomy, to
use it as tool, to say this is here for me to use, but I will not let it run my life.
Yeah, I think I agree with that. I think Thoreau was, in my view, I think he had a really early
understanding of the way that all texts are deeply inter-textual, so that Walden is replete
with references to lots of other texts, classical ones especially. And so I think, you know,
for him even the book was a way of engaging other times and places, compiling them and
pulling them together. I think he loved that kind of time travel through the technology
of the book and through writing and that kind of early networking that was happening in
writing, and so I guess I agree. I mean, he hated distraction and he hated superficiality
and he hated that kind of busy-ness, the busy bustling nervous nineteenth century he talked
about. I think he would feel of course only more that way today. But I don’t think, I
don’t think, I’m not sure, you know, I mean I, sometimes I wonder if it’s really worth
saying, like, “what would have Thoreau have thought of this today?” You know, who knows!
But I don’t know if the kinds of things that he wanted to do are made impossible by technology.
I think he would have done them anyway with technology. So to kind of line you guys up
again, would you say, you’d say it’s only the new that he’s bothered by, but it’s an
issue of control. The important thing is, is this a technology I can control? Or is
it controlling me? Do I have fewer resources to be able to control the inundation through
the wires? As long as I can control it, then we’ll take it on. Yeah, he seemed to be against,
this is different from control, but he seemed to be against communication, just for it’s
own sake. For the buzz that you got, and now we call it a dopamine squirt. This time it
was something else. He did complain as you know about old technologies when they became
that like that passage I love to read from one of his speeches, when he complains about
people going to the post office, over and over, and over again. They get addicted to
checking their mail. The Romans invented the postal service, so that was nothing new. That
bothered him because we weren’t doing for a reason more than just checking. And almost
kind of a, I guess, because of the dopamine effect, we can’t quite control our response.
So I was going to ask one of those questions, Kristen, but, well, just because the image
still sticks in my mind, which is I once was at Walden Pond and I saw the actor Richard
Gere, which of course completely derailed the field trip, because nobody was interested
in going to the house; they all wanted to see what Richard Gere’s next move. And there
was Richard Gere facing Walden Pond, talking on his cell phone. There’s something really
wrong with this picture, so just given the sort of range of latitude you’ve given him,
in terms of his potential response to things that isn’t necessarily anti-talking-on-you-cell-phone-at-Walden-Pond.
What do you say, if not Kristen, any of you, what might, how might Thoreau have handled
that situation, by being too. The only thing I would say about that is I think actually,
I mean I am like such a participant in this, and I support all efforts to commemorate all
things Henry, but I would say I would he would be deeply creeped out and he would hate that
he has been made into this kind of institution. You know, I think I can hold both of those
views. I want it and so, I don’t want something that goes against. So I actually think he
would object to the idea that like, “oh, no, you can’t do this normal activity at Walden
Pond, because it’s like a sacred ground to Henry.” I think he would hate that. He was
a, I don’t think he would, I don’t know, I think he was very wary of becoming a guru,
or a kind of guide that people follow, you know, that wonderful conclusion of Walden
where he says I’ve worn too deep a groove in the path down to the pond. It’s time for
me to go, and I think he really took pains to say I am not setting myself up as someone
who wants to have followers. So I guess that would be my slightly. But you also look at
the fact that the person Richard Gere who or whoever it is is not experiencing Walden
Pond and that so many people now are documenting their lives through their phones as opposed
to experiencing it. You know, years ago my family and I went to a Jackson Brown concert
and everybody has their phones out filming the concert and he actually stopped in the
middle and said, “put those phones down. Be here, listen to the music, that’s what you’re
here for! Put those phones down!” And so many people are just, they have to document everything
as opposed to experiencing it, and they have to share it. So with social media, you know,
the big storm the other day after the storm, I mean I don’t know how many of your friends
posted pictures that there was snow outside. How many pictures do you ever see of what
your neighbor is eating for dinner? Or whatever. So it, people are losing that sense, it’s
as you said, it’s getting on the surface. People aren’t experiencing it they’re just
showing it. Well, so, I’m going to be the total contrarian here, so but I also think
that he, for all I said about him being bias against the new, he also has these wonderfully
open-minded moments, obviously and receptive. So I could imagine him seeing that scene and,
I don’t know, I’ve seen a lot of Richard Gere movies, he seems like a very spiritual person.
That’s the whole surprise! So maybe he was so inspired that he was calling someone he
loves and who who knows, was just composing a poem in the moment and saying it on the
phone. You can do that too! I’m open to that! I don’t know! I certainly ask to take Kristen’s
point and what would Henry say what would Henry do? WWHD? But, that said I’m going to
go with Bill. I’m sure everybody resonated with what Jeffrey was saying. What is it about
not being able to put your phone down when you’re at Nature, wanting to record, wanting
to watch a concert through the phone. Don’t you want/feel like you can both? Like, imagine
the concert and I’m also recording it! Like it is! We have this capability to live in
both those veins, but I guess that way I really want to take this was can that cell phone,
can recording Walden Pond while I’m there, does that become my journal, does that become
my way of seeing more closely, because now I’m zooming in. Because now I can go in and
identify the species, this gets a little bit of what the calendar is doing. And whether
this could be our own calendar, or maybe you could talk about the calendar after we first
talk about that question. But can with a sort of open mind, maybe you’re doing good work
with that phone at Walden Pond? And the phone getting us closer to nature. I can see for
documenting, Thoreau made sketches in his journals so he’d remember what a plant was,
all that, so I can see using your phone or camera to document. I also feel it’s disruptive,
so if Thoreau were in the woods, and he wanted to write a poem, hopefully not, but if he
wanted to write a poem or do other kind of documentation he would take out his pencil
and his field notebook and he’d write himself a note which isn’t going to disturb other
people, but somebody talking on their phone. So if Richard Gere is telling somebody this
poem he’s just creating, you know, other people are hearing it, so it’s disrupting their part,
their experience, and there’s a lot of that. So it’s not only is it how is that technology
using you or what are you doing with it; what is it doing to the people around you? Perhaps
that you why are you here? If you’re going to still be? So the nice thing about a pencil
of course is it’s a piece of technology for one thing that he knew inside out. Right,
I mean he really was a power user of the pencil. He made pencils, he improved pencils, and
it doesn’t have your mail on it. I mean you just take it out, you use it, and then it
goes away. You can even sharpen it right there in the woods with a you’re little knife-sharpener,
you don’t have to have ink to fill your pen; it’s just a wonderful handy device without
all the kind of complications that those other tools; your phone – can take. And Thoreau
when he was out in the field, when he’s out in the woods with his writing and basically
field notebook is small notes. The journal that we think of as that time he’s writing
in comes later in the day or another day later, so and we don’t actually there aren’t really
field notes left. I mean there aren’t many extents. We don’t really know what he was
writing in them, but it was most likely short notes, short things just to remember the experience
so that most pf the time is really experiential. And the more your take photos it’s so easy
to do. It’s hard to stop. Kristen, you want to talk about you know your calendar project
and how you’re using technology as a good power user? To bring us closer to Thoreau’s
text? so I mean I should say first of all that I’ve been like pulled into the digital
humanities world, somewhat against my inclination as a great book person and not at all a technophile.
But because this material the calendar project lends itself so perfectly to digital application,
so Thoreau as people may or may not know in the last few years of his life started keeping
really rigorous phenological data, data about the seasons changing. The first time the flowers
bloom, the first time birds appear, lots and lots of charts, and actually I am not, I have
to just say to correct your introduction just a little bit that I’m not in any way attempting
to produce the complete calendar. I’d be like a thousand years old before that happened.
But so we are trying to get online some, some, of those charts, and they’re really extraordinary
and one of the things that’s extraordinary about them is that he charts not only in a
few of the charts, he charts not only seasonal phenomenon but also his own seasonal phenomenon.
So things like the first day he lights a fire in November, say, and the first day he doesn’t
have a fire in April. The first day he wears his great coat, the first day he takes off
his great coat. Actually, April is very funny because he’s always taking it on and taking
it off again, there’s like a first day without it and then a first day when you need it again,
which is so New England spring! So it’s a wonderful. they’re wonderful charts and they
chart across the years these “firsts” these first seasonal phenomenon, and you know when
I showed them to digital humanities people for the first time they said it’s a database.
And that made sense, I mean, they’re grids, and so he, I mean you know, he was using a
key; he constructed a kind of database to keep track of this vast amount of seasonal
phenomenon that he had stored in the journal. It’s also a kind of index to the journal,
so he’s taking information from the journal, from the multi-volume journal and transcribing
it into the charts, and so one of things I think is fascinating for example is that he
was going from the field notes which Jeffrey mentioned to the journal then to the charts
so it’s a very complex web of textual almost like hyperlink kind of stuff that’s happening
in his creation of this calendar project. And so putting it online is first and foremost
a way to get to get some of these charts out there, available, transcribed so people can
see them, but it also I think is really a way of highlighting the inter-relationality
of the texts. They’re kind of proto-digital quality and show that the way he was thinking
about presenting time and the sort of synchronic way, so the digital media is really ideal
for that. In fact it’s hard to think about any other way of presenting it. I wish we
could have a big book, but that’s financially difficult and also logistically difficult.
Where are the physical? They’re mostly at the Morgan Library in New York, but they’re
other, they are kind of scattered, like all of Thoreau’s manuscripts. In various places,
some at the Huntington as well. So you’ve got, you use textual, text and coding to do
it. Is that enough, or can you see this sort of growing now that you’ve seen how learning
some computer skills can really make you able to do and ask questions and read texts in
a new way? It could be a huge, I mean the dream would be like you have photographs of
all the different species he mentions and like the scientific information and then it
would really I really loved the point in the presentation of the game about not reading
Thoreau’s as either science or literature, I mean that’s so important. And so this project
has wonderful possibilities for breaking down those kinds of binaries. I teach at a small
public liberal arts college with no IT support and so I’m like a one-woman show on that with
my students, and so I don’t know, but I’m hopeful it will grow and expand and other
people will pick up the work. And it’s actually been an important, the calendar’s been an
important resource for scientific research. Yes! In the case of Richard Pretimax. So that
makes me think Jeff, if you when you were creating, I mean you should see the “Annotated
Walden” I mean Kristen’s already talked about the number of texts that you can hear echos
of or even phrases from not to mention all the other kinds of of references that are
being and gestures that are being made in “Walden,” so the “Walden” text has these two,
you know, it’s got the central text of “Walden” and then on either side of the page we’ve
got all just wonderful annotations as to what’s going on in those pages. It sort of sounds
like, what would a digital version have been like for you to do there? And would it have
been an even bet or a great opportunity? Yeah, I mean if I created a digital annotated edition
of “Walden” that fact that you could then link to the full text if somebody wanted to
read that full text of something that Thoreau was just citing would be wonderful. It would
just be endless, as would the calendar! Something that has, would be for research purposes,
monumental, I think. There’s other ways we’re using digital work, digital humanities, there’s
the digital Thoreau site put together but SUNY Geneseo and the Thoreau Society and Walden
Woods Project where all the different drafts of “Walden” exist on this site. You can literally
compare one or more of the versions of “Walden” side-by-side, so first and the third, or all
of them; however many you want. This is something that could never be done before and you couldn’t
do it before. It would be literally impossible, and so there’s lots of ways that digital humanities
is increasing our knowledge and helping our understanding of texts that would not have
been possible before. I know I’m really sort of envious of the classics department at Holy
Cross because they’re doing this open source translate of manuscripts that are in various
libraries’ possessions, and it’s getting a lot of young people really interested because
they feel like it’s something they can really do and contribute helping to translate all
these so much old texts that just sits there otherwise in the vault. Do you think this
is a way to have people participate, open source the calendar, or open-source, what
would you put in on “Walden” what would you link to it as a way to kind of grow the maybe
even young person “Walden” Thoreau net? Well Thoreau is amazing in that way in that it
has this sort of common feature for it that you can annotate so, which is just really
great. And you can do it, you can do it in groups or a class can annotate and respond
to each other’s annotations, so then they have sort of expert annotators. It’s really,
it’s a great, I really think that kind of interactive reading project is exciting and
great. So I always thought, I didn’t know about the drafts being available on that,
and I always thought it was terrible the drafts were locked up at the Huntington and just
any old person couldn’t go and see, so now that’s fixed, but if you do the comment are
they saved just for you on your own account or are they saved so everyone can see? Everyone
can share, so they’ve set up it’s like a social media platform. Social commenting. Social
commenting, yeah. I don’t quite know enough. There’s places where two classes or three
classes can talk to each other and that’s private, but you could go on and put a comment
on some part of the text. Either ask a question, or make a comment or whatever. And then somebody
could respond to that and it just keeps going. Are people doing that? They are! Paul Scheck
and SUNY Geneseo and I did an experiment where his class was reading “Walden” and my class
was reading it at the same time online and they had to respond to one another sort of
from SUNY Geneseo to UMaine Farmington, and that was really cool. It was really fun to
see that happening. Does make you feel lie we’re in a new era you could have “Walden:
the Video Game.” Who would have thought we’d be seeing that? The world is open for what
could happen and where this could go. Bill could you tell us, so we’ve been talking about
how taking control of technology, making our tool rather than it or ways that technology
can take us closer to Thoreau’s works as is the case of the calendar project. You talk
about your just your digital Sabbath as you’re way of using Thoreau’s sort of deliberate
choices to get control of technology, how, and I loved also even the smaller idea of
“Walden Zones” as somethings that’s as something that you could use any time of day not just
on a cell phone, and whether that’s still as vibrant as it was six years ago when you
championed the idea? Thank you for asking, so in the book about, in the chapter about
Thoreau in my book, I try to learn lessons from him about how to live today, and so one
of the lessons that actually didn’t come from Thoreau himself when we did it but my family
when my son was about seven my wife and I decided that we are all, we saw him getting
addicted to the screen, and we decided we were all too addicted to the screen and we
were sort of having our backs to each other in the evening at home instead of being together,
so we started taking weekends offline, and we called it the “Internet Sabbath.” This
is a time when nobody was ever talking about digital sabbaths or detox or whatever. This
would be about 2004 or 5. We started doing this. We took the whole weekend offline for
five years, so every weekend we didn’t have smartphones at the time, so we unplugged the
internet, the broadband that was it. And it was amazing, it really revolutionized our
lives, it was sort of like a little, mini family version of Thoreau going to his cabin
in a way, but I only got that connection when I started reading him. We were already doing
the “Sabbath” when I started reading him for my book. So I talk about it in that context
and then the other thing I talk about in my chapter on Thoreau is an idea that he gave
me in reading “Walden” which is very few of us can have the great chance to have a little
extra home somewhere, or spend two years somewhere else and then come back, so why not create
a zone in your own house or apartment that’s your own “Walden Zone” where no devices are
used there and you’re sort of unplugging whenever you’re in that room or in that part of the
living room or whatever? You can have a basket where people have to put their phones. It
sounds like kind of a ridiculously simple idea, but I think we have to come up with
simple solutions to being so connected and in our case we didn’t really need to do that
because we were doing our weekend thing. But I’ve met a lot of people who’ve done it. And
I know schools are doing it’s spreading. Maybe some of you have had, you want to share your
experiences with that. Slightly different note, you said you are at MIT media lab, this
is sort of a question for all of you, what other ways might you bring in Thoreau’s ideas
of influence the way you used technology? Whether Jeff and Kristen have done similar
Sabbaths or other things? But, Bill this idea of reconfiguring or reinventing, is that how
you put social media, is Thoreau involved with an inspiration there at all? So I should
say that my book is really questioning the digital revolution, so I thought when it came
out the last people I would hear from would be technologists because I sort of thought
in a Thoreau way I was kind of anti-that. And they the first people I actually heard
from when the book came out. And one of the first speech invitations I got was to speak
at Google. And I got there to Google and the guy who welcomed me was very senior person
there said, “Oh, so glad you’re here” and I said “Why?” an he said “Well, because we’re
all miserable. We’re the most connected people on earth, this is Google, and we hate it.
You know we believe in it, but we hate what it’s doing to our lives.” So I got up there
at Google and talked about Thoreau and Seneca and all these philosophers that I had discussed
in my book, and they were open to it and we had a great conversation, so that led down
a road where I started meeting more and more technologists and they started asking me to
do projects with them, and I’m kind of a nerd at heart, I really like technology, actually.
So through a long series of steps I wound up getting inviting to have an appointment
at the media lab, which is all about building stuff in a group that got a huge grant from
Twitter actually to, and is now supported by a bunch of other companies, to reinvent,
to rethink social media. So it actually, social media’s been really good at destroying old
hierarchies and sort of flattening the landscape as we know, but it hasn’t been so good so
far in solving social problems and sort of taking us to a better place so that’s what
we’re trying to do, so we’re creating new social media in a bunch of areas, but the
main ones are education, governance, and news. And I’m focusing on the news, journalism,
and the governance part. And I have one thing that I invented with another, with one of
the students last year that I’m trying to turn into a start-up. So that’s the first
thing that’s going out of our group into the world; if I succeed. So what do you make of
the fact that they were so interested? This sort of Thoreavian critique. Well it was very
heartening because I didn’t know any technologist, so in truth, and you can pick this up if you
read my book, you know, between the lines there’s a kind of antagonism towards them.
And I sort of thought technologists were kind of against us and were just trying to almost
take over my consciousness. They’re human beings! So I’m embarrassed that it took this
journey to get to know them and realize that, but they’re just like the rest of us. And
this room must have technologists because we’re at WPI, so that was a huge lesson for
me and it’s humbling to think of how I missed that, and I’m in a building full of people
who totally get the questions we’re talking about. They come up all the time and there’s
all these groups in the building that are trying to, like this one group that’s trying
to have a device that we would wear that would sense out mood changes including when we’re
depressed, so that people we’re connected to would know that and maybe help us, you
know. Beautiful things! That would be amazing augmentations of our connectedness in many
ways. So anyway, that’s my story. So when I look at technology, I have a slightly different
look at it than Bill, so the idea of an “Internet Sabbath,” which is intriguing I think wonderful,
also implies a going back. So whenever you take a break, whether you’re putting your
phone in a basket, whether you’re going into a classroom and putting it down, the idea
is that as soon as you’re out of that situation or whatever it is, you’re going to put it
back on and use it just as much, so I would think, I don’t know how you working on changing
social media, but the idea of becoming less dependent on it or using it less would be
a much greater thing than just stopping for two hours. It doesn’t really solve the problem.
For me I try not to use technology that much. I do have a phone. It’s about six years old,
does any one remember these? It actually doesn’t do anything other than talk. I mean you can’t
take pictures with it, you can’t play music on it, you can’t do much with it. It doesn’t
tell me where I’m going if I get lost, it’s just; it’s a phone. I don’t feel I really
need any of the rest of it, so I’m probably one of the few people who doesn’t have a smart
phone yet. I hope to behold that as long as I can keep a phone like this going. My laptop
has, is used for Word Processing, for writing, I don’t have games on it, I don’t use it for
any other purpose really. And so I try to use the technology, but to use it in a limited
way. I guess I, there are a lot of ways I could talk about this, I mean the first thing
that seems important just for the sake of honesty to say is that I have an Iphone and
am completely addicted to it. But, I make my students when we’re reading “Walden,” I
make them, and I do do this myself, take a twenty minute walk, at least twenty minutes
a week, without technology. Just to see what that experience is like. Many of them have
never done that really, at least not as kind of young adults. As so kind of check out where
they are and think about the place where they are, do that without any technological aid.
And it’s hard for me, its hard for me to like leave my phone. I totally have that addiction,
so I confess to that. But I will say on another level, you know I live in a pretty rural,
remote place in western Maine and I have experimented with getting off social media and like really
trying to, and I really missed my friends. And so I found that email and even things
like Facebook, you know there are people whose babies I just always want to see. I always
want to see a picture of my best friend from college, her little daughter, you know, that
is so valuable to me. And that it’s not, I can’t forgo that. And so I have found that
the way that Thoreau influences my thinking about media, social media online is that he’s
so profound in thinking about relationality, and the complexities of relationality and
how important relationality is in our lives. And so I try to have those interactions be
quality interactions and deep relationships, even though they’re over a digital medium,
so I guess that’s what I would say. I still, while I’m in bed when I talk to my sister
on the Iphone, so she has my complete concentration, she on the other hand is like milling around,
or my son at the computer reading the reading the computer, while he talks to me on the
phone. So there are ways in which you can still use the phone as like a kind of intimate
locked-in experience. One thing that’s coming out nice here is that, one there’s the users
and how we can configure our technologies to satisfy ourselves. I just found out that
you can actually turn off the double-clingle when you get a text message. You don’t have
to have any clingle, you can just have one clingle. But it was that second clingle that
made me reanswer the text because it was so insistent, so I don’t go into settings often
enough! But also the idea that the producers are you know thinking a lot, drawing on these
ideas so that they can make the devices that much cooler and that much more wonderful in
terms of giving us what we might really hope to have without the kind of drek that we sometimes
feel like inundates us. I feel like we’re going to look back, we’re definitely going
to look back on this time as so primitive in terms of digital. You know, we’re going
to laugh at Facebook, you know, if we live long enough it’s going to be like can you
believe we used that. It was so badly designed at it was not, there wasn’t much you could
do with it. And even now, you know, social media are being invented for purposes different
from the ones my group’s working on for new business purposes that are trying to make,
help you focus. I don’t know if anybody is a slack but you know it’s this relatively
new social app for teens to work together. And we use it in my group and it’s great because
you’re off the horrible email world, you know, and you’re off Facebook, and you’re just focusing
on this particular project whatever it is you’re doing, and you’re all on slack together
doing that. It’s a real focus tool, it’s great, you know, so I think we’re just going to keep
making it, I’m just an incorrigible optimist, but it’s just going to keep getting better.
And that kind of ties a little to just the same word of focus that Kristen was bringing
out about what media can do for us. It also seems like, and I’ll just bring the focus
back here, that, okay I lost that train of thought, it’ll come back. To switch, but I
want it to come back right now, let’s see, so to switch gears a minute. You could say,
it seems to me, that one of the problems that perhaps Thoreau suffers from today and you
can say I’m wrong, in this country he tends to have a fairly middle class readership,
which it seems true. And that environmentalism now is sort of the cutting edge of environmentalism
is all about social justice and issues like Flint, Michigan and the fact that the poor
are getting the biggest hit from the global warming that we’re perpetrating. So that environmentalism
is really kind of crossing class lines for sure, but that balance which is one of the
things we’ve really been talking about right now is maybe still kind of middle class you
know luxury to kind of hope to get a better sense of balance in our lives between the
busy-ness and the quietude that we might see. Do you feel like digital technology has a
way of cutting through class barriers of breaking down, bring Thoreau out of the middle class
world and more to a wider public here for people who don’t have the time maybe to read?
You know my debt ridden students very much identify with Thoreau, that opening stuff
about debt and how it imprisons you and the stuff about college in particular. They totally
get it, so I think you know a lot of it is just getting it in our students hands. I love
teaching “Walden” in some ways it’s the most teachable book that I teach. They love it!
I always think I do this whole thing about, I know you’re not going to like this and here’s
all the reasons you’re going to hate it, and they’re like, “what are you talking about?
We totally get it!” So it’s, I don’t know, that’s been my experience, and they are you
know, they’re all working, they’re all working way too hard without enough time to do it,
but they do it. And they connect to it, so, you know, that’s it. I think Thoreau has a
reputation problem but not a problem with the text. I talk to a lot of high school students
and college students and we work with UMass Lowell and one of the teachers there brings
out students from the Lawrence area and the Lowell area who will be first generation college
students. Poor families, nobody else in the family has gotten educated and they come and
we talk about “Walden” we talk about Thoreau what it means. And they strip away all the
mist about Thoreau and going off to a cabin in the wood and it’s really about questioning
their lives and when they look at what Thoreau was talking about and really kind of have
the chance of dialogue about it they love what Thoreau has to say because it’s so pertinent
to their own lives and the choices they’re going to make. I have found in my travels
talking about my book a lot of them have been at colleges and universities and I have found
that the best is one place I’ve been to repeatedly that’s the only school I’ve spoken at that’s
open enrollment, everybody there is from a family where they’re the first one just about
to go to college and really, really working class, it’s really rural Kentucky. Best conversations
there about all of these questions and “Walden” in particular. So it’s working, and you know,
it’s a difficult read. I mean Emerson and Thoreau are kind of hard to read today, but
somehow they because there’s so much value there it’s worth it. I want to cling to that
word value and that was the famous forgotten question that I had earlier. It was just as
you were talking about Facebook being designed in a changing in terms of its design maybe
principles, it’s objectives. Just this whole idea of Thoreau getting us to think about
the values and the objectives and the goals of what we see as valuable and what is, what
should be the goal of our design? Is it profit, is it speed, is it ease of use, or are there
other things that we also want? Is it that we want our cell phones to help us have solitude?
Is it that we want Facebook to give us quality interactions rather than however we would
describe some of the feeling that we get from that sociability now? That we’re going to
his philosophical idea of economy as a way of thinking about what we value most and using
those principles to help inform our practice and our use, our development and our use?
Any questions you all want to pose to each other we’ve touched on but feel like could
get explored further? I’m sure I could come up with one. Well I got one last, one in conclusion
which is Thoreau’s rallying cry or obviously many, but I’ll just be selective, since he
gave us so many, “simplify, simplify!” And is that still supper potent, does that still
speak to the younger generation who might be wired differently and not have the same
kind of fondness for what I hear in that, having grown up in a simpler time without
a cell phone and longing for going back to a kind of simpler, less device-ridden life?
Could you imagine a more digitally informed rallying cry that might have even more legs,
or to just continue, not to give up that one, but does “simplify simplify” still seem to
you super potent, and do you feel hopeful in this time given the way your, I guessing,
your work life feels, your home life feels, that it’s anything besides a nice phrase,
a nice dream? I would say, I mean I think for me an important thing about reading “Walden”
is that it’s not a lifestyle handbook. You know, I mean sometimes he can, you can read
him that way, and I think people do read him that way and there’s value in that. It’s certainly
not all it is and I really take those words philosophically as a sort of, you know, that
attempt to reduce is a philosophical move, to say, “what do we mean by the word need?”
When I say, like, “I need to take this call.” Do I need to do that or am I choosing that?
And why am I choosing it? And I think that kind of effort at reduction is something that
anybody can do and it is really valuable. That getting rid of possessions and getting
rid of stuff and getting rid of technology maybe part of that. And I think that for Thoreau
it obviously was part of that but the heart of it is about questioning and questioning
our habits, whatever our habits are. And I, that’s the thing that is so useful to me about
rereading “Walden” every couple years is that it makes me question everything that I do.
Not just technology use but what I’m eating what I wear, you know, our house, you know,
just everything. How I vote, everything in my life I question when I’m reading “Walden,”
and that’s a gift. To me that “simplify, simplify, simplify” is about rethinking what we need
rethinking why we do things, the most basic things, and kind of building up from that
questioning. So I think you can do that move in a lot of different ways, maybe technologically
enhanced ways, maybe you know, just, you know I think it’s just idiosyncratic and personal
to every person, but I think we still need that motto. Yeah, I’d agree. I mean it certainly,
I think resonates I mean we talk about the complexities of everything we’re talking about
tonight you keep using that word complex in relation to the overload we get from digital
media, from social media, all of that, and so just saying that you can simplify that
in any way if you can reduce it, simplify it, get rid of the extraneous things you don’t
need, and so that message is definitely very pertinent and very needed I think today. I
want to say that I think that younger people in this generation, you guys, get that message
much more than anybody ever has because they were born into a digital world. And I see
this with my students, they are just completely pursuing simplicity because in a sense you
have to to get things done. I didn’t finish my little story about our Sabbath, we gave
up after five years because my son was in middle school and his assignments were starting
to come online, so we agreed we’d learned a lot in five years, we’d all do our own rituals.
And so we do still, I still take Saturdays off, but interestingly he got to be a sophomore
in high school he gave up video gaming. Completely gave it up because he said I’m going to do
well and I’m not going to get into a good college if I don’t do this and it was hard,
it was really, really hard. But I think he was able to do it because we had those five
years of simplicity, once you’ve done simplicity you could always access it, it’s in there
somewhere. That’s what I like about Thoreau going back to civilization. Doing it for two
years is powerful thing, and in a way I think it changes you forever. I think, I just see
young people experimenting with in ways much more interesting than us old folks. That seems
like a nice moment to turn it out to, not to put the young people on the spot, anybody
out there who would like to ask a question who was thinking things as we were talking
that you’d like to throw into the mix, would like to challenge anything you’ve heard so
far, and Tracy’s also still with us, so if you’d like to bring the video game back in
to our exploration of how Thoreau and technology speak to each other in really powerful ways.
We welcome your input. So as a high school teacher who has students who are addicted
big time and my students tell me social media, tunes, listening to tunes, and games are the
thee big ones for them, and I am in competition with their constant access. What would you
recommend as a high school teacher to them who loves technology, feels like a really
old, really old man compared to my student, and I am, what kind of things would you recommend
that would be help to them to be able to, I’ve tried things, but I’d like to hear from
you, that’s what I see right now happening in a high school classroom. How can you compete?
Yes. With the incredible hold that, I’d invite any of the students, anybody in the room to
respond to this live need that I think people have, but does anybody here want to address.
Kristen you teach. Yeah, I mean, I teach college students and so what I’m wondering is how
much of it is developmental, I don’t know. I mean I think my students, I think they,
maybe not right away, but they value that kind of, I do a lot of really slow let’s move
through this sentence and like unpack it and it’s very different from the high speed movement
of the digital. And I love it, for that reason, I love the change of pace that is required
for that kind of slow, really slow reading. And I think they like it, you know, after
they’ve gotten a little bit of it, they enjoy it, So, I don’t know, I guess, I haven’t,
maybe it’s different in college, maybe they’re a little bit older and they’re a little bit
more mature so I haven’t felt like I needed to do, but I do have them do the walk with
no technology because I think that’s an important experience to have in reading Thoreau and
just being human. Could I address? So another person I talk about in my book is Ben Franklin,
who we were talking about, and so he had this principle that he called philosophical self-denial,
I think that was the phrase, which is that the only way you’re going to give up a bad
habit is if you are become convinced, truly believe that you have something positive to
gain from it. You can’t just give it up because it’s negative, you have to replace it with
something positive. And he was addicted to everything, I mean he realized when he was
in his early twenties, he was a sex addict, he was a wine addict, he had all these problems
and he realized I’m not going to get anywhere if I keep giving into these things, so he
started keeping this list in his pocket of positive goals through the day. So it wasn’t
stop going to every party you get invited to, which he used to do, it was enjoy time
alone part of each day. And then he would check it off. I just made that up, but it
was like that. And I think that’s what you have to do with young people s get them somehow
to see the gain, so this, my son did this, you know, where he realized where I really
want to come out okay in the college sweepstakes and all that and I’m going to be miserable.
I’ll have a nice positive at the end of the line of I do this self-denial thing. And he’d
been trained, because, you know, we’d had that Sabbath most of these students haven’t
done that. There has to be a way where, and it requires some conversation I think and
talking about things that they are sacrificing, that they’re going to be unhappy about down
the road and what they’ll gain in a positive sense if they change. Have any of the younger
people here taken a technology Sabbath or gone through any of these sorts of exercises,
taken walks without your Iphone, want to speak to just how, how that was and do you know
if that felt like it made an impression that was different or an experience that was different
than being connected? Yeah, I just deleted all my social media because I want to learn
Spanish, and there’s like a Spanish-learning app called Duo-lingo so I found that if you
can take away those sensations that you really are addicted to, you have to be able to replace
them with something that you know, as you said something that you know will have an
as positive an outcome. So if you can give them that positive outcome then yeah. Well
at Holy Cross we have a Spring Break immersion every year and you go with like a group of
like ten or so other Holy Cross students and like you’re not usually in places that have
very good cell service. So, I mean, they also like, they tell you like not to use your phone
very often because your doing community service projects and the first day it’s kind of weird
because you don’t really know most people in your group so you just automatically are
like I going to look at my phone, but like I don’t have my phone. So it’s like your security
blanket is taken away from you and it causes you to get more involved with the group that
you’re with and also with the community so I did that last year and I ended up like forgetting
that I had my phone, even with me, not really using it very much. Once you came back, were
you back to normal or did it change a little bit? Not much, but I mean I also was, you’re
on campus for a few days before other people get back, so you’re spending a lot more time
with your group and I didn’t really feel like I was using my phone as much until we got
back into the full swing of things in school. Would you like to use it less now? Now that
you’ve had that experience? Not really, I don’t know! I feel like technology is so central
to so much that we do now that it would be kind of hard to be in college and not have
a lot of the technology that we’re used to. I should stop emailing my students so often.
So we’re certainly part of the problem. Or your coaches, right, constant contact! Tracy,
do you want to come into this conversation at all to sort of more between addition, it’s
such a loaded, big word and media having that, and our devices having that claim on us. I
have a sort of odd perspective, but I was thinking about something personal, and that
is that a couple years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer and had started I just
started a walking routine and I was walking five miles a day without my phone in my neighborhood
and I walk a certain path and I’ve walked that path since that time through chemo and
getting better and coming back. I walk that path every day and I think that getting to
know my neighborhood in that way over that time over that change in my life has been
one of the most valuable things that I have ever experienced and it had everything to
do with putting away the phone and putting away putting aside the time. And I think sometimes
you need, like you have a less dramatic sort of change that’s made you put your phone away
but for me it required that, it was like a wake-up call that required me to listen, you
know. And it’s not just young people we are all equally addicted and sometimes we require
more drastic wake-up calls, right? But we don’t need a basket when we just have our
own neighborhoods and we can get to know them. That is just what I was thinking about when
you were asking that question. I was also just thing not just thinking about the value
you can get from stepping away, but to think am I getting value from this when I’m use
it, or am I just using it in a rote away? I mean, we’re not even thinking when we’re
swipe, check, swipe, check and so I think Thoreau would say it’s when you do that kind
of mindless interaction with it that’s become problematic so its all about thinking about
value. Value when I’m not on it and value when I am on it and depth to the point in
your book about depth, you know, depth of experience. I just wanted to ask, Kristen
you said that you try to have quality interactions even through social media and I think that
we need to think about the quality, like we’re so connected nowadays, like I’m always talking
to my friends and the constant connection does that take away from the quality of interactions?
This is a question or everyone. What do you think like the fact that we can always communicate,
and not just face to face? Do we have, are our interactions less significant because
of that or are we talking about mindless things, so like what do you think about that? I’ll
just say, and this is maybe generational, so I had a student a few years ago who I became
really close with. She didn’t have internet at her house, and she was my research assistant
also our baby-sitter, and then I ended up helping to go to graduate school, so we just
spent a ton of time communicating. Because she didn’t have internet, we texted and she
texted with like everyone in her life, that was her principle mode of communication. But
it was the first texting relationship that I had ever had, and it was so overwhelming
and I was like “how can you do this with everyone in your life?” It’s insane! Because, you know,
if I would be twenty minutes late in answering a text she would like “what are you mad?”
What’s going on? So just adjusting to that mentality, so now of course there are a few
more people that I have that relationship to. But it is really interesting; it’s a completely
different mode, and I do think, I have to say I’m, maybe this is just because I’m old,
texting is hard. I think it’s really hard. So when I when I was talking about having
quality interactions I’ve had over the course of the past few months, a some loss, a loss
of a very dear friend and some really meaningful exchanges via social media about him. But
they’re long, you know, and they’re thoughtful, and they’re writing, you know. As opposed
to the kind of, I mean I love my texting relationship with this one student because it’s very funny,
it’s snappy and funny. But I’m really glad that not all of my relationships are like
that. I could not, I would explode, I can’t keep up. So, yeah, for me thinking about taking
time. Time is important, speed is important, everything is fast. It’s hard for things to
have depth, I think so. Yeah, and for me, I do, I mean it’s not like I don’t have any
technology or try not to use it, I do have Facebook, I connect with my children that
way and my family. And I love that being able to be connected so easily with daughters who
aren’t living in the same state. But it’s also, there’s an overwhelmingness, there’s
so much information that people are sharing that I actually don’t read it any more. So
if I’m on Facebook and I look and see what everybody’s posting, it’s just, I go right
by them. And I’m not paying any attention so hen something important might come along
that somebody’s sent me, that’s a serious message or whatever, I’m reading it superficially,
so I’m actually missing things because there’s so much coming at me. I don’t like being connected
all the time. You know, when I’m having breakfast for instance, I’ll sit and eat my breakfast.
And I have family members saying what are you doing? You know, sometimes I don’t turn
on all the lights on all the way and it’s like, “I’m having breakfast!” And then it’s
like you’re not reading, you’re not watching television, you’re not listening to the news,
you’re not listening to music, and it’s like I’m just enjoying that moment, and I’m like
I see because we’re so bombarded with it all the time is that people are losing that ability
to just sit for five minutes. It’s very, very difficult to do that, and actually just to
get back to your question, Jerry, a little bit. When I talk to high school students,
in particular, we Skype from the Walden Woods Project for classes who can’t come to visit
us, and I joke with them because I know they all have their phones and I say so when the
bell rings in a few minutes and your going to leave, what’s the first thing you’re going
to do? You’re going to take out your phone! And usually during our conversation we talk
a lot about Thoreauvian deliberation and that sense that it’s not what you do, it’s thinking
about it for a moment before you do it. And so I ask them, like when you go out of the
room and the bell rings and you go out, can you just think about it for a minute, stop!
Can you not pick up your phone immediately? Give it a minute! Most of them say they can’t,
but what I also hope, and I know I’m wrong being hopeful about this is that maybe one
of those students actually takes the challenge and stops for just one minute and then realizes,
“Oh my gosh, I got away, I lived, I survived, I didn’t have my phone on for a minute, maybe
I can do two minutes next time.” But just that sense of what are you getting out of
that experience, what is it really doing for you and if you don’t pick up your phone when
you’re going from this class to the next class, has the world ended? I mean, what has happened
and if you don’t hear about it, what difference is it really going to make? You know, I’ve
been at parties and things where people are talking about something and a name or a reference
comes up that somebody can’t remember what it is, and somebody pulls out their phone,
goes to Wikipedia to explain it, and I’m thinking if I asked you ten minutes from now who that
person was or what that book was, you won’t remember. Because it doesn’t mean anything!
You haven’t spent any time it’s just very, very surface as you said. So I try to not
to be pulled in by as much as going on around me if I can help it. I can’t always help it.
Mr. Cramer, you mentioned when you went to a concert, one of the performers told everyone
to put their phones away and just experience it in the moment. But wouldn’t you say that
if you were able to film it, even if you weren’t getting that really great quality experience
the first time, in the future, you’ll have that memory, you’ll have that video on your
phone and those half-experiences that you get every single time you watch that video
is way better than having that one full memory that kind of starts to fade after a while?
You know you kind of don’t really get that feeling anymore. Well, let me say that if
I am sitting behind you when you’re doing this and I can’t see the performer I’m going
to have that moment with then your technology would be interfering with me. But I also really
feel that when you go to a large concert now, particularly a large one, the one I went to
was a very small venue, but you go to a large concert and most of what you’re seeing now
is on the screen because the performers are so far away you can’t see them. So virtually
what you’re doing is sitting in a large room watching television, or watching a screen.
And so I think for most people, I don’t want to sound ageist, but for your generation that
interaction with a performer it’s the same as watching on TV or on your computer. You’re
losing that sense of intimacy that I think when I went to concerts so long ago you say,
“My God, that’s whoever it is, you know, there’s Dylan!” You know, it’s like, wow, I’m in a
room with him. But now it’s, I don’t think people get that same feeling, and I think
part of it is because people aren’t willing to just sit there for two hours and experience
what’s going on. And, you know, the memories do fade, but they come back every so often,
so, not as clear, but. I was going to ask a WWHTD question about whether there would
be wireless in the cabin at Walden Pond or if he would just go and access Emerson’s broadband,
but of course that question is rendered moot by the existence of the smart phone, and I
think the difference it illustrated by the weekend long Sabbath versus the twenty minute
Sabbath where clearly in a different period now. I wanted to instead ask a question about
rurality and urbanity and the way in which technology inflects our experience of the
world, our experience of the urban? After all the Walden Woods Project is an attempt
to preserve a kind of rurality in a rapidly urbanizing Massachusetts. That urbanizing
was happening even in Thoreau’s time, but I located a quote in Jeffrey Cramer’s edited
“I, to Myself” the journals which is for sale over at the table, if you’re interested, you’re
welcome. This is from fairly late in the journals from 1860, and the sentence that really captured
me, and it connects to Kristen’s comment about the role of the Iphone in rural Maine. He
writes, “Almost all our improvements – so called – tend to convert the country in the
town.” And that has a certain kind of resonance in 1860, but I think it has maybe a different
kind of resonance now. So does your Iphone then convert rural Maine into a kind of urbanized
space that changes your experience of that rurality, that question specifically to Kristen,
but I’d like the rest of the panel to also reflect on it. That’s interesting, I mean
I guess, there’s certainly a kind of placelessness of being online, so I would say more than
it, I don’t think of online as an urban kind of space, but I think of it as placeless.
And so it’s true that when I am doing this, I have vacated my place, and I’m not paying
attention to it as Tracy was talking about being present in her neighborhood so beautifully.
And so I do worry about that. But I don’t know that’s a, I don’t know in that particular
case if that’s an urban/rural, I mean I think in some ways if you live in, you know, a great
urban neighborhood that you’re not paying attention to because you’re on your Iphone,
it’s as anti-urban as it is, it’s anti-place in some way. And so, not intrinsically, but
that tends to be the effect, so I think, you know, figuring out a way to connect with where
you are, whether that is urban or rural, for me is the central question. And I think, and
this is sort of a broader context, but when I think about technology and the effect of
small farms, for instance. That, any time technology works its way into a system, and
has become more cross-cultural and universal in what we think, what we see, and what we
know. It is hard to remain rural and so when you have those small farms, they’re all dying
out because they can’t compete. And young people who grew up on farms want to go to
that city because that’s what they’re seeing on their phones or on their television, in
the movies, so there’s that thing you can’t compete with. Same as why you can’t get them
to shut off their phones. But I don’t know how to stop it. I would say that it’s clear
that the smartphone is not replicating the city because people are still dying to go
to cities and they’re still doing what Jeff described and cities are bigger than ever,
more popular than ever. For the first time ever a majority of people on earth have moved
to the cities, so but it is giving us this sense of kind of bustle and busyness. And
I live in a rural place, I live an hour to Cape Cod and one of the reasons we did that
Sabbath is because we had moved from Washington D.C. to that place specifically to get away
from the city and all of a sudden we were getting it from the devices, so I’m very sympathetic
to that. But all these years now thinking about it, I think it’s so much more complicated
that that. You know, D. B. White one of the easiest, best places to be alone is New York
City. And I can really relate to that, it’s really true in a way the big impersonal city
you can really be by yourself in a different way. So I think it’s a very layered, nuanced
kind of question that we all have to work our for ourselves. I do think it’s really
key to the point that Kristen brought up that how much our devices shut off our attention
of our surroundings, that we sort of have a toggle switch. We’re either, you know, texting,
looking down or on the phone. Sort of maybe glazed over, kind of aware of where we are,
but not really paying attention, and it kind of goes back to this idea well what’s the
positive, there’s something positive about being on the phone, but what could be really
positive about paying attention to your surroundings? What could be positive about Tracy taking
the same walk for five years without the phone? I mean you could think, that’s why I’m on
the phone because I’m on the same walk for five years, it’s boring! There’s nothing here,
it’s just campus, it’s just you know a train platform. There’s nothing here for me to look
at. I need to call somebody! I need a distraction! That’s sort of Thoreau’s idea, keep walking
and walking over the same ground and travel widely in Concord, but did that, did you sort
of feel like the more interesting the neighborhood became the less you need to spend distraction
from it. Me? The neighborhood has changed and grown and there are new people on. Well
in California there’s this whole zero-scaping thing going on, right, so the entire neighborhood
has changed it’s foliage and it’s just fascinating. And I’ve even done, redone my garden and everyone
has changed everything, and what hasn’t changed are the people are the same people and the
dogs are the same dogs and the streets are the same streets, but all the other inhabitants,
the vegetation and inhabitants are all different, it’s great. Whose hand way in the back? It’s
been said that as a species we mirror our technology to almost the same extent that
our technology mirrors us. So maybe Thoreau would have thought, maybe he wasn’t rallying
against technology but against something that’s in us, that’s driving us to these changes?
Especially if you consider that technology could be just defined as anything that extends
our abilities like fire or a nail, a hammer, a wheel, simple tools. I mean I think he is
against habit, you know, he was against, I mean, I think one of the things that I find
really interesting about Thoreau is that any, this could, we could be having this conversation
about like junk food, right, or money. Other things that we’re addicted to as a culture
and I think, you know, he, it raises this interesting question of how much, he has that
wonderful line about “I never met a man who was fully awake. How could I have looked him
in the face?” And I think about that line a lot, because it’s his way of confessing,
even I am not fully awake, I’m still engulfed in habits and ways of living that I’m just
doing because they’re what we do. And he really wanted to ask us to question every single
thing that we do and so the question arises: is that possible? I mean obviously our brains
we have habits for reasons of economy in our brains. It takes up a lot of time to question
every single aspect of your day. But I think it’s worth think about and doing. And I do
think it’s a part of human nature, it’s really a part of the brain, but one that’s worth
pushing back against a little bit. Yeah, Emerson said, “That machines mechanize so that we
become the machines” There’s a man named Etzler, back in the 1830s and 40s who wrote a book
about Paradise to be gained for all of human kind. And basically a book in which he thought,
and science wasn’t ready to do it in is day, but he basically in his book predicts solar
power and wind power and water power and all sorts of the ways that he believed could energize,
give energy to the world so that there’d by no need for labor any more. Thoreau did a
review of this book, and though he was intrigued by the possibilities, what he didn’t like
to see is that we became machines. We became something that was insignificant in relationship
to society. But also that we lost touch, labor itself he thought was really important. And
that he thought that he was a better writer for the calluses on his hand. And so I think
for people like Thoreau and Emerson the progress was great but what are we losing and what
are we giving up. And so looking at something like Etchler where the whole world could live
labor-free, we could enjoy ourselves and like basically a paradise, but for somebody like
Thoreau he looks at it and you have all these people not working and without work what are
you? So I think, correct if I’m wrong, Jeff, I think that Thoreau just lived long enough
to know and read Darwin. So I think there’s a way in which we are machines for survival.
And many of these things that are programmed into us we now know are the product of evolution.
The didn’t really know this in those early Darwinian days, but now we know. These are
aspects of our brains, of our bodies really that, really use to serve a purpose, having
a short attention span used to be good because there were threatening creatures around you
and we really don’t need it any more. And my take on Thoreau’s message is that it kind
of reminds us that some of our greatest achievements as a species are about learning to override
that programming when we don’t need it any more, so you know we’re not programmed to
read. So that’s why every child has to learn to read from square one. But what an amazing
achievement that was! That we learned to focus like that and have a long attention span.
I would love to read Thoreau if he had lived to today and could see all the Darwinism had
taught us and to see if he would sort of work that into his work somehow because he was
really touching on it I think without completely realizing it. Anyone else? Can you just tell
me a little bit more about the digital Thoreau? Do you just go online? Yeah, just look up
digital Thoreau. Type it into Google. Yeah, it’ll come right up. And anybody can? Yep,
anybody can become part of it. Well, you set up a little account. You sort of have to become
a user of it, but anybody can do that. Free to use, it’s actually a wonderful tool, so
you know. We shared others things with you during the summer. Great well, I think we’ve
gotten a sort of sample of the ever changing Thoreauvian landscape and the way in which
digital technology can be a very exciting part of that and that we really don’t know
where we’re going and where we’re headed entirely and that’s going to be exciting to discover
to. And we’re really glad that we had you all here to explore the issue with us, so
thanks so much for coming out and the video game is still up as far as I know. The books
are over there, the panelists are here. Your van is picking you up at eight thirty, so
you got five minutes at least to mill before then. So thanks again and thanks to our panelists
and thanks to Whitney. Yeah, I just from the Walden Woods Project want to extend a thank
you to the panelists, to Sarah for moderating, to Jim our partner at WPI for everyone at
WPI who made this happen, wonderful to work with. For all of you, to all of you for coming,
thank you so much. And our first lyceum event we hope there to be many of these. If you
do want to learn more about the Walden Woods Project, go to www.walden.org. Use your technological
devices, whichever one you’re addicted to. And I just want to highlight a couple of upcoming
events. Our second lyceum event will be on April 14th in Boston at the Old South Meeting
House on education and educational access. Megan Marshall, a Pulitzer prize winning author,
and Lawrence Buell, professor emeritus, from Harvard, along with Jeff, will be on the panel.
It should be a great conversation. On March 12th we’re hosting a Wikipedia edit-a-thon
for all thing Thoreau. If he’s going to be on Wikipedia, we want him to be represented
well, so if you’re interested in participating in that you can email [email protected]
or talk to me afterwards. And I mentioned this to some of the students as they came
in. We have an essay contest that is open to people around the world up to age 21 and
we’d love to hear your thoughts in that. There’s a flyer outside. Thank you so much, thank
you Tracy for coming from California to present, I failed to say that, so have a wonderful
evening. Jeff’s books are for sale, unfortunately Bill’s did not make it here from the snow
probably, but Jeff will be signing outside if you’d like to and all the panelists I think will be taking
some questions and Tracy at the game, so thank you so much have a wonderful evening!

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