Thursday, September 26, 2013

Trained By Trains - Thoreau on Technology

I'm teaching Thoreau's Walden this semester, and tomorrow my class will discuss the chapter entitled "Sounds."  While re-reading it tonight I was struck by two passages about trains and the way this new technology was changing the people who lived near it.

Here's the first passage:
"Far through unfrequented woods on the confines of towns, where once only the hunter penetrated by day, in the darkest night dart these bright saloons without the knowledge of their inhabitants….They go and come with such regularity and precision, and their whistle can be heard so far, that the farmers set their clocks by them, and thus one well-conducted institution regulates a whole country.  Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented?  Do they not talk and think faster in the depot than they did in the stage-office?  There is something electrifying in the former place."
The Fitchburg Railroad had been very recently built in his time.  Despite the short time it had been in existence, already it had begun to change the way people who lived near it regarded time.

It may sound like Thoreau admires this change, but he does not.  Just a little earlier he wrote that when he was at Walden his "days were not days of the week, bearing the stamp of any heathen deity, nor were they minced into hours and fretted by the ticking of a clock."  His Walden-time is not "minced into hours."  That is, it is not governed by any clock but Thoreau himself. 

The other passage is one where he imagines the trains as "bolts" or arrows:
"We live the steadier for it.  We are all educated thus to be sons of Tell. The air is full of invisible bolts."
To be a son of William Tell is no pleasant thing. To be a son of Tell is to be constantly in mortal peril.  One's schoolmaster is the permanent risk of sudden death.

A hundred and seventy years ago Thoreau was already seeing the ways that a single technology - one heralded as beneficent and neutral - was remaking us in its image, changing our sense of time, speeding us up, educating us to stay out of its way and so confining us to the spaces between the spaces it occupies.

And it's not just those who ride the railroad who are conditioned by it; everyone is conditioned by it.  The technology is not neutral, not a mere thing we can wield with no effect upon the wielder.  We may devise tools, but we are ignorant if we think that the tools do not also come to change us.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Not The Weapons But What They Defend

My latest post at Sojourners' "God's Politics" blog:

"My grandfather was a career military officer, and I admired him deeply for it. As a child, I would try to imagine the battles he was in, and I thought of him as a hero. As I grew older, I became more aware of what he had given up for us, and what that might have cost him...."
Read it all here.

Monday, September 23, 2013

"What We Need Right Now"

From my latest contribution to the "God's Politics" blog at Sojourners:
"Any right-thinking stranger on our shores must read our daily news and think our nation has gone mad. We have cultivated the ability to end lives quickly; and yet we are continually surprised when our fellow citizens use the tools we have devised for exactly the purpose for which we invented them. Come to think of it, I think we’ve gone mad, too."
 You can read it all here.