Listen to part of a lecture in a literature class. The professor is discussing Henry David Thoreau.
Nowadays, trains are pretty much taken for granted.
But in the United States, in the first part of the nineteenth century when Thoreau lived,the railroad was a big deal, a technological revolution.
It was kinda earth-shattering to ride in a mechanical conveyance,at 50 kilometers an hour in the 1830s.
The train-or "iron horse," as people called it-unlocked all sorts of new experiences of time, space...Thoreau himself praised trains for changing the way people experienced their own bodies...for stirring the imagination in new ways.
So, in Thoreau's famous book, Walden... As, uh, you know,Walden is one of the central literary texts of the United States from that time period.
And in it, Thoreau offers both praise and criticisms of trains.
Um, Thoreau is sometimes seen as being anti-modern,but he's not.
He uses poetic language,descriptive metaphors to inspire,to awe his readers,to communicate the fact that the railroad was a feat of human ingenuity.
Thoreau also associates trains with commerce and trade.
Though his attitudes toward commerce are complicated,he credits trains for delivering goods that feed and clothe society...things that improve human life.
But Thoreau also critiques trains on what we could call philosophical grounds.
He points out that riding on trains distorts people's experiences of the natural world,trees... wildlife...landscapes just zip right past you.
And this is a real problem for him.
Thoreau also worries that trains had become an "institution" regulating a whole country.
He worries about people doing things in "railroad fashion"...conforming to the train's timetable,letting their lives be governed by this mechanical device that's making its way into the fabric of society.
And he extends this critique to other inventions of the day, like, uh,the penny press,this very fast, steam-driven press.
He talks about popular literary genres, like penny newspapers and dime novels,which were being published in mass quantities.
He worries about people no longer thinking for themselves and uncritically accepting all this cheap, popular literature...and the trivial details of the news.
So, Thoreau is offering here a critique of technology that might be relevant for our own times...and I think it's important to take it seriously.
When there's a new invention-a new computer or mobile phone technology,some new gadget-there's a tendency to think that we need to have that thing...just as people were doing in the nineteenth century with respect to railroads-[emphasizing] accepting them as a necessity without considering the possible negative consequences or trade-offs that can flow from them.
OK, can anybody offer an example of what I'm talking about? Debra?
Yeah. There was this new computer game that my brother just had to have.
So, he saved his money and bought it,wh-which was good, I guess, that he saved his money and all.
But now, he spends like all his spare time playing that game instead of riding bikes with his friends or reading books,like he used to do.
And it's causing some friction between him and our parents.
Perfect example, Debra.
So this is one way to think about Thoreau's text-not just as an important book in its time-for what it tells us about the nineteenth century-but also as a text that can teach us certain things about ourselves in contemporary society.