Thoreau the Technophile

You know Henry David Thoreau, author, transcendentalist, author of Walden Pond, a celebrant of the simple life lived in nature? He seems an unlikely candidate for a technophile, but often the least likely among us are susceptible to the allure of technology. His diary entries in 1851 present quite a poetic view of the newest technology to come to New England: the telegraph:

1851, Sept. 3.  As I went under the new telegraph wire, I heard it vibrating like a harp high overhead. It was as the sound of a far-off glorious life, a supernal life, which came down to us and vibrated in the lattice-work of this life of ours.

1851, Sept. 22. I put my ear to one of the posts and it seemed to me as if every pore of the wood was filled with music, labored with the strain–as if every fibre was affected and being seasoned or timed, rearranged according to a new and more harmonious law. Every cell and change or inflection of the tree pervaded and seemed to proceed from the wood, the divine tree or wood! How much the ancients would have made of it! To have a harp on so great a scale, girdling the very earth, and played on by the winds of every latitude and longitude, and that were, as it were, a manifest blessing from heaven on a work of man’s! Shall we not add a tenth muse to the immortal Nine? And that the invention this divinely honored and distinguished–on which the Muse has condescended to smile–is this magic medium of communication for mankind!

I felt the same way about the internet when I first encountered it–a magic medium of communication for humankind! It’s often difficult for us to “see” this kind of magic anymore because we now know where it has ended up. Power lines, telephone lines–these are not a thing of great beauty, to us. They don’t look like harps to us. This has been beautifully illustrated by Robert Crumb in a drawing titled “A Short History of America”:

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Thoreau lived in frame 3, and we live in frame 12. We can see beauty and nature disappearing, and see that, maybe it would have been better to put those lines underground. And that it is up to us to make frames 13, 14, 15. Can we improve it? What will frame 24 look like? 

Not only the built environment, but the inner life has been changed by what Thoreau sees as the  “magic medium of communication for mankind”. This is what I first loved about the internet:  it connected us to each other. We love to connect!

But we’re not communicating any more. We went past Dunbar’s number, beyond the number of people we can meaningfully know, which makes our relationships brittle and thin. Fake news, platitudes, bias, and not seeing our friends anymore– just reading their updates–is what it’s come to. 

This passage from Thoreau tells me three things: One, we should not forget the wonder of being able to communicate with one another across great distances. All the wonders of the internet are still there: we should see it again with it’s magic. Two: we should pay attention to the past to learn for the present. And three, living as we do in Thoreau’s future, where we can see the future outcomes of those telegraph wires, we should think deeply about the future we ourselves are creating and guide it to a better, more beautiful, future.


 

 Walden and Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau. Many people now say that Thoreau’s stay at Walden Pond was more like an early example of performance art then any commitment to living permanently in simplicity.  Still, the virtues of living simply resonate in our overstimulated, trivia-filled lives. And this edition includes Civil Disobedience, his great ode to freedom, which inspired non-violent protest everywhere is a must-read for all of us. Libertarians and liberals alike have marched beneath its banner, and the fact that it can encompass so many diverse viewpoints is a testament to its depth and power.

America by Robert Crumb. Have Thoreau and Crumb ever shared a page? This may be a first.  Both are deeply American. Thoreau is easy for me to like, but I have a love-hate relationship with Robert Crumb. If you haven’t seen the fantastic Terry Zwigoff documentary about him, Crumb, you must, and it will help you understand where he’s coming from. But I have to work hard to get past the pornography, misogyny, racism and scab-picking ugliness of all he does, in order to appreciate the great things he’d done, like that comic above, and his nasty (NSFW) 1989 comic about Donald Trump.


 

 

Should This Exist?

It’s live! The preview of my upcoming podcast Should This Exist! Go subscribe and listen to the preview, and if you like it, please leave a rating!

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Here’s the official blurb about it:

About Caterina Fake

Caterina Fake is Silicon Valley’s most eloquent commentator and dot-connector on technology and the human condition. As a humanist with a deep passion for history, literature, arts and culture, she has a unique perspective on the myriad unforeseen ways technology can impact our world. And as a celebrated tech pioneer herself, Caterina brings a deep knowledge of technology and an optimistic enthusiasm for entrepreneurs. In the early 2000s, Caterina co-founded Flickr and introduced many of the innovations — newsfeeds, hashtags, “followers,” “likes” — that laid the foundation for modern social media. (Though she’s quick to point out where social media has gone wrong). As an angel investor, advisor and board member, she helped build companies like Etsy, Kickstarter and Stack Overflow — which defined and nurtured new types of human-centered online communities. She’s now co-founder of Yes VC, an investment fund focused on early stage startups. For Caterina, hosting Should This Exist? reflects her career-long dedication to help technology fulfill its promise.

About ‘Should This Exist?’

Premiering on Thursday, February 21, Should this Exist? leads a new conversation to answer the question of our times: How is technology impacting our humanity? On each episode, an entrepreneur or scientist with a radical new technology will join Caterina on a journey to peer around corners, and glimpse their technology’s wildest potential to change human lives for the better — and the hidden forces that might send their vision sideways. A sneak preview of the first season is now available on the Should this Exist? page on Apple Podcasts.

The show’s first season will include the visionaries behind a headset that hacks your brain with electric fields so you can learn like a kid again; a fully automated chatbot that offers one-on-one therapy; a next-generation supersonic plane; a device that can read the expression on your face and know how you’re feeling; software that will translate between human and animal languages; and a scientific approach that allows humans to modify entire species of animals in the wild —among other unprecedented firsts.

Should this Exist? models a new kind of conversation between the entrepreneur or inventor and the world. Drawing on a wide range of fields — history, psychology, philosophy, the arts — Caterina leads the inventor through a conversation that sets aside the business model and examines the human case more closely. 

Scouts, Water, Lorena Bobbit

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Scouts. Girls can now formally eligible to form boy scout troops. Not only was the copy editor asleep at their desk, the author did not note the inherent sexism of this odd new eligibility. Why not call both Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts “Scouts”? And are there boys clamoring to form girl scout troops? That would show some progress. As it has often been said, equality will have a chance not when girls can be more like boys, but boys can be more like girls.

Water. The state of water in the world in less than 500 words. This will be a big issue in the future if the population continues to grow as projected, and this is a good summary of the regions the problems will arise, and who is getting in front of the issue.

Lorena Bobbit. Of course the real story was not what was emphasized on late night TV–the penis–the real story was about years of marital rape, domestic violence and male entitlement. Did you know John Wayne Bobbit became a porn star after his penis reattachment surgery and was convicted and served time for tying a woman up and repeatedly raping her? All those jokes at Lorena Gallo’s expense are hard to countenance–but an upcoming documentary may set the story straight.

 

3 Recommendations: Kanopy, Recomendo and DF Tube

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Kanopy If you have a library card, you most likely have access to Kanopy, which is full of excellent movies, including a selection from the Criterion Collection, and the Bicycle Thief. I’m recommending it because I am still surprised at how few people know about it. The kids section is also full of good movies, sans garbage like My Little Pony Equestria Girls: Movie Night and Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus.

Recomendo, the mailing list from Kevin Kelly, Mark Frauenfelder & Claudia Dawson always has something to discover. KK wrote Cool Tools previously, which was a source of so many good links, and there is also a book of Recomendos.

DF Tube This is a chrome plugin that eliminates all the cruft around a YouTube video. For the past few months I’ve been trying to force YouTube to show me palatable content on my sidebar, but no matter how much crap I reject as “Not Interested” more crap appears. Since the fountain of crap is inexhaustible, I searched for a YouTube cleanup plugin. DF Tube–Distraction Free Tube– is so great! Everything bad — recommendations on the sidebar, crap on the homepage, inane commentary–vanishes!

Anxy, Hilma & Vassar

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  • I am a huge fan of the new magazine Anxy by Bobbie Johnson et al. which is a beautifully designed, thoughtful bi-annual magazine about our inner lives, our psychology and our behavior. Recent issues have centered on Boundaries, Workaholism and Anger. In the most recent issue, on the subject of Masculinity, I found some terrifying quotes from pre-teens, who, when asked the question, “What is Masculinity?” presented the most violent, aggressive and insensitive men as paragons of masculinity. Can we all watch The Mask You Live In again please? 
  • I’ve had many vicarious experiences, which are often better than original, immediate, actual, personal experiences. A wonderful example of this is in a short story–a very short story–by Lydia Davis, reproduced here in full:

Happiest Moment

If you ask her what is a favorite story she has written, she will hesitate for a long time and then sat it may be this story that she read in a book once: an English-language teacher in China asked his Chinese student to say what was the happiest moment in his life. The student hesitated for a long time. At last he smiled with embarrassment and said that his wife had once gone to Beijing and eaten duck there, and she often told him about it, and he would have to say the happiest moment of his life was her trip, and the eating of the duck. 

I recently had the experience of attending the Hilma af Klint exhibit at the Guggenheim vicariously, since all my friends have gone, and raved about it. Who says these things can’t be among your happiest moments?  I also feel as if I have seen Saturday Night Live through other people, never having seen it myself, as well as having read Thinking Fast and Slow and Sapiens by osmosis, surrounded, as I have been, with people who have in fact read it themselves. We can live through other people, much of the time, and experiencing the joy of other people as if it were your own is one way of guaranteeing your own happiness. 

  • Vassar, my alma mater, has a beautiful campus, full of trees and old buildings, exactly the way you imagine a college campus to look. I went back recently to give a keynote at the Sophomore Career Development event, and was happy to note that very few students were staring at their phones. 

More:

Have a look through the Vassar Quarterly to see what a great school Vassar is. I love small, liberal arts colleges, and my education there was exceptional. The cover of the most recent issue shows the campus in all its autumnal leaf-changing glory. And downtown Poughkeepsie is on track for a wonderful revival, having started some projects with the amazing non-profit design firm MASS Design Group

 This is a wonderful collection of very short stories by Lydia Davis, who also does beautiful translations from the French, such as Swann’s Way, the first book of In Search of Lost Time; a new translation of Madame Bovary, as well as translations from Maurice Blanchot, another of my favorites, such as The Gaze of Orpheus.

 

Another way I’ve vicariously experienced the Hilma af Klint exhibit is through this book, which I was given as a gift by another exhibit attendee. This, and her book of Notes and Methods, are gorgeous. 

Reducetarian, not vegetarian

I like a good steak. I really, really like a good steak. I order it rare. Other members of my family order it blue. And my grandfather used to eat his almost raw, instructing the griller, “just restore the body heat”, which, let’s be honest, is a really gross way to order food. That’s the kind of carnivores I come from. Tartare? Yes. Oh yes.

And I love animals, really really really. Animal rights? Makes me sick. My first exposure to the ghastliness of the industrial meat issue was Sue Coe’s terrifying book Dead Meat, which I read in 1996. More recently we watched the documentary Food, Inc. with the kids, probably the first horror movie they’ve seen. As the years have passed we’ve become more and more aware of the terrible things required to produce industrially farmed meat–through movies, articles, books the rise of various organizations promoting animal rights, even The Smiths album Meat is Murder.

As investors, we’ve looked at– and sampled–a lot of alternative protein products: classics like Tofurkey, Garden burgers and Boca Burgers. Second wave meat alternatives like Soylent, Beyond Meat, and we always get an Impossible Burger at Gott’s at the airport before boarding flights. We’ve eaten crickets, witchetty grubs, a vast array of soy products pretending to be meat, fake meat comprised of mushrooms and beets, and bland, frightening and generally unidentified frankenfood.

I am a failed vegetarian. My efforts to eliminate meat from my diet made me realize how anemic I was: I wasn’t good about taking my vitamins or making sure I had a good source of iron. I fainted several times, and ended my stint as a vegetarian when I entered a kind of fugue state and found myself sitting at the counter of Jackson Hole Burgers eating a 7 oz. burger. That is not a small amount of meat. But what’s a woke carnivore to do?

Reduce. Our kids call themselves not vegetarians–they still like the occasional slice of bacon–but reducetarians. Say it out loud: it sounds better than it looks. And it makes sense doesn’t it? I remember the short TED talk by Graham Hill in which is proposed to be a “weekday vegetarian” which is along reducetarian lines. Just eat less.

This is the future of food. Millennials are all on board, and leading the charge. 70% of the world population reportedly is either reducing meat consumption or leaving meat off the table altogether, according to market research from GlobalData, who works with 4000 consumer brands.

I really struggle with this, I’m a true carnivore. Some people have told me it’s my blood type, and maybe I need to take my vitamins. But it’s getting easier and easier for us woke carnivores to

like we’ve wanted to.

The Environmental Cost of 2 Day Shipping

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Worth emphasizing the environmental cost of 2 Day shipping, which comes with Amazon Prime, is huge, when compared with 3-5 day shipping, per this article on Grist. When I realized this, I started checking the box that says “No-Rush Shipping”.

Free two-day shipping — the hallmark of Amazon’s plan to squeeze out traditional retailers — burns through significantly more emissions than standard shipping or traditional in-store shopping.

When you wait three to five days for shipment, Jaller explains, Amazon has time to find the most efficient (and cheapest) way to deliver goods. Aviation is by far the most carbon-intensive transit option, and with more time the company can route your package by land, instead of by air…and group your package with other, similar deliveries.

“The concept of Amazon Prime pushes us towards more emissions…and makes the marginal cost of purchases very small, so you have motivation to buy more. And of course, that’s what Amazon wants.”

And the more shipments, the more packaging. The more packaging, the more waste. Go “No Rush”!