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Few pairings seem more incompatible than Henry David Thoreau and smartphones. The philosopher in the woods scorned telecommunications well before there were phones. Some of his pithiest quips lampooned his townsmen’s awe over global networks. “We are in great haste,” he wrote in the 1850s, “to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” Thoreau abhorred chitchat. He would have much rather listened to birds chirping at random than have made random small talk.
Given the inane chitchat that so often flows from smartphones, today’s critics of technology might well embrace Thoreau as a techno-skeptic prophet, his prescient witticisms bolstering their indictments against the Internet. A recent feature in the Atlantic, after all, accuses smartphones of destroying an entire generation. “The more time teens spend looking at screens,” author Jean Twenge writes, “the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression.” The current popular consensus—supported by novelists, entrepreneurs, and psychologists such as Twenge—offers a prescription that Thoreau may well have endorsed: our use of digital technology, these experts contend, should feature regularly scheduled abstentions. Disconnect, unplug, and find your woods.
Thoreau abhorred chit-chat, but he would not have been a techno-skeptic. His philosophy of communication was complex.
In her most recent book, Reclaiming Conversation (2015), MIT media scholar Sherry Turkle reinforces this stance and catapults Thoreau’s manifesto into the center of current debates about digital culture. Thoreau enters Turkle’s book like John Wayne walking into a saloon. Amid disarray, here stands the figure who will set things right. Channeling Thoreau, Turkle proscribes what she calls “the talking cure”: have more genuine conversations—preferably face-to-face—and spend less time immersed in digital chitchat on screens.
But conversation is easy to spot in practice and difficult to delineate in theory. While the tradition-hugging part of me wants to second Turkle’s battle cry, the primary source of my hesitation is the same as her impetus: it is Walden (1854). The flurry of reviews in major publications (including the Boston Review’s) that followed the release of Turkle’s book made few mentions of her reliance on Thoreau, taking for granted that there would be little in Walden to challenge her thesis. And yet, the often-cited remark about Maine and Texas, for all its poignancy, has the potential to mislead us about Thoreau’s complex views on communication and its value.
To locate the power of talk firmly on the side of offline speech not only limits our prospects for conversing meaningfully in the digital age, but also shortchanges the generative insights we might glean from Thoreau’s philosophy of communication, which includes conversations that elude Turkle’s framework.
• • •
Two empty chairs occupy the cover of Turkle’s book. They are a visual homage to the furniture that Thoreau kept in his cabin. Ever the minimalist, he owned three chairs, “one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” Turkle draws on this image to critique the ways our everyday use of technology unwittingly limits the scope of our thinking and the depth of our interactions. A foil to today’s smartphone user, Thoreau is offered up as an expert practitioner of the conversational arts, whose life manifested a “virtuous circle” woven together in equal parts solitary contemplation, one-on-one talks, and civic dialogue. Of course, people still lounge alone, share park benches, and congregate in auditoriums. The three chairs have not vanished, but how we sit in them has changed.
Turkle’s analysis probes the digital inflection of life’s sedentary rituals. Her case studies—including a vignette of how teen groups go out to dinner these days—lead us to reason that texting is largely a matter of habit, more a drive than a desire. Those who text constantly, even when surrounded by friends at a gathering, text regardless of where they are or who they are with. For instance, I might be at a neighbor’s house for a movie, texting my friends from New York, whom I will be visiting this weekend; then, in New York, I spend a quarter of my time at a Yankees game texting with my neighbors about the movie from the other night. The film bore no relation to those messages I exchanged with the New Yorkers, nor the baseball game with texts sent to my neighbors. I enjoy being around both sets of friends. Hanging out with one set while chatting with the other does not express a desire to be with that other group instead. When with them, I do the same thing and so, too, do they.
Thoreau owned three chairs, ‘one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.’
True conversation, for Turkle, is different: an expression of desire rather than habit. People do not have to pontificate about macroeconomics or postmodernism in order to properly converse. Subject matter is secondary. Conversation occurs when and only when we want to know the other and make ourselves more knowable. Empathy, vulnerability, and revelation are the primary measures. Turkle pulls her conversation ideals directly from the scenes of her training in clinical psychology and ethnography. Extoling both methods, she condones “a kind of conversation that doesn’t give ‘advice’ but helps people discover what they have hidden from themselves so they can find their inner compass.” The ideal conversation unfolds and unpacks something suppressed; my interlocutors and I slide into a fluid therapist–patient relationship. We heal and elevate each other through attentive presence and prodding.
Whenever one checks Twitter or searches Google in the midst of a conversation, a lull follows, even when the information sought seems relevant and necessary. Striving to sit in all three chairs at once leaves us having to squirm through awkward moments of anxious silence. The idle act of daydreaming, which this multitasking so often supplants, stands as a kind of sacrament for Turkle. In its place, she reports that college students tend to substitute lateral Web surfing. Like Thoreau said of himself, digerati “love a broad margin to [their] life.” When Thoreau justifies his flightiness in terms of not wanting to “sacrifice the bloom of the present moment,” he regales mornings when he eschewed the day’s work out of revelry to the play that surrounded him: “the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling . . . I was reminded of the lapse of time.” Social media attunes us to the bloom of another present, one that laces life with a different kind of margin. The bloom of distant present moments—digital tidbits emanating from so many elsewheres.
What Turkle mobilizes in her depictions of Thoreau is a local-leaning personality, a sensorial openness to the infinite spontaneity of our immediate surroundings, the embodiment of a presence so acute that even mundane non-events become meaningful. Thoreau was all of that. Walden’s enduring legacy, as scholar Robert Ray puts it, is to teach “the capacity to find joy in the repetitions that constitute so much of our lives”—the seemingly dull moments in which we now turn to our phones. Turkle applies this lesson to our daily conversations, valorizing intimate forms and lamenting virtual intrusions. The problem with Turkle’s Thoreau—her portrait of his masterpiece and the life led to write it—is that it is partially a caricature.
• • •
While there are some conversations that Thoreau recounts fondly, the better part of Walden is spent rebuking the spoken exchanges that Turkle holds dear. Turkle’s rendering of Thoreau as a patron saint of heart-to-heart talks involves some editorial origami. What gets obscured are all the passages wherein Thoreau associates speaking with triviality, gossip, and distraction. Though not a recluse, he was by no accounts a warm and sociable fellow. Core elements of his life and thought run counter to Turkle’s ideals.
Walden’s third chapter, “Reading,” could have been titled “The Limits of Speaking with Townsfolk.” Much of it consists of a polemic against gab in its public and private expressions. According to Thoreau, the orator who addresses a crowd “yields to the inspiration of a transient occasion,” his vocalized messages addressed to “those who can hear him.” Hearing, for Thoreau, is set in opposition to understanding. Enduring comprehension can happen only in the presence of prose—more precisely, when texts are “read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.”
We can gather from his description of these texts that Thoreau would have thought little of text messages. The “heroic books” he valorizes are a far cry from our telegraphic missives. If the former demands of readers their “most alert and wakeful hours,” the latter may be processed at a glance while driving. According to the linguist John McWhorter, “Texting properly isn’t writing at all—it’s actually more akin to spoken language.” Text messages move at the speed of talk. Conversations unfolding in comments on Facebook or Twitter rarely span longer than a day, and they are almost never revisited a week later. In the guise of such practices, smartphones are portals to dialogues that cling to now. Digital words lose their currency with every passing second. New posts and new texts drive existing ones further into a thread’s irretrievable abyss. There will never be a canon of classic tweets or texts.
Writing at its best engenders an uncanny mode of communication.
For Thoreau, writing at its best engenders an uncanny mode of communication. The space and time separating reader from writer can afford inexpressible intimacy. Polished sentences, those that entail an intricate pruning of words—stripped away from one’s streaming thoughts and bodily gestures—are all the more expressive in the absence of facial expressions. Such sentences are bred electronically, too, just not in online platforms that simulate speech. Ironically, Turkle’s readiness to equate digital communication with regrettable degrees of distance and revision actually positions her as Thoreau’s inverse. Thoreau views gaps in space and time as boons to conversation; they gave him room to reflect at length on an interlocutor’s words before crafting his response.
Live transmission, like physical proximity, imposes its own constraints on conversation. Great conversations can take place face-to-face, but they do not have to. Commending nearness, rawness, and mutual vulnerability should not lead us to condemn the words that we wrest from ourselves onto the page and screen. Indeed, as James McWilliams has suggested, a more poignant antidote for “infoglut” and “present shock” might be books (and bookish multimedia), while the talking cure endorsed by Turkle may have more in common with digital disarray than her prognosis lets on.
Whereas social media casts writing into a speaking role, Thoreau aspires toward spoken exchanges that emulate written treatises. The only complaint he airs about his tiny cabin is an odd one. What aggravates him is not low ceilings or lack of storage, but an inability to get far enough away from his conversation partner when their talks get “loftier and grander.” During such two-chair conversations, Thoreau does not lean in or scoot his chair closer. On the contrary, he and his interlocutor “gradually shove [their] chairs farther apart” until they are pressed against opposite walls. Best of all, Thoreau thinks, would be to stand on one side of Walden Pond with his counterpart on the other.
Thoreau holds to his belief that thoughts can become confined by the reach of another’s exhaling breath. Nearness is a shared burden: “our sentences wanted room to unfold and form their columns in the interval.” He wants greater distance, more time, no onlooker’s gaze. He wants writing.
• • •
Walden does harbor dreams of a more profound public life where citizens regularly discuss salutary matters. Town centers should be like “universities”; municipalities should, after tending to basic needs, “be the patron of the fine arts.” Even Thoreau’s humble Concord possessed the means to transform itself into a cosmopolitan center of learning and debate. The town readily subsidized local commerce, laid multiple bridges, and built a lavish town hall with communal funds. Thoreau imagines that if a portion of the town’s budget were directed toward intellectual initiatives, regular visits from guest speakers would stimulate and provoke the townspeople in the manner of a Parisian salon. However, then as often as now, such proposals were deemed “Utopian” and frivolous. Thoreau laments “how little this village does for its own culture.” Concord’s conversations tended to follow its cash flow, and while Thoreau was no stranger to business (he made pivotal contributions to his family’s pencil company), his capacious love for ideas, history, and literature practically guaranteed he would be out of step with prevailing sentiments.
Whereas social media casts writing into a speaking role, Thoreau aspires toward spoken exchanges that emulate written treatises.
Thoreau found consolation, empathy, and redemption in his conversations with dead authors. With their words and the words he formed in their company, he remade himself daily into the author whose words we read today. The dead were his most important interlocutors, despite not having bodies. He exchanged the spontaneity of live speech for the enduring elasticity of great books. Consulting one’s neighbor is fine, but why not ask Plato when his words are just as easily accessed? In Thoreau’s mind, classic texts tend to be more alive than current buzzwords: “The symbol of an ancient man’s thought becomes a modern man’s speech.” The pace of spoken exchange hurries us to cherry-pick maxims and clichés that are the residue of retained wisdom. Going straight to the source will more likely “put a new aspect on the face of things for us.”
Thoreau’s views on revision mirrored this admiration for long-pondered and deeply considered writing. Almost every passage in Walden was laboriously revised from his lectures, which were, in turn, based on journals he kept while living at the pond. With artful pruning and ample time, Thoreau finely tuned his words for future readers. Walden in this sense does not signify—does not even aim to signify—Thoreau’s true, essential, or spontaneous self. Rather it is a filtered version of his earlier thoughts, torn from their originating moments, manufactured across one page to another.
Turkle argues that editorializing the self via social media is a disingenuous activity. But Thoreau’s meticulous composition methods—including his reliance on great literature as a wellspring from which to draw clear thinking—share commonalities with online self-branding habits. Both aspire toward levels of poise and polish that come only through slow, reflective composition and revision—the opposite of in-person, spontaneous discourse. Turkle’s quest to elevate free-flowing talk too often leads her to demonize digital expression as a form of self-censorship, cowardly here and conniving there. Granted, the purpose and quality of online output varies quite widely; however, a few (billion) selfies should not spoil the virtues of crafting an edited persona in a socially vibrant medium. It is one of the ways that our words can surpass us.
• • •
We would hardly fathom Thoreau’s theory of conversation if we stopped with human language, though. During a routine walk along the tracks near his cabin, Thoreau encounters a railroad cart full of palm branches on their way to be manufactured into paper. One can imagine Thoreau there, glancing up at the branch-filled cart, doing a double-take. He stops to watch as the train pushes past him and into the distance. To the casual observer, he probably looks like a casual observer. But he has just witnessed a poem.
Associating the branches’ present appearance with their future function spurs Thoreau to conjure their past. A flash of insight ensues. Refashioning these branches into paper will undo the “more legible and interesting” inscriptions they now display. Making paper, or canvas or violins, entails a semiotic loss for every gain. Nature is already a dynamic archive.
Leveled and elated, still gazing where the train has vanished, Thoreau concedes, “Who can write so graphically the history of the storms they have weathered as these rents have done?” The interplay of storm and tree yields eloquent traces. Environments proclaim incessantly. They harbor articulate sights and sounds with which we may converse. Every palm leaf contains an organic documentary. They are not raw materials, but rather “proof-sheets which need no correction.”
If we aim to foster meaningful conversations in the digital age, then we should heed what Thoreau’s time listening to the echoes of owls and trains actualizes: a broadened theory of conversation.
Hastened by this experience, Thoreau’s chapter “Sounds” disembarks from books in an effort to read the woods. The forest becomes a gathering point, a site of reverberation, wherein disparate noises mingle. Though he has left his three chairs behind and the words of his townspeople with them, he retains the desire to converse and finds interlocutors resounding. The train’s rattles and whistles carry the city’s rhythms into the country. Heard within the woods, buzzing urbanity is also “partly the voice of the wood.” Contexts conflate as utterances turn to echoes: one hears there here. In the echoes that captivate Thoreau, aural emissions of animals and machines have been “taken up and modulated” by the surrounding environment and thus remade. Echoes compress conversations into a single line and, in doing so, constitute a rarified form of communication. Whereas human voices diminish in meaning when usurped by noise or distance, nonverbal sounds coalesce with each other across settings. Consider Walden’s memorable accounts of the “iron horse” (locomotive) and the screech owl.
Trains mean many things to Thoreau: they are harbingers of industry, globalization, and a new sense of time. Uniquely among literature of the Industrial Revolution, he forms his ideas about the railroad by listening to it rather than, say, riding on it or interviewing passengers, conductors, or engineers. The sounds of our infrastructure—the machines that underlie social life—speak for us more aptly perhaps than any one of us can. The iron horse’s “snort” and “shaking,” for example, are intrinsic to the train’s functional state. That such noises trickle into the woods perturbs Thoreau. Still, he willfully ruminates on the train’s beck and call without subjugating himself to it. In his prose, the sound of the train becomes an almost sacred cipher within the pulse of New England society. Sacred not for the validity of values the railroad reinforces (“keep on your on track,” Thoreau advises readers), the train’s sounds are sacred for their honesty. Compulsive and irrepressible, they are the necessary exhaust of an institution that had by then become indispensable to the era’s preferred mode of living. Hear the locomotive, understand us.
Animal sounds, too, hold distinct merits that transcend the purview of human conversation. Even more alien than the iron horse, wild animals’ calls to one another are in no way addressed to you and me. They make no rhetorical accommodations for the human ear. Of all the calls, the screech owl’s is Thoreau’s favorite: “I love to hear their wailing, their doleful responses, trilled along the woodside.” The owls are hopelessly atonal, more dissonant and trying than Schoenberg at his most brazen. But there are times when dissonance is not unwelcome. Thoreau loves that their “maniacal hooting” summons in him “regrets and sighs” and “unsatisfied thoughts,” which were “admirably suited to swamps and twilight woods.” It can take anonymous encounters with sheer alterity to incite self-knowledge of our dimmer aspects—those unrequited, unrequitable longings with which only Thoreau’s owls can empathize.
If we aim to foster meaningful conversations in the digital age across a variety of professional, causal, and civic settings, then we should heed what Thoreau’s time listening to the echoes of owls and trains actualizes: a broadened theory of conversation. A theory that, going beyond Turkle’s, does not quasi-condemn time online as a necessary evil. Screens have become too central to marginalize, and the communication practices they permit are too heterogeneous to homogenize. Our lives necessitate finding another option.
Setting true conversation in opposition with screens, as Turkle does, forecloses the possibility of well-being in high-tech societies. If we presume that digital interactions are ontologically inferior to the real thing, then we basically settle for a more-or-less condemned daily routine: sleep eight hours; bear your brunt of the digital drudgery that is now inextricable from work, education, financial transactions, health care, public services, event planning, local news, research, and general correspondences; then make the most of whatever leftover disconnected hours you can manage to allot, for they are your only access to authentic fulfillment. But such binary prescriptions are rarely the path to meaningful experience.
Turkle’s account of conversation excludes many of the most consequential exchanges in Walden while proffering an unbalanced scale for measuring the value of digital discourse. Conversation is not reducible to talking. Conversation is any exchange that transforms us, gives us pause, forces us to think. It can happen among people or not, words uttered or written, and through sights, sounds, and reverberations that exceed language. Hence, the grave limitation of Turkle’s framework: valuing offline speech over and against digital media unwittingly downplays forms of conversation that are not human-centered, face-to-face, vocal affairs. Under such a hierarchy, the only reasonable goal must be to minimize screen time.
Yet even Turkle does not seem entirely convinced of her position. In spite of her ominous reservations, she hopes we can “find a way to make our lives better with our phones.” This aspiration evokes the possibility of screen time well spent. Turkle knows smartphones and related gadgets are not going away, and she wants to believe in redeeming use cases. For now, put it away is the cumulative refrain of her book: use your phone deliberately when needed, then pocket it.
Yet a more promising alternative beckons us back to the woods. In 1991, eight years before his much-too-early passing, the computer scientist Mark Weiser announced his then-peculiar research agenda in terms that recall Thoreau. Weiser’s famous essay “The Computer for the 21st Century” concludes at the brow-furrowing intersection of computing and hiking, with a new vision for the digital age. “Machines that fit the human environment instead of forcing humans to enter theirs,” Weiser writes, “will make using a computer as refreshing as taking a walk in the woods.”
Like Thoreau, Weiser viewed everyday environments as dynamic archives fraught with lavish inscriptions and live performances not to be missed. Taking a walk in the woods stages close encounters with “the infinite richness of the universe,” in Weiser’s phrasing. By contrast, the traditional user interface of computers effectively discourages us from noticing the weathered palms and their markings, the undulations of a neighborhood pond, or any other ephemeral, singular phenomenon that happens around us.
Thoreau and Weiser’s convergence offers prospects for reimagining smartphones as linchpins rather than virtual portals, as platforms that fasten digital content to local settings. Were Turkle to revisit Weiser’s prescient writing on the isolating effects of desktops, she would discover a kindred spirit. He envisioned computing devices that would operate in conversation with the settings, people, and objects we prize. Already, Weiser’s radical projections are taking shape through mobile technologies, such as augmented reality, that are designed to contextually prune the Web and parse out only the bits most likely to enliven our engagement with these woods, this city street, or wherever it is we happen to be.
At any rate, critics can only convince people to put away their phones for so long. A genuine decrease in digital communication could only follow from the most unlikely reforms to corporate culture, family dynamics, and human geography. Short of that, altering one’s personal smartphone habits, to the extent that one can, does not change much on a collective scale. While expressing misgivings about the social norms of tech culture is essential, technology critics will not bring the Web to a halt or even slow its grind. And even if we could, would we really want to? Loftier targets are within range now. For every killer app that confirms our most pessimistic forecasts, there is something else—an obscure website or unassuming video—that may inform, enlighten, or cut to our very core. Digital discourse has been refined immensely (though not uniformly) over the past two decades. In addition to condemning problematic tendencies, we should also critically inflect what is worthwhile about alternative practices. The stuff of the Internet is history’s most expansive conversation and it contains multitudes.
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