Hacking Walden Pond

thoreau_photoThis past week I had the great fortune to attend the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria. DHSI offers a series week-long courses that teach a range of digital humanities skills, from text markup to project management to the course I took, GIS (Global Information Systems) for Humanists. Essentially, I spent a week learning to use ArcGIS and thinking about how its geospatial analysis tools might be brought to bear on my research into nineteenth-century American periodicals./p>

Before I talk about what I learned this week, however—more on that in a later post—I want to reflect on a t-shirt. DHSI is an institute. Participants spend most of the week in a classroom, and so the dress code is less formal than, say, the dress code for an academic conference (this may be true of digital humanities gatherings more broadly, but that’s not my point here). Jeans and t-shirts are okay, and so on Tuesday I wore one of my favorite t-shirts to class: this Walden t-shirt from Out of Print. During the day, several folks remarked, good-naturedly enough, that it was ironic for me to wear a Thoreauvian t-shirt to a digital humanities gathering. It’s probably not worth explaining this irony here. We get it—Thoreau the great Luddite would disapprove of our discussion of tech and tools. Thoreau wouldn’t hack.

But Walden is one of my favorite books. I try to read it at least once each year, in fact. And I think my love for Walden—which preceded my interest in digital humanities—actually helps explain my interest in digital humanities, which transcends a mere fascination with shiny objects. Let me explain. (Please note that I wrote this on the ferry between Victoria and Seattle. I had no internet access and no copy of Walden in front of me. So any quotations or references to the book will be rough proximations that I may tidy up later)

First, I would argue that while Thoreau is often caricatured as a Luddite, he was actually deeply invested, both personally and philosophically, in thinking through the implications of technological change. Thoreau engages with modernity more directly and consciously than many of his contemporaries. We can see this in some lesser-known biographical details about Thoreau. Working in his family’s pencil factory, for instance, Thoreau invented the modern graphite pencil—generations of students taking standardized tests can thank Henry David—improving upon earlier pencils that smudged all over the page. Thoreau supported his life as a writer by working as a surveyor (that alone should make him an appropriate role model an English professor taking a mapping class). His maps of the area around Walden Pond were used well into the twentieth century. Thoreau, in other words, was a hybrid scholar; he understood his environment as both a philosopher/writer and a scientist. One reason I prefer Walden to, say, Emerson’s Nature is that Thoreau actual gets his hands dirty and his feet wet. He sounds Walden pond to learn its depth. He categorizes details about animals he observes. He describes the shapes of individual leaves, rather than only describing the scenic vistas of the forest.

I read Thoreau’s most famous experiment living by Walden Pond—and the word “experiment,” which Thoreau uses frequently to describe his two years there, strikes me as telling—as an attempt to decipher which technologies serve human flourishing and which may work against it. Which is to say, Thoreau doesn’t resort to primitivism. He has books, for one thing. Scholars like Jerome McGann forcefully remind us that books are a technology honed over hundreds or thousands of years; books are not natural, they are technological. Thoreau reads the newspaper, though he’s often dismayed by what he reads in them. Newspapers are widely available in 1844 because of new and cheaper printing technologies: a change in publishing that I see as a useful parallel to the sudden democratization of publishing in our day on the internet.

Thoreau is less certain about the railroad and the telegraph, but he writes about them frequently in Walden. The railroad, in particular, alternately fascinates and horrifies him. He writes what I title for my students “Thoreau’s argument for walking”—neatly summarized in this wonderful picture book—in which he points out that, while it may only take a few hours to travel between two points on the train, you must first work and earn the money for the train ticket. To truly calculate how long a railway trip will take, then, you must add the time you must work to earn the ticket to the time of the train ride itself. If you just started walking, Thoreau’s argument goes, you could get there more quickly and enjoy yourself along the way, rather than serving someone else in exchange for the fare. Thoreau argues (I’m paraphrasing here) that the cost of a thing is the amount of one’s life that one must exchange for it.

When I teach Walden, I like to hone in on this point with my students. We sketch it out on the board. I ask them to calculate in hours, days, weeks, month, or years that the things they want will cost. At $8/hr. (a common wage for undergraduates), a decent computer costs 125 hours: more than three weeks of their lives. A decent used car costs 18-20 weeks of full time work: five months of their lives. A house would cost at least ten years of their lives. Thinking about cost in this way often surprises my students; many report that they think about purchases more critically after realizing that they invest themselves, and not just their money, in every thing that they buy.

This scrutiny is the second thing I want to get at here. Thoreau critically engages with nineteenth-century technology as it relates to education, economy, politics, and society. The best digital humanists also engage critically with twenty-first century technologies. They advocate for technologies that may help us reach new insights—technologies that will promote human and intellectual flourishing—but they do so only after careful critical reflection. Good digital humanists will also critique technologies that distract or even work against human flourishing. This is a small example, perhaps, but on my own campus I try to speak against the college’s plans to put smart-boards in every classroom. I think of the tuition money that goes into that investment—the hours of our students’ lives, of their parents’ lives—and I simply don’t believe the technology justifies the investment. I could rant more about smart-boards, but Bill Ferriter has already said it better. Other digital humanists write about weightier technological issues, from online privacy to our broken copyright system to the institutional silos that hide exciting new digital resources and projects.

I tell my students that Walden can be usefully summarized in three words: “pay attention, people!” One reason I try to re-read Walden each year is to remind myself to pay attention to the technology I buy, use, and advocate. I can be distracted by shiny objects. I like techies stuff a lot. But to be taken seriously as a digital literary scholar—particularly by those colleagues who have a simplistic view of what the digital humanities are—I need to maintain a critical stance toward the tools I use. In my next post I’ll get some specifics about such a critical stance, as I talk about whether I see GIS adding to my scholarship or not. For now, however, I want to close by asserting the possibility of a Thoreauvian digital humanist. Thoreau’s contrarian stance toward the academy of his day—we often forget that he wrote Walden as a brash young ‘un—resonates strongly with the upstart spirit of the digital humanities. In other words, I think it’s possible to be wired while recognizing the wisdom in “simplify, simplify!” Henry David Thoreau might’ve been a hacker.