Thoreau The Engineer

In reading Walden and learning more about Henry David Thoreau, I can’t help but think of all the ways in which our ideas about the world line up. He is remembered as the lonesome philosopher of Walden Pond, but a lesser known part of his fame is that he invented a significantly advanced method for creating pencils and ran the factory that produced them. Prior to Thoreau’s innovation within the industry, pencils were constructed through quite simple means. Two pieces of wood with a notch down the center of each and a length of lead sandwiched between them with adhesive. Thoreau thought of a better way, to use an adapted form of a technique known as the Conté process. He used a mixture of clay and graphite to encase the material within a solid wooden pencil core. Thoreau’s pencils were far better than what Americans had been using up to this point and rivaled the make of high quality English brands. What is the importance of this innovation? What comparison can be drawn between making pencils and Thoreau’s philosophy of law about right and wrong? I would say more than you would initially think and certainly more than I did before giving it a great deal of thought. Thoreau’s background as an engineer means something with regard to his contributions to the world and his ideas about it. An engineer solves problems. In order for an engineer to apply their skills toward that end, there is a process which needs doing. Whether the problem is a practical one or a philosophical one which concerns the state of humanity, the process is the same. An engineer looks at something and finds fault in it. There is a better way of making something work, there is a better role which something can serve, there is a better application for a tool or a part of a construct. Where a problem needs solving, Thoreau is there with his take on it. More importantly, Thoreau differs from people who identify issues in society by offering solid advice on the matter of solving them. Thoreau provides his set of higher laws for living in such a way that can transcend the problems he observes within society. It is the chapter “Higher Laws” which my group is currently working on for our final project and this chapter holds a good deal of the wisdom Thoreau wishes for us to hear about fixing the world.

Another great American philosopher, John Rawls, presents the concept of fair play and moral obligation to obey the law when it benefits both the governed and their government. Codified law exists as guidelines and should be respected by those who are under its protection, but oftentimes guidelines written with good intentions can lead to harm and negative consequences for the people subject to them. Extreme adherence and reverence for the law as the only thing that matters will make one susceptible to control and the justification of many actions which are not moral by their government. Under fair play principle, the law must always be respected as an institution, but also subject to criticism and debate. This is in line with the same kind of moral obligation Thoreau posits exists to be subject to the law. Likewise, his argument supports a moral obligation to make laws worthy of being obeyed. Without the give and take relationship between government and governed, tyrannical laws will inevitably be imposed on the population which does not dare to question. This relationship is likened to that of the one between a parent and their child. Children are obligated to respect their parents because their parents protect and look out for their best interests, keeping them safe and fed. This does not mean however, that a parent always knows best. A child should not blindly follow their parents directives at every turn. If thinking ceases and the truth is lost, laws and rules will replace consciousness about what is right and wrong. Thoreau begs his reader to be conscious of the social issues plaguing society and to take what action they can to operate under a higher law. Thoreau, like Rawls, believes there are times when obligation is to morality first and the law second.

Thoreau identifies the problem of government tyranny and injustice based on their holding false principles. He takes issue with the kind of person who claims all men are created equal, but does not think about what that means. Thoreau identifies the flaws within American society during his time. Namely, Thoreau despises the practice of slavery and the role the government plays in the lives of the American people. Like the engineer he is, Thoreau has a solution to these loathsome problems. Bureaucracy, particularly tyrannical and inhumane regimes, are often likened to machines. Thoreau looks at this machine and takes great offense to how it is built, the way it is structured and the purpose it serves is disgusting to him. Especially so, because as an engineer he sees the ways in which it can be so much better. When Thoreau looks at the bureaucracy of the United States Government of his time, he sees a machine which is built incorrectly as it does not provide for its people the way it should. He sees a machine which is being utilized wrong as it is not working towards the betterment of the people it should be benefiting. Most importantly, Thoreau looks at the machine and sees the fuel it runs on is dirty and unethical. A machine being fed by human lives and sustained by slave labor is wrong, there is a better way. In this way, Thoreau is much like an engineering consultant. He provides his readers with an alternative perspective on where the true value in their lives can be found. Civil disobedience has been used as a tool for change by populations facing systems which would not hear them through legal means of reform. Where unjust laws exist, the people are compelled to participate in injustice by their government.

We should all take the lessons which Thoreau teaches to heart. No matter who we are, it pays to be conscious of social issues. It is good to hold values of our own which we are not willing to compromise at the behest of anyone. Thoreau’s message is one which appeals to the better nature of his readers. It is a message urging us to be aware of the things going on in our world and apply a reasoned process towards fixing what needs attention. Thoreau is an engineer who works with both his hands to influence the world around him, as well as his mind to do the same. We should all take Thoreau’s advice on living to a set of higher laws to heart and do our best to repair the world in whatever ways we can.

The Humanities and Information, Art and Artificial Intelligence

In thinking about the intersection between digital information and the humanities, I am drawn to a discussion we had as a class on artificial intelligence and its impact on online publication. At the edge of technology driving the world forward in terms of productivity, job creation, and countless untold applications is artificial intelligence. AI is a new frontier of collaboration and creation which will inevitably change the world in radical ways. With radical change comes anxiety and fears about what will be lost in the present. Disregarding anxieties over a changing job economy and robot overlords, a far more reasonable concern to have over what artificial intelligence will mean for us in terms of the spread, collection, and visibility of information in the digital world. In reading James Gleick’s The Information, we are introduced to his ideas on the information age and its titular “lifeblood”, information. Reading The Information has had me thinking about how we as humans are constantly moving towards more effective and instant forms of communication with each other. In finding more effective means of exchanging and distributing information, the circulatory system in play has changed over the years. In the information age, the internet is the most advanced and intricate means of communication we have ever seen. It is also the most easily accessible and widespread. As Gleick outlines, “Like the printing press, the telegraph, and the telephone before it, the Internet is transforming the language simply by transmitting information differently. What makes cyberspace different from all previous information technologies is its intermixing of scales from the largest to the smallest without prejudice, broadcasting to the millions, narrowcasting to groups, instant messaging one to one.”

There is a clear and important way that this is changing how the humanities are being consumed with specific regard to the forums and platforms they are represented on. Journalism, art, music, history, all of these humanities have their most widespread readerbase, viewerbase, and listenerbase on social media. What I’ve been thinking about because of Gleick’s writing and our in class discussions is just how different the time we’re living in is now from all of our past. For the first time, the entities overlooking and moderating the platforms used for discussion of the humanities are no longer human themselves. A week or so I would’ve argued that this is an objectively good thing. Having a standardized and all encompassing set of rules enforced by an unquestioning and unbiased mind seemed like the perfect solution to protection of free speech. If everyone’s speech is judged the same no matter who they are or where they stand politically there can be no selective censorship. An AI moderator would eliminate the need for humans to subject themselves to the negative and harmful content present on any social media platform. That same moderator would be active day and night and to prevent others from seeing such things. I realize how foolish that perspective was having thought it out. It is a danger for the public to view AI in the way that I had previously thought of them.

An AI does not come from nothing, it must be instructed. It is not without bias. An AI will no doubt be a reflection of its creators, their political ideologies, ideas, and values will be represented in it. This is the other danger of allowing an AI to police thought and dialogue. An AI cannot question the ethics of what it does by censoring content based on its parameters which are always subject to change. There is no chance for an AI to make decisions based on anything but what it has been programmed to do. With current machine learning this is a fact. There’s no telling what the future will hold, but at that point of development there may be little difference between a human moderator and an AI. It’s at that point the humanities will be tasked with cataloguing and creating art about a whole new aspect of the human experience. How will the artists, writers, and historians of the future approach artificial intelligence once it becomes difficult to distinguish it from organic? I wonder about this and I hope to see it within my lifetime.