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Some Thoughts on Henry David Thoreau and the Nature of Time (on the Bicentennial of his Birth)

Henry David Thoreau Responds to Apple’s Request for New Apps

By Howard Axelrod

Henry David Thoreau 

On the occasion of the bicentennial of his birth, Henry David Thoreau writes a letter to Apple suggesting ideas for new apps.


Apple Sirs,

I thank you for your appreciation of my lecture at the recent TED Dead conference: “Thinkers of Yesterday, Challenges of Today.” (Your company, as Mr. Jobs declared in his own lecture, truly has eyes and ears everywhere.) I must confess some of your letter eluded my understanding—for instance, the polite imperative: “Please drill down to deliverables.” Am I to understand that you view my ideas as buried underground, like a vein of gold or a healing spring?

Nevertheless, I understood the thrust of your letter, and I must agree: the truest critics are not critics but innovators. In this spirit, I shall gladly propose some “apps.” But first allow me to explain the root of my criticism. 

From the advent of your “think different” advertisements, with their grand photographs of iconoclastic geniuses, I’ve followed the progress of Apple as a solitary farmer follows the progress of the sun. My hope, as your promise to citizens seemed aligned with my own, was that your product might help the best and most neglected fruits of our humanity—humility, attention, and wonder—to ripen. I trusted you would make good on that promise: to enhance consciousness, to elevate man’s life not by improving how others look at him but by improving how he sees. 

But it appears that overuse of your devices often impedes attention, creativity, and the very communion your advertisements promote. Rather than see more richly, modern man—let us call him Johnny Appleseed—traverses the city more blindly: verily in a cloud, in a web.   

Yet I rejoiced to receive your letter. You asked for my ideas; you will endeavor to bring them into life. (My readers have rarely risked such exertion.) Therefore, I am determined to fulfill your request, and I will answer my TED Dead lecture’s rhetorical question: “Can Apple not furnish applications that make use of their products more in keeping with their stated mission?”  

Using your App Store as my weathercock, I have perceived that Johnny Appleseed seeks nothing so much as recommendations and convenience, as though by alchemy the two might transmute into holy waters. Therefore for nutriment, if Johnny must seek counsel beyond his own gut, let him rely on Yawp!—my homage to Mr. Whitman, of New Jersey—which rates restaurants on how well they feed your spirit, and awards up to five bones according to how much marrow you’re able to suck out of life, with particular attention to economical buffets.

My second proposal is LifeSuck, a daily planner designed according to the premise, “I do not so much wish to know how to economize time as how to spend it…How to live.  How to get the most life.” Constantly updated by an algorithm that calculates “the cost of a thing” as “the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run,” LifeSuck will estimate how much life an activity will suck out of Johnny, versus how much life will it allow him to suck.  Accordingly, it will suggest which vacations to scuttle, which animal videos to avoid, and which dating apps, as an act of civil disobedience, to boycott.

If Johnny heeds the advice of LifeSuck, he will require an improved GPS application, particularly for his solitary rambles.  Designed according to my postulate, “No man ever followed his genius till it misled him,” Thoreau Maps will ask Johnny a series of questions to determine if he, indeed, is following his genius.  The app will then recalculate Johnny’s physical route to aid him—through potential for daydreaming, stimulating vistas, and useful encounters—in his current projects. (Caveat emptor: Thoreau Maps is likely to misdirect citizens in milieus where the word genius roughly means “likely to be profitable,” as it appears to among your technology kin.) 

To assist Johnny with his non-physical orientation, he may employ my update to Shazam, which will identify not the music playing around him but the music playing inside of him. “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it’s because he hears a different drummer.  Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away.” With Drummerzam, Johnny will hear his different drummer on his own earbuds, as you call them.  Perhaps his brain will blossom!    

My final proposal concerns daily travel, which ought to be—as my rambles always were—daily communion with the world. Therefore, my update to Uber will be Ubermensch. As Mr. R.W. Emerson has explained to me, Mr. Nietzsche’s “ubermensch” is a reworking of Mr. Emerson’s own “Over-soul,” a conception of the deep spiritual connectedness of all things. Accordingly, Ubermensch will take into account Johnny’s physical and spiritual destination, his internal and external weathers, and predict whether he’s more likely to find communion walking a few extra streets with his friends, or riding the public bus, or simply ordering an Uber. (Mr. Emerson has implored me to implore you to call this application Over-soul Train, but pay no heed.)

Use of these applications, day after day, year after year, will undoubtedly change the very medium through which Johnny looks, thereby improving the quality of what he sees, hears, and thinks. And, likely, his life will come to look more like an Apple advertisement. 

For my own part, I shall return to my most esteemed technology: the quill in my hand. It has allowed my inmost meditations to reach the inmost chambers of the minds of many, no matter that we are separated by centuries, as though it had transmuted my thoughts into a distant star, the light still arriving after those thoughts have ceased to be. Indeed, it may have allowed me to reach you. 


Henry David Thoreau


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About the Author

Howard Axelrod’s essays have appeared in the New York Times MagazineSalonVirginia Quarterly Review, and the Boston Globe. He has taught at Harvard, the University of Arizona, and currently teaches writing at Loyola University in Chicago. His debut book, The Point of Vanishing: A Memoir of Two Years in Solitude, was named one of the best books of 2015 by Slate, the Chicago Tribune, and Entropy Magazine, and one of the best memoirs of 2015 by Library Journal.