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No E-Mail from WaldenRonald Searle illustration


March 16, p. A15

Driven by our obsession to compete, we have embraced the electronic god with a frenzy.  Soon, blessed with fax, voice- and E-mail, computer hookups and TVs with hundreds of channels, we won't have to leave our lonely rooms -- not to write a check, work, visit, shop, exercise or make love.  We will have raced at incredible speeds to reach our final destination -- nothing.

Henry David Thoreau said it first in 1849: ``We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas, but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. . . . We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New, but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.''

Thoreau wrote this statement with a pencil he made himself. He worked with his father, John Thoreau, founder of the first quality pencil manufacturer in America.

Here are other things he had to say about the information superhighway of his day:

So with a hundred ``modern improvements''; there is an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance. The devil goes on exacting compound interest to the last for his early share and numerous succeeding investments in them. Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end. -- ``Walden''

After all, the man whose horse trots a mile a minute does not carry the most important messages; he is not an evangelist, nor does he come round eating locusts and wild honey. -- ``Walden''

It is said that knowledge is a power and the like. . . . What is most of our boasted so-called knowledge but a conceit that we know something, which robs us of the advantages of our actual ignorance. -- Journal, 1851

If I am to be a thoroughfare, I prefer that it be of the mountain brooks, the Parnassian streams. -- ``Life Without Principle''

Copyright 1994 The New York Times

Bill Henderson is a director of the Lead Pencil Club, a subsidiary of the Pushcart Press publishing house in New York. He wrote this article for The New York Times op-ed page.