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Saturday, August 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 69.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Thoreau wouldn't be a-tweeting
Haste is laying waste to the art of communication
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I've just finished reading Walden again, for I believe the fourth time. It's been more than a decade since my last visit, and I'm stunned by the widening vastness of the gulf between Thoreau's message of simplicity and our evolving world.

Back in the 1850s, when the book was published, the pace of American life that Thoreau found so dispiriting was positively quaint compared to what it is today. He was appalled to see farmers toiling ceaselessly in the fields, and the hustle and bustle of Concord. What would he make of folks furiously tapping out text messages while idling in the drive-through line?

"Our life is frittered away by detail," Thoreau wrote. "I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail."

Thoreau detested "modern" technology, by which he meant things like railroads and the telegraph. "Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end...."

Irony alert: As I began writing this, my copy of Walden was not in hand, and so I Googled these quotes.

Yes, I find the Internet invaluable and email convenient. I don't long to go back to using quills or typewriters or the Apple IIc.

But I do object to some of the ways technology is pushing us to fritter our lives away - impoverishing our culture, eroding the quality of expression, undermining my chosen profession.

Two items in the current issue of the American Journalism Review caught my attention. The first was an offering from regular columnist John Morton.

Morton, the nation's preeminent expert on the newspaper biz, noted in passing that, while he uses email and the Internet, "I do not own an iPhone or a BlackBerry and do not text or tweet or blog. I'm not on Facebook or other social networking sites."

These admissions were made somewhat apologetically, as Morton sought to explain why he might not be fit to assess modern systems of news delivery. Yet the technologies Morton avoids, which as he put it "enable someone to be connected seemingly at all times with all people," arguably waste more time than they save. They don't make anyone a better writer, and clearly do more to impede than improve communication.

Recently, at a public forum, I sat next to a TV reporter who spent the entire time checking his email and sending text messages. If he spent any brainpower at all "covering" the event, it was not apparent.

Everywhere I look, even through the windshields of cars, I see people yammering on cell phones, staring into devices in their palms, punching away at pads, frantic to converse and connect, isolated only from themselves.

Some time ago I signed up for Facebook so I could check out Barack Obama's page. Suddenly I started getting emails from people who wanted to be my "friend." What a nightmare. I quit.

And Twitter? It even rhymes with fritter! Most of what gets said in 140 characters or fewer would be better not said at all.

Thoreau went to the woods in 1845, and stayed until 1847. He then spent the next seven years polishing his manuscript. Today, he would have been expected to tweet the whole time: "Pulled bean field weeds, thought of great line about hearing/stepping to different drummer, need Indian meal 4 bread, pond looks nice today."

I'm not quarreling with the right of others to embrace these technologies. But the push to be immediate as opposed to accurate, prolific rather than profound, is having other deleterious effects, as the second American Journalism Review item made clear.

The story, entitled "Lost in the Woods," recounts how major media organizations essentially shucked all standards of responsible journalism in covering the Tiger Woods eruption. While the central fact of Woods' infidelity was affirmed, much of what was reported (including the ever-escalating number of women with whom he allegedly trysted) was unsubstantiated and, it now appears, untrue.

Among those quoted expressing disgust at the mainstream media's reporting on this matter is the editor of a publication that spent weeks investigating and fact-checking before breaking the first story about Woods' lack of marital focus. The editor is Barry Levine, and his publication is the National Enquirer.

It's clear what's happened: The pace of modern information dissemination has become blindingly fast, which has blinded providers and purveyors to considerations of quality. And yes, I blame Twitter and Facebook and the blogosphere, mediums that glorify shallow expression. Our pretty toys have become toxic.

Let me look online for a suitable quote from Walden. Ah, here: "When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence, that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality."

But who in this day and age has the luxury of being unhurried, or wise?

Bill Lueders (blueders@isthmus.com) is news editor of Isthmus.

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