The 237th Fourth of July: Do We Never Stop to Smell the Roses?

BY Paul Solman  July 4, 2013 at 12:53 PM EDT

Is the harried pace of economic change making us forget the serenity of places like Walden Pond, above? Photo courtesy of Steve Dunwell/Photolibrary via Getty Images.

Paul Solman: On July 4 — a day off for many Americans — some esteemed thinkers visit our page to weigh in on the rapid pace of economic change. Their presence here may surprise you, so we’ll save their identities until the end of the post.

LW: “We are so overwhelmed with things these days that our lives are all, more or less, cluttered. I believe it is this, rather than a shortness of time, that gives us that feeling of hurry and almost of helplessness. Everyone is hurrying and usually just a little late. Notice the faces of the people who rush past on the streets…They nearly all have a strained, harassed look, and anyone you meet will tell you there is no time for anything anymore.

“Life is so complicated!…[It] would be pleasanter with some of the strain removed — if it were no longer true, as someone has said, that ‘things are in the saddle and rule mankind.’”

SB: “Computers, biotechnology and nanotech…are self-accelerating; that is, the products of their own processes enable them to develop ever more rapidly. New computer chips are immediately put to use developing the next generation of more powerful ones; this is the inexorable acceleration expressed as Moore’s law.

“The same dynamic drives biotech and nanotech — even more so because all these technologies tend to accelerate one another. Computers are rapidly mapping the DNA in the human genome, and now DNA is being explored as a medium for computation. When nanobots are finally perfected, you can be sure that one of the first things they will do is make new and better nanobots.

“Technologies with this property of perpetual self-accelerated development — sometimes termed ‘autocatalysis’ — create conditions that are unstable, unpredictable and unreliable. And since these particular autocatalytic technologies drive whole sectors of society, there is a risk that civilization itself may become unstable, unpredictable and unreliable.

“Perhaps what civilization needs is a NOT-SO-FAST button.”

HT: “Our life…It lives too fast. Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not; but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain.

“If we do not get out sleepers [railroad ties] and forge rails, and devote days and nights to the work, but go to tinkering upon our lives to improve them, who will build railroads? And if railroads are not built, how shall we get to heaven in season? But if we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads? We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.”

Scroll below the image to see the identities of the above contributors revealed.


LW = Laura Ingalls Wilder, “Missouri Ruralist,” “As a Farm Woman Thinks,” Jan. 1, 1924. Published in “Farm Journalist: Writings from the Ozarks.” In print as: “Little House in the Ozarks, a Laura Ingalls Wilder Sampler: The Rediscovered Writings.”

SB = Stewart Brand, creator of “The Whole Earth Catalogue,” in TIME Magazine, June, 2000.

HT = Henry David Thoreau, “Walden,” Chapter 2.


This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions