Romance of the Real

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, and he’ll never live it down.

Every child in America is assigned Walden in high school. Few students (and fewer teachers) get around to reading it. Yet everyone with an internet connection knows that its author sometimes let his mother do his laundry or bake him pies. As one biographer said, no man has ever been so widely scorned for enjoying a meal with his family.

We love to hate Thoreau. But why? Is it because he failed to live deliberately—“authentically,” as we hipsters say—or because he succeeded? He did spend two years alone in the woods. He built his own cabin and whittled his own bed. He baked his own bread and grew his own beans. Sure, Bear Grylls might not be impressed. But maybe the rest of us should hear him out.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” Thoreau said. Every schoolboy who reads those words nods along vigorously. And he is right, isn’t he?

I kept thinking about the Sage of Walden as I watched Mark Zuckerberg’s guided tour of his new metaverse. Nothing screams “quiet desperation” like a bunch of nerds playing poker in a 3D chat room. It’s like something normal grown-ups would do… except you don’t have to put on pants, or leave the house, or interact with people in real life. When you get tired of your friends you can go into another “room” and look at flying koi fish. Plus you get to be a super-cool robot!!!

Yes, it’s pathetic. But is Mark Zuckerberg really so much weirder than we are? Put it this way. Growing up, I worked as a farmhand. I loved it—except for the summer of my freshman year. I’d pick beans for eight hours a day, grumbling the whole time. All I wanted to do was go home, sit in front of the AC, and check my FarmVille. And I didn’t detect the faintest whiff of irony.

We’re already living in a virtual reality. For years now, social media has been turning us into little Zuckerbots.

Read the rest at The American Conservative.

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