Don’t get me wrong: I’m not about to pitch my “dusty” digital devices out the window in mimicry of the stoical Thoreau, who was perturbed by what he considered his own over-attentiveness to mere things, ornaments, baubles, distractions. They diverted his focus from more rewarding endeavors, they stole his time, they scattered his force. They would not improve him or raise the quality of his life.
Were we really to apply this standard to the material surplus of our lives in an honest and consistent manner, most of us would find that we could easily do without most of the “stuff” we pile up and haul around and surround ourselves with. We would have to consider the Bhutanese experiment, and begin paying as much attention to Gross National Happiness as we do to Gross Domestic Product. We would not be the same kind of Americans our grandparents were.
My little 16-GB iPod now holds at least 200 books and book excerpts (eBooks and audio books), from Kindle and Stanza and Project Gutenberg and Audible and Overdrive, most of them “free” but for the expenditure of time and attention– the “dusting” that disgusted old Henry. It has Twitter, the BBC, the New York Times and The New Yorker and Time Magazine, the Columbia Missourian, the Boston Globe, the Huffington Post, Slate, Salon, et al.
It has a dictionary and thesaurus and several philosophy reference sources. It has Dragon dictation software to convert my speech to editable, emailable, printable, publishable text. It has an app that does the same to finger-writing.
It has Google Earth, and GPS, and NPR, and TED…
It has apps that tell me where I can get the best Happy Hour deal in town.
It has stuff I’ve forgotten, stuff too cool to ignore at the app store but too much for my poor finite brain to track, day by day.
Oh yeah: it has the Beatles, the Stones, John Prine, and all my other favorite music too.
In brief, it’s a lot cooler than Thoreau’s three pieces of limestone. He would admit that, I’m sure. But it’s still just a thing, and it still monopolizes too much of my attention. I won’t throw it out, but I need to moderate my regard for it.
Most of all, I need to be prepared to let it go. Things crash, things get lost, things in our consumer paradise especially get surpassed and superceded. Things get dusty.
Stoics don’t have to live lives of voluntary poverty, but they do choose to lodge their sense of life’s worth in something more stable and less exterior than things.
A lesson from Seneca (who, btw, is on my iPod):
The wise man can lose nothing. He has everything invested in himself. The wise man is self-sufficient… if he loses a hand through disease or war, or if some accident puts out one or both of his eyes, he will be satisfied with what is left.
The wise man is self-sufficient in that he can do without friends, not that he desires to do without them.
He can do without iPods and iPads and iPhones and Kindles and beach vacations (oily or not). So can she. But they don’t have to. They can learn to tolerate a little dust.