How to Value the Tools of Technology but not Become One

Posted by martin.parnell |

I recently read a quote by Henry David Thoreau that got me thinking. Not long after, I heard a new word that intrigued me and the very next day, I read an article that I found disturbing. Coincidentally, they all appeared to be inter-related, so I decided to delve a little further in to all of them and see if there was a feasible connection. 

The quote came from Henry David Thoreau, an American from Concord, Massachusetts, who was, amongst other things, an essayist, poet, philosopher, abolitionist and historian. He was born on July 12, 1817 and died on May 6, 1862.

The line comes from his book“Walden”, in which he states:   “Men have become the tools of their tools.” I went on to read several articles on what this probably means to us today and many contributors relate it to our reliance on the use of modern technology. 

But, bearing in mind when Thoreau wrote this I wondered how that could be the case and so I tracked down the rest of the quote and it reads: “Money is not required to buy one necessity of the soul. Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” I feel that Thoreau was writing about society’s want of material things, which would have been household items or the latest in agricultural tools i.e. the latest technology of the time. 

With this in mind, I sought out articles about the quote and found brown7915's Blog posted on March 20th. 2013, in which the author writes: “Thoreau was part of the transcendental movement which took place between the years of 1830-1860. During this time a transcendental thought was based on philosophy, contemplation, and the discovery of one’s internal spirit. Transcendental thinkers despised consumerism, along with materialism. 

They believed that life should be purely intellectual and spiritual without the side effects of outside contamination. They also aimed for optimism. They believed in the beauty of life and that pollution of nature led to the pollution of the mind. Nonconformity was also a huge factor of transcendental thought.”

It’s interesting to note that Thoreau should make the statement when he did, as the industrial revolution was still happening. The transcendental time was right after the invention of the cotton gin. Also, telegraphs, sewing machines, mass-produced muskets, interchangeable sewing machine parts, and new uses for rubber occurred during this time period.  

If we think about the quote in respect to current lifestyles, it’s easy to see why many people relate it to our use of modern technology. Perhaps Thoreau became disillusioned by the rate at which things were changing, people’s preoccupation with these modern trends and their loss of appreciation for a more natural world. 

In response to the blog, Susan Reynolds, Teacher, StoryTeller at ABC Legacy responded on June15th 2017 by saying: “Instead of asking what this quote meant to Thoreau, I answer what it means to us today, especially for our teens. If this tool is a digital device in the times of digital dependence and potential digital addiction, we are at risk of becoming the tools of our tools, then the tools can manage us, rather than being a tool that we manage. 

When we narrow the focus to our SmartPhone and our reliance on the tool, almost as an extension of our minds, then we may become addicted to it, reacting to every ping, ding and alert. The research on the release of dopamine from a text message, tweet or like on our social media accounts are undeniable, so are we going to continue to be controlled by this if we are unaware of its power. The keyis awareness and intentional attention.  But it’s not that easy when the creators of the technology want to hook us.”

It was then that I came a across the word phubbing.

Apparently, it is a term coined as part of a campaign by Macquarie Dictionary to describe the habit of snubbing someone in favour of a mobile phone. In May 2012, the advertising agency behind the campaign, McCann, had invited a number of lexicographers, authors, and poets to coin a neologism to describe the behaviour.

According to

Phub - verb (used with object), phubbed, phubbing.


to ignore (a person or one's surroundings) when in a social situationby busying oneself with a phone or other mobile device: Hey, are you phubbing me? 

In my opinion, it’s a sad, if not disturbing sign of the times that it was deemed necessary to actually invent a word to describe this antisocial behaviour. 

Which brings me to the article, provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited on April 9th 2018, with the headline:

 Quarter of children under six have a smartphone, study finds 

It reveals that, in a recent study: “Despite parents insisting that 11 is the "ideal" age for children to have a phone, 25 per cent of children aged six and under already have their own mobile and nearly half of these spend up to 21 hours per week on their devices. More than three quarters of parents paid up to £500 for their child's first phone with two-thirds admitting they don’t cap the monthly spend.

According to the poll: “Researchers also found eight in 10 parents don’t limit the amount of time children spend on their phones while 75 per cent don’t disable the data function so their children are only able to call and text. SmartPhones have become the most important piece of technology we own, connecting us with friends, keeping us updated on the world around us, and letting us capture our biggest moments," said Liam Howley of musicMagpie which conducted the research.

“The age at which children get their first phones, has got even younger, and while many agree that there’s no defined age to give a child a phone, there’s a lot parents can do to ensure their child’s day-to-day life isn’t consumed by one. Other than making calls and sending messages, it also emerged that 38 per cent of children used their mobile phone to play games.”

I have written in a previous blogs about my views on the use of modern technology:

  • Talk not Tech, remember how to enjoy the conversation / October 10th. 2016
  • Treasures in the mail and why handwriting still matters / January 23rd. 2017
  • The value of the personal touch when networking / March 20th. 2017
  • It’s important to recognise that communication is a two-way thing / March 27th 2017
  • Learning to be patient in a High Tech world / August 14th 2017

There is no denying that technology is becoming more and more sophisticated at a rate we could never have imagined, twenty years ago. We must make an effort and take steps to safeguard the future generation against becoming ill-equipped to relate on a personal level and too dependent on technology.

There is a place for smart phones, computers, computer games etc. But, we have a responsibility to encourage them to develop all ways in which to communicate and keep active.  

It is worth reminding ourselves of those words of Thoreau and try to relate them to our current lifestyles and make an effort to ensure that, in the modern-day context we do not allow ourselves to become “Tools of our tools.”

About the Author

Martin Parnell is the Best-Selling author of MARATHON QUEST and RUNNING TO THE EDGE and speaks on having a “Finish the Race Attitude – Overcoming Obstacles to Achieve Your Full Potential”. Martin has written for, or been covered by CNNBBCCBCThe Huffington Post, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Runners World, Men’s Journal, Canadian Business, and Maclean’s.

In a five year period, from 2010 to 2014, Martin completed 10 extreme endurance “Quests” including running 250 marathons in one year and raising $1.3m for the humanitarian organization Right To Play. Find out more about Martin at  and see what he can do for you in the long run.

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