Cultural pessimism has existed as long as culture itself. Just few weeks ago, I met with some friends over a party who bemoaned how new technologies, like GPS for instance, have made us less “intelligent” as compared to the prior generation(s) that did not have access to such technologies and had to rely on their own intuitions, knowledge and other (non-technical) resources. Although we didn’t talk about cultural or economic degradation, but this “google-makes-us-stoopid” mindset can be observed and generalized into these paradigms as well. The general belief and conviction is that things are going from good to bad, or bad to worse.
In a thought-provoking book The Myth of Rational Voter, economist Bryan Caplan calls it “pessimistic bias”. Virtually every generation has believed that people are not up to the standards of their parents and grandparents. Glorifying the past, and looking down at the present (and the future) is probably going on ever since the first caveman settled in a cave!
It is not improbable conjecture that the feeling that humanity was becoming over-civilized, that life was getting too complicated and over-refined, dated from the time when the cave-men first became such. It can hardly be supposed – if the cave-men were at all like their descendants – that none among them discoursed with contempt on the cowardly effeminacy of living under shelter or upon the exasperating inconvenience of constantly returning for food and sleep to the same place instead of being free to roam at large in wide-open spaces. [From Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity, by Lovejoy and Boas]
In reality, the effects of technology and industrial progress on our collective intelligence, economy and culture have hardly been detrimental. Consider, for example, this question by Steven Pinker from the recent issue of Edge online magazine:
Take the intellectual values that are timeless and indisputable: objectivity, truth, factual discovery, soundness of argument, insight, explanatory depth, openness to challenging ideas, scrutiny of [perceived] dogma, overturning of myth and superstition. Now ask, are new technologies enhancing or undermining those values?
The answer is clear that the new technologies are, in fact, enhancing those core intellectual values. Still, the pessimistic illusion prevails – probably because it has strong roots in the human nature itself. In this decade-old article, Tyler Cowen defends against this myth and explores some reasons behind this wide gap between objective conditions and subjective perceptions:
It is easy to perceive the loss of what we know and harder to discern new developments and surprises. Even if long-term trends are positive, culture may appear to be deteriorating.
Observers often judge present culture against the very best of past culture, causing the present to appear lacking in contrast. But comparing the best of the past against the entirety of the present is unfair. No matter how vital contemporary culture may be, our favorite novels, movies, and recordings were not all produced just yesterday.
The past is always going to contain more accumulated achievements than a particular point in time (i.e. the present). Hence, present almost always pales in comparison to the ‘good old days’. Moreover, strong forms make us “open minded” to paranoid fantasies:
Some part of human nature connects with the apocalyptic. Time and again, pessimists among us have envisioned the world going straight to hell. Never mind that it hasn’t: A lot of us braced for the worst. Whether the source is the Bible or Nostradamus, Thomas Malthus, or the Club of Rome, predictions of calamity aren’t easily ignored, no matter how many times we wake up in the morning after the world was supposed to end. [Cox and Alm]
To end this post on a positive note, check out (1) the Flynn Effect – the consistence rise of I.Q. scores over generations, and (2) this illuminating TED talk (video below) by Steven Pinker in which he convincingly argues that we are probably living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence!
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