Cultural Pessimism

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!

If you liked this post, you might enjoy some of my older related posts:

The Myth of Rational Voter

Cognitive Biases and Nudge

Cognitive Illusions


4 responses to “Cultural Pessimism

  1. Right on spot! I liked this article. Its true, most of us do suffer from pessimistic bias.
    As a woman the most common ones I encounter is how ” in the good old days women took good care of their family and children and now how women are all becoming selfish and career oriented”.
    Most people don’t take into account the amount of independence and freedom a woman has now. Its always how the divorces are destroying the family life of India. Anyway, thought I’d give you an example from real life.

    Its true, technology has made our life more easier and I believe the best of humanity is yet to come.

    And yeah, the flynn effect I’ve read about that too, while it does seem to be true to a certain extent we still need to keep in mind that the flynn effect as measured by intelligence tests is partly due to superior schooling, better academic achievement and better nutrition in the present gen. when compared to the previous generation and not necessarily due to an improvement in intelligence levels on a large scale. Anyways I’m usually sceptical about intelligence tests in general (I guess you know that by now), so I won’t claim that our generation is smarter than the previous generation. Maybe faster.

    Overall, a nice article.

    • Vishal

      Thanks Rags.

      It’s interesting that you mentioned ‘divorce’ – how most of us think that it’s destroying the family life, marriage-institution etc. I actually wrote about this a while ago, and I think you’ll like this post: Is Divorce Underrated?

      I think divorce is underrated… the ability to leave her spouse represents self-reliance (especially) for women. Do check it out when you get a chance.

  2. This Dude

    Well, darn. Fifteen days too late. But I’ll drop this here anyway.

    Yes, it’s a truism that every generation suffers from cultural pessimism. Even simply pointing out this truism is itself a cliche.

    But can’t the cultural pessimism ever be justified? Can’t there ever be instances when the “good old days” really were better? Even with technological progress and the like?

    My point is that merely responding, “Yeah, well, EVERY generation thinks things have gone downhill” is not a sufficient counterargument to a charge of cultural decline. But a lot of people seem to think it is. It might be a strong rhetorical device, but it’s not strong logic.

    • Vishal

      Sure, that argument, in itself, is not sufficient to deny cultural/social/economic decline. But to understand that – the reason why we feel that way is NOT based on logic and evidence but on cognitive biases – is important.

      To disapprove the Decline, we would have to rely on evidence and logic (wherever we can). Take violence, for example. In his TED talk, Pinker exposes the wide gap between objective conditions and subjective perceptions with respect to violence. Also, the Flynn Effect is an empirical evidence for rejecting (or at least, questioning) the ‘Google-makes-us-stoopid’ mindset.

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