XKCD: moral panics about modern times from times gone by

Today's XKCD, "The Pace of Modern Life," is a lovely collection of 19th century and early 20th century quotations about the hurried pace of modern life, the atomisation and trivialisation of knowledge thanks to modern media, the disobedience of children (again, thanks to modern media) (this topic was a favorite of Socrates's!) and other hand-wringing editorial subjects frequently chosen by modern critics of the Internet age. A great companion piece to Tom Standage's wonderful catalog of moral panics through the ages.

The Pace of Modern Life


  1. Some of these are pretty thoughtful. More than a few Americans might benefit from a long walk, for example. Will people (if there are people) 150 years hence laugh dismissively about our obsession with “privacy” and “freedom?” Who are these “hand-wringing […] critics of the Internet Age?” Are they us?

    1. Yeah, that’s the thing – at the time these comments were being made, things were changing, things were being lost.  To dismiss them as “moral panic,” when they’re thoughtful (and accurate) assessments of what was going on in the culture isn’t remotely fair.

      1. The point is that things were changing, largely for the better and there is constant concern and outrage that the change is bad. When in reality progress is largely natural and most often advantages, and the concern is just based in fear.

        1. “The man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead, showing that more refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken.”

          Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, 1912

        2. You’re very confident that these changes are all “progress”. Any particular reason for that?

          1. Which ones are you questioning? Telephone? Magazine? Radio? Rock and Roll? TV? Internet?

          2. Why don’t we start with “all of them”. I’m well aware of the benefits of each of them, and don’t question that. The issue is whether or not the downsides of each of them are eclipsed by the upside. We tend to assume that they do, mostly without much question. Reading quotes such as those that Randall selected for his cartoon can lead to a more considered reflection on this (or not – its your decision).

          3. I have met the Amish, talked with them, gave in consideration and concluded they weren’t a bit happier. Certainly some aspects of advancement and cultural change are negative. Just look at 70’s fashion. But over all life is being extended, knowledge is increasing and we can all dream of a future that will surprise us with advancement.

        3. “The point is that things were changing, largely for the better”
          The specific changes being talked about are often not “for the better” – they’re talking about a decrease of leisure time, a more frantic pace of life, a broader (and therefore shallower) understanding of things being required, etc.
          “and there is constant concern and outrage that the change is bad.”
          But you said it was all good. 
          “When in reality progress is largely natural”
          Social change due to technological inventions is “natural”?  Ok…. 
          “and most often advantages,”
          Advantageous to whom?  Not necessarily the people whose lives are being disrupted.
          “and the concern is just based in fear.”
          My point was that it wasn’t – people are simply detailing very real changes that were occurring, so to dismiss them as simply fear of what might happen is completely wrong.

      1.  Before we rush to adopt [moral panic] we should stop to consider the consequences of blithely giving this technology such a central position in our lives.

        1. Before we rush to adopt [xkcd] we should stop to consider the consequences of blithely giving this technology such a central position in our lives.

  2. I don’t think that there is any genuine quote by Socrates (or quote by him in Plato) that could be characterized as bemoaning the disobedience of youth. There have been some quotes attributed to Socrates to that effect, but no one has been able to find a source in Plato’s dialogues for such an opinion. 

    1. It’s not by Socrates, but I remember reading a splendid quote at the beginning of Lewis Mumford’s “The City in History”. This was along the lines of.. “In the modern city, everyone is greedy and pushy. In the country we had to get along with the neighbours because you saw them every day, but you also took the time for other people and they took time for you.” This was someone in Mesopotamia, writing when Ur and Jericho had gone up, but Babylon was still on the drawing board.

      Alas, it was a library book and twenty years ago. Has anyone got a copy? Or am I imaging it?

      1. I don’t have my copy to hand, but you may be thinking of History Begins At Sumer by Samuel Kramer. I believe there is a passage very similar to that.

        There’s also a hilarious bit by an Akkadian student studying to be a scribe in which he complains about how many times he’s been beaten for minor infractions that day.

    2. Some of my favorites:

      “I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on
      frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond
      words… When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and
      respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise
      [disrespectful] and impatient of restraint” (Hesiod, 8th century BC).

      “What is happening to our young
      people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They
      ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions.
      Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?” Plato

      “The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for
      authority, they show disrespect to their elders…. They no longer
      rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents,
      chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their
      legs, and are tyrants over their teachers.” Socrates (attributed by Plato)

      “The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have
      no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all
      restraint. They talk as if they alone knew everything and what passes
      for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for girls, they are
      forward, immodest and unwomanly in speech, behaviour and dress.” Aristotle

      1. The Socrates and Plato quotes are not authentic. You will not find such quotes anywhere in the vast published writings of Plato. If you google about these issues, you will find the inauthenticity of these quotes has been discussed to death on the internets. 

      1. But it’s from an Aristophanes play that has Socrates as a character. And Socrates is anything but a social conservative in The Clouds

    3. It’s Cicero – “Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.”

  3. awesome. i look forward to the one that puts the whole “big government is spying on us!” panic in context, too.

    1. There’s a Tudor-era complaint that torches are giving way to candles, which give off such a dead light in comparison.

  4. Some of them don’t seem to be bemoaning the changes they describe

    – The bottom one in the screenshot above doesn’t (to me) clearly ascribe a value, for better or worse, to the instances of social liberalization that are being described.  Presumably some following section of the text goes into what is good or bad about those facts in the author’s opinion, but I can’t predict from the quoted text itself what that opinion will be.

    – The one about the demise of pure line engraving doesn’t clearly call out photogravure as a bad thing, just noting it as an art form that is being lost.

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