The More Things Change

Russ Roberts
Feb 23, 2017 · 3 min read

People are worried that in the internet age, our attention spans are too short, the pace of life is too fast, and we use our time in superficial ways. I’ve recently come across two examples of this being a very old worry.

The first example comes from a biography of Charles Dickens by Stephen Leacock written in 1933. On page 2, Leacock writes that young people probably can’t relate to Dickens the way they once did. Here is Leacock’s description of the fast pace of life (in 1933):

There are many younger people now, so we are told, who do not read Dickens. Nor is it to be wondered at. We live in a badly damaged world. It is a world of flickering shadows, tossed by electric currents, of a babel of voices on the harassed air, a world of inconceivable rapidity, of instantaneous effects, of sudden laughter and momentary tragedy, where every sensation is made and electrocuted in a second and passes into oblivion. It is a world in which nothing lives. Art itself is as old as man, and as immortal. But the form and fashion of it change. Dickens lived and wrote in a world that is visibly passing, the age of individual eminence that is giving place to the world of universal competence.

Flickering shadows? Inconceivable rapidity? Where every sensation is made and electrocuted in a second and passes into oblivion? It’s a beautiful description of how some perceive our age. Written in 1933.

And here is a second example from a very different book, The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts. This was written in 1951. But it could be from today. Watts is discussing how we are always looking to the future for our happiness and how unsatisfied we are:

Thus the “brainy” economy designed to produce this happiness is a fantastic vicious circle which must either manufacture more and more pleasures or collapse — providing a constant titillation of the ears, eyes, and nerve ends with incessant streams of almost inescapable noise and visual distractions. The perfect “subject” for the aims of this economy is the person who continuously itches his ears with the radio, preferably using the portable kind which can go with him at all hours and in all places. His eyes flit without rest from television screen to newspaper, to magazine, keeping him in a sort of orgasm-without-release through a series of teasing glimpses of shiny automobiles, shiny female bodies, and other sensuous surfaces, interspersed with other restorers of sensitivity — shock treatments — as “human interest” shots of criminals, mangled bodies, wrecked airplanes, prize fights, and burning buildings. The literature or discourse that goes along with this is similarly manufactured to tease without satisfaction, to replace every partial gratification with a new desire.

Given Watts’s view of the transistor radio in 1951, I’m guessing he wouldn’t be a big fan of the smart phone.

I pass these along without judgment. Distraction is a powerful human desire that is now more easily fulfilled given technology and our wealth (which gives so many people access to leisure) than at any time in the past. I will not be surprised if 50 years from now people look back and marvel at the slow-paced nature of daily life at the beginning of the 21st century, nostalgic for the days before VR took over leisure time. Or maybe there will be a backlash and people will return to a slower pace of life. Hard to know. But interesting that people have been worrying about the increasing pace of life for a while now.

UPDATE: A twitter follower (thank you, Bat Boss) sent me this magnificent XKCD timeline making a similar point to the above. Here is Mark Helprin’s wonderful essay, “The Acceleration of Tranquility,” now 20 years old that deals with similar issues. You also might enjoy my somewhat-related take on movie trailers.

UPDATE 2: Another twitter follower (thank you Neil21) shares this wonderful Paul Graham essay on the acceleration of addiction. I agree with Graham’s perspective. It’s very hard to stop technology and I don’t want to. I’d prefer we find our own way in dealing with the acceleration. Graham worried about internet addiction in 2010, didn’t have a cell phone. I wonder if that’s still the case. But long walks or hikes are one solution. I keep the Jewish sabbath which gives me 25 hours without technology. I prefer such private choices to anything top-down for dealing with things we want not to like, Graham’s phrase for things we like too much.

Russ Roberts

Written by

I host the weekly podcast, EconTalk and I'm the co-creator of the Keynes-Hayek rap videos. My latest book is How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life.