On past-love and future-hate

June 29, 2009 | By | 13 Replies More

I know it is wholly unoriginal of me to link to the comic XKCD, but today’s strip was just too true to life:

Comic by Randal Munroe of xkcd.com (with permission)

Comic by Randal Munroe of xkcd.com (with permission)

Almost nothing annoys me more than the bemoaning of the future as an immoral, uneducated, unenlightened time. Many people- of both conservative and liberal ideologies- call up sunny images of a past where people were happier, smarter and “better”. Usually we can point to political and technological advancements that demonstrate this is not the case.

My deeply-held belief is that the future is bright and brimming with promise, that today’s youth are not hopeless or devolved, and that new fangled technology will not cause the collapse of our species. When bad things arise, we are tempted to look to the past with a fond and foggy nostalgia- as if fundamental human problems were not always the same. Bringing apocalyptic rhetoric into the discussion of modern problems is inappropriate, I think, because every generation has its big, scary troubles. As this comic advises, we should always look to the evidence and not catastrophize.


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About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

Comments (13)

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  1. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    But "Idiocracy" is such a funny movie.

    I think is portrays the silliness of a service-based economy which the corporate culture see as their Utopia.

    e.g. In the movie, when the Brawndo corporation's claims were challenged by the FDA, Brawndo bought the FDA.

    It seems that one of the points of the story relates to how uneducated people become a revenue resource for the greedy.

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    Pls put the link to the original, or at least copy the pop-up text found at http://xkcd.com/603/

  3. Stacy Kennedy says:

    I'm with you, Erika. People have been bemoaning the loss of the good ol' days for centuries:

    "The idle chatterer is the sort who says that people nowadays are much more wicked than they used to be."

    Theophrastus (371 – c. 287 BC)

  4. Hank says:

    I agree entirely. It's very easy to forget what troubled us in the past and magnify out of all proportion the good bits. Confirmation bias, for example, leads believers in psychics to latch on to more correct portions of a reading and ignore the incorrect ones, giving a false impression of accuracy. We humans do the same when thinking about our personal history, the history of public figures (people wax legendary about Reagan, for example, conveniently forgetting all his efforts in Latin America, his naive trickle-down economics and his cowboy swagger among other things) and the history of the world in general. It's easy to forget about the bad stuff and quite understandable that we do – why trouble yourself recounting all the crap you had to go through to get where you are?

    Though I had a pretty sweet childhood in the 1980s what with BMX bikes, Nintendo and many good friends (nothing much has changed to be honest), I grew up well aware of the clouds of the Cold War hovering over the planet, the echoes of Vietnam still ringing loud, the troubles of Ireland still dominating the airwaves and an economic recession that, according to our PM at the time, my country "had to have". Sometimes when bemoaning the many and varied ills of today I forget that terror, war, climate worries, plain stupid politicians and economic stress are nothing new and that the world during my childhood was really not that much better, if at all, than the world of today. Apart from the world suffering its usual troubles I was sick & hospitalised quite a bit of the time and I'm quite frankly lucky to be alive. But when I sink a few cold ones and reminisce it's all about the fun & games, not the darkness & pain. It's all too easy for anyone to compare biased & hazy, orange-tinted good memories against the all-too present turmoil of today.

    However 'Idiocracy', while obviously ridiculously pessimistic and far-fetched, has a point to make. When Sarah "I can't even think of the name of ONE newspaper to stop myself looking retarded" Palin stepped on to the political stage in the shadow of GW Bush, it signalled for much of the world a distinct drop in the quality of political discourse in the USA (not to mention a huge drop in the standards of the Republican party). If you put on your pessimist glasses, it's only a short hop from McCain/Palin 2008 to Palin/Hovind 2012 to Idiocracy writ large! Fortunately, the smarter guy won the last election and, notwithstanding his obvious centre-right alignment and accomodationism of just about everything people voted him in to oppose or end, with any luck his term(s) and hopeful re-elevation of actual intelligence over 'gut feelings' will significantly delay any fool's empire that Mike Judge can envision.

    I too have hope for this world. A realistic hope that it will just be good enough for any potential offspring of mine to live happy lives. I have to have that hope otherwise I wouldn't get out of bed and I wouldn't even discuss spawning with Mrs Hank.

  5. Erich Vieth says:


    I agree that we should look to the evidence, but it’s so damned hard to size up the evidence these days. There are vast pockets of lethargy, distractibility and apathy that make it difficult to determine whether folks are less intelligent, less focused or less motivated. Not that all of the folks are on the downward glide.

    There are also pockets of impressive people who are working hard to stay informed and who, in many cases, are applying themselves to make the world a better place. People who are so impressive that it’s hard to imagine people of any era being more impressive. The same thing that goes for adults goes for children too. I’ve met dozens of children who know more as 4th graders than anyone I knew understood in my 8th grade class.

    We live in a world full of both impressive people and unimpressive people. These two obvious facts don’t tell us anything about the trend, I admit. Nor can I size things up by reference to the people I have met. That would be sheerly anecdotal.

    Another hurdle to sizing up how we’re doing is the prominence of media—watching TV and listening to talk radio, both of which depress me. I am especially bothered when I hear TV-like and talk-radio-like things coming out of the mouths of so many people.

    I fear that several decades of sitcoms and attack-radio have turned many of us into people who tend to think in the form of highly judgmental one-liner put-downs. I worry that viewing thousands of commercials has turned too many of us into walking commercials. When I traveled to China (twice) with about a dozen families each time, I couldn’t escape American commercials because about half the families in each group, all the way over in China, where they should have been focused on other things, were constantly bringing up American TV and American products. We Americans tend to bond with each other by reference to the shows and sales pitches taught to us by TV.

    Not that we need to go around talking about Einstein’s theory of special relativity. But so many of us could do better than we are doing. But you are correct to caution that that might have always been the case, that society has always been loaded up with under-achievers: people who could achieve more for themselves and for their communities if only they applied themselves. Maybe my frustration is the result of my belief (caused by more information and the modern belief that people are not BORN smart) that more people COULD apply themselves better, and that their communities are worse off because they aren’t pulling themselves away from their TV’s, their computer games, their pro-sports. I would suspect that people are engaged in these activities far more than they were in years past.

    Regarding TV watching, for example consider this from the LA Times:

    "The average U.S. household watched TV for 8 hours and 18 minutes a day from September 2007 to September 2008, which is a record high since the days Nielsen Co. started measuring television in the 1950s."

    I am concerned that we have become a society of passive receivers of information to such an extent that many of us are losing our abilities to actively change our world. Quite often, people will complain to me about something and I will suggest to them that they work to change the situation. Go visit the mayor, start a website, promote your idea and recruit other people who think otherwise. I so often see eyes glazed over as though I just suggested something outrageous. But, then again, you’re correct, that it might have always been that way that many people are unwilling to instigate change, even change they strongly believe in.

    I suspect, then, that I am guilty of being one of the pessimists attacked in your cartoon, and that I need to be more careful and, yes, optimistic. Maybe we have the potential we always had to think our way out of the many problems we create for ourselves.

  6. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Erika, while people should not dwell on the past to the point of fear of the future (actually fear of perceived future change) they must know the past and acknowledge the wrong choices in order to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

    "Idiocracy" was based largely on the theme of Cyril Kornbluth's short story "The Marching Morons" however in "The Marching Morons", the vast low I.Q. majority of the population, dumbed down by centuries of evolution in a society that favored the proliferation of the mundane, were supported by a tiny minority of a extremely overworked intelligent elite each with multiple professions. The intelligentsia had become slaves to a society that knew nothing of them and didn't want to know.

    The answer to their problems turns out to be a 20th century car salesman who was put into a state of suspended animation through a freak accident involving an experimental anesthesia drug and a short circuit in some dental equipment.

    The society depicted in "Idiocracy" is unsustainable. Although our current culture has been moving toward a dumbed down form for several decades, we may already be starting to see the sustainability barrier.

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    We've always had to deal with huge challenges as a country, it is true. Maybe it SEEMS like were getting dumbed down because some of our problems are more complex and intractable (e.g., convoluted conflicting laws that straight-jacket us, climate change, the aging of America, energy and water issues that are much worse than a few decades ago).

    Some of today's problems are incredibly daunting, yet many people just want to live their daily lives and let "them" take care of everything or they claim that the free market will solve everything.

    Maybe it's this aggregation of extra-difficult issues that highlights the need for ever more individuals to willing to step outside of their everyday wants and needs to educate themselves so that they can understand and tackle these bigger issues.

    To me, it's a battle cry to do more than watch the local TV news to be well-informed, and to get involved, yet most people that I talk to insist that they want to be left alone to live locally. To worry primarily about themselves and their family.

  8. Mindy Carney says:

    A couple of observations here.

    First, while in the big picture, the media/TV/radio can be maddening and much of what it tosses out to us is crap, it also gives us much of our cultural commonality. Lines from sit-coms (think Seinfeld's "not that there's anything wrong with that…") become part of the common parlance, an inside joke, if you will, for the masses. For better or worse, when you have a population as large as ours, well, those do become important.

    Fighting to improve the media seems to me a better use of our energy that railing against it. Rail against content, yes, but embrace what it could be if we raised the bar even just a tiny bit.

    Second, Erich, I think you have to stop and consider that doing "big" things isn't always the answer. Complaining alone doesn't get you anywhere, true. So suggesting to people that they do something bigger does make sense. But sometimes, people just need to vent their feelings. That doesn't mean they aren't *doing anything.* They are sharing those feelings, which in and of itself is a good thing. And since they feel passionately about whatever it is, that probably means that their lives mirror those feelings. They are raising their kids with those beliefs, sharing those beliefs with friends and family, modeling the behavior they want to see in others. Say, for instance, that someone feels strongly about global warming and the environment. People who are spurred to BIG action may start a local campaign for more recycling options or greener government buildings, etc. etc. Some may create educational programs for schools and businesses on how to live greener. And some may just LIVE greener. They religiously recycle everything they can, making sure that, rain or shine, recycling is at the curb on pick-up day or delivered to the drop-off center every week. They LIVE their passion – doing that recycling, keeping the a/c set higher than most, shopping at resale shops rather than promoting more manufacturing, collecting and delivering their own extras to Goodwill or the like, having yard-sales or using Freecycle.org, buying locally grown produce at the farmer's market – all on a small scale, but what if everyone lived like that? And those folks, those dogged setters of examples, give everyone else someone to look up to. To people who think BIG PICTURE, maybe that doesn't seem like much, but it is. Because not only are they doing their part, they are modeling environmentally sound behavior for their children. I would like to think that I, for instance, am doing a good thing for the earth in general by resale shopping with my girls. We did that even when we could afford not to, because it seemed silly, after my early overspending on cute girly baby clothes, to buy stuff they'd outgrow in a minute. But us moms who've made that change must be doing something right, because now my teenager and most of her friends think buying used stuff is cool! I'd have cringed and wailed as a teen if my mother had suggested going to Goodwill for clothing – but now resale shops are everywhere. Recycling is common practice – in large part because parents committed to it have taught their children – by example.

    Not everyone can do BIG PICTURE. But without those committed to living by those shared high standards behind the scenes, the BIG PICTURE would fade to static pretty darned quickly.

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    Mindy: I don't disagree with you at all. I'm still struggling to articulate my concern, though. Boiled down, I don't think that people are less competent in modern times, but many of the issues we face are more daunting than in earlier times. In the past, we had huge problems too, but the solutions also seemed more straight-forward. E.g., in past decades we could focus on not pissing off the USSR such that they launched nuclear bombs. In decades past, if we needed oil, we COULD simply drill more of it–it seemed then that there was an unlimited supply of it. Aquafiers weren't going bone dry, as they are in many parts of the world, including the southwest U.S.

    In modern times, more of our problems require us to be proactive at a time when the media is especially toxic, working hard to distract us with too much Michael Jackson, politicians having marital affairs and pissing matches in lieu of careful discussion.

    The media today is often terrific and responsible, but we never before had something like FOX. Much of the corporate news reminds me of the worst social aspects of high school: clique-ish and short-sighted.

    We need to take affirmative steps to make sure that our local behavior meshes with global threats, and responsible media is critical to that end. Yet these huge issues are not given sustained coverage by the news sources most people rely on (local TV and local newspaper). We face some huge threats that are downplayed by readily available information, thus leaving too many people whistling in the dark.

    It's not that people are less capable in modern times, but it might seem like they are less able because the problems (to me) seem intractable and more dangerous, and too many people are in the dark.

    Still, Erika's point is a good one. Maybe that's the way it's always been. Maybe you'll find hand-wringers like me in every decade saying similar things, that THIS modern time is worse.

    I'm still thinking this over . . .

  10. Mindy Carney says:

    I agree with all of that, Erich. I was just pointing out that taking action takes many different forms, and those people who walk the walk, even if they don't spend a lot of time talking the talk in public, are just as important, what they are doing is just as valuable.

    I think the 24-hr. news cycle has been the driver of so much that is good, and and even more that is crap – because in order to fill all that time, bloviated opinions are given the same weight as presentations of fact, and are not then offset by rational debate. Whichever direction a particular news source leans, chances are they will not weigh their discussion with enough of the challenging perspective. Altho' I have to say that sources like HuffPo come close. They lean left, yes, but are not afraid to criticize it when necessary.

  11. NIklaus Pfirsig says:

    Erich and Mindy, I think peoples resistance to change is about comfort zones, and the information overload that came with 24 hour cable news and the Internet damaged their sense of safety. The familiarity of daily life and routine is comforting and safe, but boring, which is why people turn the TV and movies to be entertained. I suspect that deep within most people's persona, there is a part of them that thinks "Whoa, they got problems I couldn't handle, I'm glad I'm not them".

    The news media focuses on the bad events. This is because bad occurrences are the exceptions and through being exceptional are newsworthy. However the barrage of bad events leads to a paranoia of the masses because the over-reporting makes the exceptions seem like the norm, and that paranoia causes most to cling ever so tighter to their boring lives.Any change may disrupt that safe life threatens their perceived safety.

  12. NIklaus Pfirsig says:

    The PBS program "American Masters" last night ran a documentary about Garrison Keillor, "The Man on the Radio with the Red Shoes".

    During the program Keillor made a statement which I which I would like to quote, but lacking a transcript, I doubt I could accurately recall from memory, however I will attempt to paraphrase it.

    Keillor spoke about how, on many occasions, he had thought about his life and the choices he made. In doing this he would wonder how his life would be had he made better choices, but when he saw his daughter, he realized that he wouldn't want to change any part of his life that had led to the birth of his daughter. Rather than think about the past and what might have been, he decided to look to the future with optimism

  13. Erich Vieth says:

    Common Core presents the following results from 17 year old high-schoolers who were tested regarding their knowledge of history and literature:

    -Almost 20 percent of 1,200 respondents to a national telephone survey do not know who our enemy was in World War II, and more than a quarter think Columbus sailed after 1750. Half do not know whom Sen. McCarthy investigated or what the Renaissance was.

    -Nearly a quarter of those surveyed could not identify Adolf Hitler; 10 percent think he was a munitions manufacturer

    -Fewer than half can place the Civil War in the correct half-century

    -Only 45 percent can identify Oedipus

    -A third do not know that the Bill of Rights guarantees the freedom of speech and religion

    -Forty-four percent think that The Scarlet Letter was either about a witch trial or a piece of correspondence


    I admit that these results don't mean that we are getting more ignorant of basic facts. Maybe 17 year olds have been consistent over time on not knowing these sorts of things.

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