xkcd Trawls Public Domain to Show That the More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Fullscreen capture 6192013 10403 PM.bmpxkcd has a really great comic today, which touches obliquely on a number of aspects of modern digital life. Randall Munroe has dug back through various historical sources to find some terrific observations on how terrible everything is now and how much better it used to be…in print sources dating from 1871 to 1915. An awful lot of reading is involved to go through it, and I don’t like to think about how long it must have taken Randall to gather them all. Those following the kerfuffle about the quality of self-published books might find the quote I clipped to illustrate this piece particularly pointed.

The quotes might seem terribly quaint now, but they do show how much the more things change, the more they stay the same. People always seem to think the past was better and the present is awful, and they can’t imagine things possibly getting any worse. And different eras have much different priorities—as I noted in this post on Conan Doyle and Christopher Morley, the things that one age thinks are rubbish may be considered genre classics even only half a century hence, while nobody even remembers the things they think of as “classics”.

It also suggests that, no matter how terrible self-published works might seem now, in a century or so people will look back on this as the “good old days” and mourn how far civilization has declined since the good ol’ dawn of self-publishing.

On a related note, I don’t know for certain but would tend to suspect that Munroe probably gathered these quotes by trawling the searchable public-domain archives of Google Books—which would explain why they end shortly prior to 1923, when the public domain mostly stopped. If true, it’s another great example of the value of both having the public domain available, and having search engine access to it which can pull up this kind of quote at need.

And it shows the problem that comes with cutting the public domain off at an arbitrary date—I have little doubt Munroe could have found further similar quotes from the 20s, 30s, 40s, and onward if he’d only been able to view them. But then again, he has more than enough quotations to make his point already.

3 Comments on xkcd Trawls Public Domain to Show That the More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

  1. The “myth of the golden past” has been with us for a long, long time, is with us today and will likely be with us for the foreseeable future. We tend to repress bad memories, an effective defense mechanism, so the more time that goes by the more positive our recollections get.

  2. Except that Munroe is kinda wrong. It’s about that time that the pace of society was speeding up. Train travel was established. Ships were outracing the wind. Telegraphs were speeding news faster than a man on a horse. For centuries, we lived at the pace of a person’s pace (a little faster with the help of a horse). With the industrial revolution, things changed and we became affected by it.

    Now, if he found examples before, say, 1860, I’d be more inclined to believe it. But he didn’t, and there’s a reason why.

  3. The quickest quote about “the good old days” I found was

    “Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.” – Socrates

    Not a direct line about life speeding up but

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