The Victorians had the same concerns about technology as we do

We live, we are so often told, in an information age. It is an era obsessed with space, time and speed, in which social media inculcates virtual lives that run parallel to our “real” lives and in which communications technologies collapse distances around the globe. Many of us struggle with the bombardment of information we receive and experience anxiety as a result of new media, which we feel threaten our relationships and “usual” modes of human interaction.

Though the technologies may change, these fears actually have a very long history: more than a century ago our forebears had the same concerns. Literary, medical and cultural responses in the Victorian age to the perceived problems of stress and overwork anticipate many of the preoccupations of our own era to an extent that is perhaps surprising.

This parallel is well illustrated by the following 1906 cartoon from Punch, a satirical British weekly magazine:

Worrying Trends. Internet archive

The caption reads: “These two figures are not communicating with one another. The lady receives an amatory message, and the gentleman some racing results.” The development of the “wireless telegraph” is portrayed as an overwhelmingly isolating technology.

Replace these strange contraptions with smartphones, and we are reminded of numerous contemporary complaints regarding the stunted social and emotional development of young people, who no longer hang out in person, but in virtual environments, often at great physical distance. Different technology, same statement. And it’s underpinned by the same anxiety that “real” human interaction is increasingly under threat from technological innovations that we have, consciously or unconsciously, assimilated into daily life. By using such devices, so the popular paranoia would have it, we are somehow damaging ourselves.

Cacophony of voices

The 19th century witnessed the rapid expansion of the printing industry. New techniques and mass publishing formats gave rise to a far more pervasive periodical press, reaching a wider readership than ever before. Many celebrated the possibility of instant news and greater communication. But concerns were raised about the overwhelmed middle-class reader who, it was thought, lacked the discernment to judge the new mass of information critically, and so read everything in a superficial, erratic manner.

The philosopher and essayist Thomas Carlyle, for example, lamented the new lack of direct contact with society and nature caused by the intervention of machinery in every aspect of life. Print publications were fast becoming the principal medium of public debate and influence, and they were shaping and, in Carlyle’s view, distorting human learning and communications.

John Orlando Parry, ‘A London Street Scene’, 1835. © Alfred Dunhill Collection (Wikimedia Commons)

The philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill heartily agreed, expressing his fears in an essay entitled “Civilisation”. He thought that the cacophony of voices supposedly overwhelming the general public was creating:

A state of society where any voice, not pitched in an exaggerated key, is lost in the hubbub. Success in so crowded a field depends not upon what a person is, but upon what he seems: mere marketable qualities become the object instead of substantial ones, and a man’s capital and labour are expended less in doing anything than in persuading other people that he has done it. Our own age has seen this evil brought to its consummation.

Individual authors and writers were becoming disempowered, lost in a glutted marketplace of ideas, opinions, adverts and quacks.

Old complaints

The parallels with the concerns of our own society are striking. Arguments along not at all dissimilar lines have been advanced against contemporary means of acquiring information, such as Twitter, Facebook, and our constant access to the internet in general.

In his 2008 article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, journalist Nicolas Carr speculated that “we may well be in the midst of a sea change in the way we read and think”. Reading online, he posits, discourages long and thoughtful immersion in texts in favour of a form of skipping, scanning and digressing via hyperlinks that will ultimately diminish our capacity for concentration and contemplation.

Writers, too, have shared Carr’s anxieties. Philip Roth and Will Self, for example, have both prophesied these trends as contributing to the death of the novel, arguing that people are increasingly unused to and ill-equipped to engage with its characteristically long, linear form.

Of course, all old technologies were once new. People were at one point genuinely concerned about things we take for granted as perfectly harmless now. In the later decades of the 19th century it was thought that the telephone would induce deafness and that sulphurous vapours were asphyxiating passengers on the London Underground. These then-new advancements were replacing older still technologies that had themselves occasioned similar anxieties on their introduction. Plato, as his oral culture began to transition to a literary one, was gravely worried that writing itself would erode the memory.

While we cannot draw too strict a line of comparison between 19th-century attitudes to such technologies as the telegraph, train, telephone, and newspaper and our own responses as a culture to the advent of the internet and the mobile phone, there are parallels that almost argue against the Luddite position. As dramatically as technology changes, we, at least in the way we regard it, remain surprisingly unchanged.The Conversation

Melissa Dickson, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Season’s Greetings


Punch, Returning from the Christmas Party, 1842Punch, 1842

On this cheerful note, the “Diseases of Modern Life” team wishes all its readers and colleagues a very happy Christmas and a healthy and successful New Year. We are looking forward to more exciting research and collaboration in 2015!

The Gent and the Ballet-Girl

Earlier this year, Huffington Post writer Candace Davis asked whether ‘people-watching’ – sitting in the window of a café and analyzing passers-by – was an entirely harmless exercise. In an age of camera phones, youtube uploads, and Google Glass, it seems that the idea of what is acceptable behaviour towards strangers in public is being reconfigured. People-watching itself, though, isn’t – as Davis noted – a new phenomenon, and the desire to people-watch is certainly noticeable in the nineteenth century. The activity of promenading – taking a leisurely walk through a scenic or popular area – was more than simple physical activity, being a way for ladies and gentlemen turned out in their finest clothes to both see and be seen. Judith Walkowitz has highlighted how participating in public space had its darker side too, with street harassment an increasingly common occurrence for urban women in late Victorian London.

This awareness of public space as an arena in which one’s behaviour and appearance were on show is beautifully captured by a series of mid nineteenth-century works by Albert Richard Smith, whose comic writing provides a fascinating window onto social attitudes of the day. Born in 1816, Smith followed in his father’s footsteps to become a surgeon. His literary endeavours rather seem to have eclipsed the medical, however: he contributed to Punch, set up his own magazine titled The Man in the Moon, and penned a popular account of his ascent of Mont Blanc that was turned into a stage show. His medical background showed through in many of his works. The humorous ‘Confessions of a Dissecting Room Porter’ series in the Medical Times and Gazette followed the fortunes of porter Jasper Buddle, whilst he transformed modern society into a kind of scientific space for observation in The Physiology of Evening Parties (1846) and The Natural History of the Gent (1847).

The Natural History of the Gent was one of a series of ‘social zoologies’ (as they were described by Smith) that could be scathing in their lampooning of contemporary social groups. Smith reserved his most furious contempt for the Gents, a group ‘of comparatively late creation’. ‘Social naturalists had overlooked [them]’, he said, yet they could be seen all over London. ‘[T]he finest specimens may be seen in the coloured “fashions”, with which certain comically-disposed tailors adorn their windows’, he wrote. The Gent thinks he is ‘rather the thing’, strutting around town like a peacock making useless loud remarks and harassing passing women. He emerges after dusk when his day’s work is completed, and his natural habitat is the theatre – though at certain times of the year he can be seen migrating, with other Gents, to Gravesend or Ramsgate.


The ‘lounger’.

Subtly different to the Gent was the ‘Idler upon Town’, who was meticulously sub-divided into further categories in The Natural History of the Idler upon Town (1848). Here we meet the ‘West-End loungers’ and ‘Mooners’, who – like magpies – are captivated by the shiny displays of London shop windows, standing ‘riveted by the lollipops, oyster-shells, [and] rashers of saccharine bacon’. The ‘Street Boys’ were more troublesome, like mosquitoes ‘who sting and buzz about you, but are never to be caught’, shouting rude remarks to passing gentlemen and begging for coppers.

Smith was rather more complimentary about the female of the species in The Natural History of the Ballet-Girl (1847). ‘We have disposed of The Vermin in the Gents. Let us hope in the Ballet-girl we may now take up a more agreeable subject – The Butterflies.’ The ballet-girl, like the butterfly, passes through several phases to become a ‘flying fairy’, working arduous hours and carrying out menial household tasks before reaching the glory of the stage. She is fond of finery and flowers, but also more basic delights: she ‘prefers stout to champagne’ and has ‘a great notion of coffee’.

ButterflyWhilst the classification or ‘typing’ of people in the nineteenth century often takes on a sinister aspect – Alphonse Bertillon’s attempts to codify the criminal body, for example – Smith’s series is a light-hearted endeavour, comparing human and animal social groups for comic effect. Like The Telegraph’s ‘Social Stereotypes’ series – The Party Blonde, The Embarrassing Parents, etc. – Smith’s pieces, in their biting satire, could be read with amusement by the self-confessed Gent as well as his critics. I like to think that Smith himself was too much of a gentleman (decidedly not a Gent) that, had he found himself in the digital age, he wouldn’t have channelled his wit into People of Walmart-style blogs or Reddit threads, but I’ve no doubt he would have spent many an hour reading them…

Jennifer Wallis.

The Bane of Modern Technology

The tragedy of comedy, for those who work at creating it, at least, is that jokes will go off. This is a phenomenon familiar to joke-receivers as much as tellers. Who does not detect a fishy odour whenever someone begins a tale with a man walking into a bar? Even the best ones can only be cellared for so long before they turn, as anyone passingly acquainted with the classics will attest. The eternal joke is very rare; little always has and always will work. Pratfalls, maybe – schoolboy humour, broadly speaking, but the shelf-life of satire or any jokes involving social commentary tends to be shorter, not surprisingly, given the load of cultural context they have to bear in order to be intelligible. I have a lot of pity for these miserable, rotten gags, struggling vainly to retain their relevance. I try to force a laugh, or chuckle politely, and I find it quite heartening when an old joke succeeds at reinventing itself, as they occasionally do. I came across one such recently when I was picking through the comedic wasteland of Punch, that inexhaustible repository of mid-nineteenth century England’s often outworn wit, its pages filled with caricatures of obese be-whiskered patriarchs stuffing their elastic maws with oversize slices of Victoria sponge inscribed “Duty on Hair-Powder Act”, inscrutable drolleries so many historical and literary researchers have leafed through, bemused or benumbed. This is it:

Punch Forecasts

It caught my eye because it reminded me of an image I was shown not long ago, snapped of a gaggle of girls – the photographer’s teenaged daughter and her friends – seated in a bedroom, allegedly “hanging out together,” the photographer had claimed, each absorbed in her own smartphone. Different technology, same joke, underpinned, I think, by the same anxiety that real human interaction, mediated by nothing bar visceral experience, is under threat from the technological innovations that we have assimilated into our daily lives. By using such devices, these artists claim, we are somehow damaging ourselves and relationships. I thought, too, of Michael Leunig’s famous sunrise cartoon, which is another variation on the theme:

Leunig Cartoon

What is this essential, authentic, real communication with whose fate we are so vitally concerned that this joke in its various manifestations keeps becoming relevant? Can it really be said to exist at all? Such a position would seem to presuppose that there is nothing lost in face-to-face conversation, which is, on consideration, untenable. If I talk to you directly, is my expression not immediately limited by the degree to which I am capable of rendering my subjective experience into language? And I would be doing it off the cuff, at that. Of course, I could write down what I want to tell you, thereby permitting me to articulate the ideas I want to communicate to you more fully. I wouldn’t need anything as modish as these suspect products of “technology” to do that, would I, simply to write? Unless you wanted to call writing itself technology, and worry that it might have some sort of insidious effect on our minds, that it might implant forgetfulness in our very souls, say. But what sort of intelligent person would ever be concerned about that? Oh, wait… Plato was. No joke!

Melissa Dickson