It Was Ever Thus

The ByrdsI’ve written about this before, the idea that there’s nothing new under the sun — that it was ever thus. The claim is usually made in the face of complaints about how “things are going to hell these days, and how much better it was back then.”

Some cite the ancient Greek⁽¹⁾ who said something about how things never really change (except he was just commenting about kids not respecting their elders). Others cite the famous passage in Ecclesiastes⁽²⁾ (which also gave us a favorite tune by The Byrds⁽³⁾).

So, what do I think is new under the sun?

Lots of things. One really obvious thing is that there’s never been 7.4 billion people on Earth before. Another is that there’s never been an interweb before.

And just those two things (as a certain political candidate might say) are huge.

Vitruvian Man

(Also see our FE model!)

Before I get into this, let me be clear: People haven’t changed in many, many thousands of years.

We’ve been cranking out the same basic model for a very long time.

The paint job varies, and there are a variety of styles and accessories, even the occasional “second,” but it’s essentially the same vehicle that we’ve been driving since we all lived in huts.

Our society and culture, however, are vastly (hugely) different.

Which seems obvious. It may be that people resist the idea things have changed because they conflate it with the idea people have changed. (And admittedly, the way we talk about social changes often does seem to imply changes in people.)

People haven’t changed; how they behave has! Social changes are behavior (and technology) changes.

population curve

World population growth from 1500 to 2016 (and beyond).

I mentioned the population as a key change. In general, population growth curves offer a good example — and a good metaphor — for social change. They reflect how such curves tend to accelerate, how the growth rate picks up speed.

To give you a mouthful, we’re talking about the rate of growth of the rate of growth!


Technology growth: Patent applications since 1840.

A key property of accelerating growth curves is that they tend to be catastrophic.

The growth rate increases to a point it can’t be sustained and some part of the system breaks. That’s a definite concern for us in terms of population and climate change!

Unchecked or unmoderated, acceleration occurs because current population or results builds on previous population or results.

As population grows, more babies are born. As knowledge grows, more discoveries build on previous ones.

Which means that the rate of technology growth is also increasing!

  • It took thousands of years to get from fire to the (movable-type) printing press (circa 1440).
  • It took only hundreds of years to get from there to the electron (officially 1897, but theorized many decades sooner).
  • We had broadcast color television by about 1940.
  • We walked on the moon in 1969.
  • We flew a robot past Pluto in 2015.

Many of us walk around with a powerful computer (complete with high-resolution video camera and display) that is linked to a global network by high-speed wireless communication.

Apple watchThe world in our pocket.

Or on our wrist.

We’ve come a long way, baby.

But what does it all mean?

Is it all good?


There seems no question society has changed. There is a question as to what value we place on that change. True of most complex things, the answer turns out to be complex.

There’s no question technology improves our lives in lots of ways: cars, airplanes, telephones, television, medicine, even the humble refrigerator.

Harder to qualify is our ability to connect with, and influence, others.

town crier

Hear ye! Hear ye!

News and information no longer spreads by word of mouth or town crier or even newspapers and books.

We no longer need to seek out info; indeed, we’re bombarded with it. The problem now is getting away from it!

One problem is that much of it is conflicting or — much worse — confrontational. With polarized sides that admit no valid points in their opposites (we are completely right; they are completely wrong; as anyone can plainly see).

Understanding something these days often seems to require expert knowledge. We can’t even fix our own gear; there are no user-serviceable parts inside!

We have many more choices, options, and distractions, than we ever have before. We face a lack of clear role models (because we’ve deconstructed most of them). We even face a lack of clear roles (because in the modern world anyone can be anything)!

So the world seems hugely complex. Morals seem to have become so relative they are hardly discussed anymore. Doing the right thing has given way to doing the successful thing. Or just the popular thing.


All others: cash!

Technology — which is the application of science — improves life, but it brings scientism with it. How things work becomes our primary view of reality. It places information over knowledge; data over understanding.

It reduces life to numbers. Per a famous quote by John Naisbitt, “We are drowning in information, but we are starved for knowledge.”

At the same time, compare degree of personal sovereignty now with past ages, especially for women and people of color. (Although we clearly have a way to go, oppression in free societies has decreased over history.)

The world seems to grow more moral over time. Perhaps our apprehension of social morals also builds on previous experience. We learn that society works better when people aren’t oppressed.

So it’s certainly not all bad.

But it’s hard to say it’s all good, either!

How one views it overall depends on one’s values.

And it’s here that I seem to part ways with so many. My overall view is that modern life is incredibly fucked up and bad. Bad, bad, bad!


Now in e-Editions!

My reference point is the body of Western normative art, especially literature, going back to those notorious ancient Greeks.⁽⁴⁾

I include other cultures as well — Africa, the Middle East, India, the Far East, all have a body of normative literature.

Yes, there is good, and there is fun (which isn’t always the same), plenty of both, actually, but my overall view is thumbs down on modern life.

I would gladly give up all the technological toys of the last decade-plus, since I think the badness has accelerated in that time period. I see another catastrophic upward curve. I think social media has damaged society.⁽⁵⁾

For proof, we need look no further than the current Presidential election cycle. I’ve written quite a few posts recently discussing the social changes that give us an unprecedented political circus.

It was ever thus?

Oh, hell, no! More like it was never thus!

Watch your upward curves, my friends!

[1] The quote is generally attributed to Socrates through the writings of Plato. The usual quote is:

“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.”

There is something roughly like this (but not really) in Book IV of The Republic. The quote actually comes from a 1907 dissertation by a student at Cambridge. (Thank You Quote Investigator!)

[2] Ecclesiastes 1:9. “That which hath been is that which shall be; and that which hath been done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

[3] Ecclesiastes 3:1–8. These passages form the basis of Turn! Turn! Turn! (Pete Seeger) recorded by The Byrds in 1965.

[4] Including The Bible, which is notable even just as a moral guide and parable. There may be no better statement of morality than Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7).

[5] If we’re lucky (or smart), we’ll survive the damage and heal. There are even some signs things will go this way (increasing attention to netiquette, a growing realization of the dangers of social media). But as with most major social changes, sucks to be part of sometimes.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

17 responses to “It Was Ever Thus

  • dianasschwenk

    Smitty I hear what you’re saying and things do change. I think ecclesiastics speaks to there’s nothing new under the sun, as in greed, compassion, conceit, love, hate, lust, grace, arrogance, wisdom, peace, war, etc., all the things that drive us to do the things we do. In that regard, even with population growth and technology, those things continue. There are just new things to selfishly want, love, hate, lust after, have compassion on, look for meaning in, fight for, kill for, die for, live for.. ❤
    Diana xo

  • Steve Morris

    So if the modern world is on balance bad, which point of technological & cultural development do you think was the high point?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I’m not sure I can answer that question, Steve. In general, I don’t have #1 favorites; I have groups of favorites where members in the group are all equally favored. I’ve never had a favorite song, band, movie, book, author, food, beer, or even color.

      [For example: which is more favorite: Dune or Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? How do you even compare those other than that they’re both science fiction? And I love both enough to re-read them every few years or so.]

      To me, picking a high point requires picking the spot where a rising technology curve intersects a declining social quality curve. Quantifying either (let alone both) is so complex — so many factors obtain — is difficult and subjective (and degree of picking favorites comes into play).

      So I could point to, say, 20 years ago when the tech curve was plenty high, but cell phones and social media hadn’t wrought their changes, yet. Or I could point to 50 years ago when the tech curve was adequately high and most people left their doors unlocked and there was reverence for science, education, and intelligence.

      And 100 years ago the tech was okay (and growing fast) but there was still a world to explore and a lot of science to discover. Someone like me might have thrived back then.

      So, Dune or Hitchhiker, it sorta depends on your perspective. But I do think those two curves oppose each other. Remember how computers were going to be such great time-savers and how they would usher in the paperless era? Paper may finally be starting to decline, but there’s still a god-awful lot of it around.

      And people seem more busy and harried then ever.

      All that said, I think we had it pretty good in the middle-to-latter-half of the 20th century. I really believe that letting everyone play with computers became a massive distraction — our new opiate of the masses.

      Maybe you can confirm or refute this, but I’ve heard that, in Europe, you have to have a basic understanding of how a car works, even be capable of simple fixes, in order to get a driver’s license. Whether that’s true or not, I’ve always thought it was a good idea.

      There’s an argument that knowing how a car works really has nothing to do with being a good driver, and that’s true as far as it goes. But knowing how a car works gives you greater range, especially in unexpected situations, and extra especially in failure conditions. I think it makes you a better driver overall.

      Speaking of just one specific area, from my perspective, the internet was a much “better” (less noisy, more educated, more accurate, less commercial) place before it became the “web” and everyone and their dog joined in.

      Now, thanks to the “unwashed masses” there’s glaring billboards everywhere, fraud lurking in every corner, ignorance and lies, and even cruelty, in vast portion, and the original intention of the internet — freely sharing information — has been all but lost.

      And it’s given us one of the most damnable Presidential elections in living history.

      These things are not unrelated.

      • Steve Morris

        “And 100 years ago … someone like me might have thrived back then.”
        Yes, if you were born into the right family. At the beginning of the 20th century, fewer than 1,000 colleges with 160,000 students existed in the United States. (Wikipedia) That would have made your chance of going to college about 2%. If you were born black or female, the probability would have been much lower, perhaps negligible. Even as a white male, the chances are that you would have ended up a farm labourer.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Who said anything about college? The world is filled with books, and I’m a life-long autodidact. In fact, I did well in school at first, but somewhere around high school I began to find classes very dull. I graduated 11th in a class of 300, and that was without even trying at all my senior year. Much of what I know I’ve picked up on my own.

        My IQ (FWIW) is supposedly well into the genius range, which may be utterly meaningless, but one of my better college professors told my best friend at the time (upon her graduation): “Don’t let yourself turn out like [Smythe]! He’s learned he can get by with 10% effort better than most people can with 90%, and it’s made him lazy.”

        [sigh] Truer words. Especially the part about getting lazy. [double-sigh]

        I attended college for five years, but then stopped without earning a degree. Was just a couple classes short, actually, but I was so bored by then, plus I’d been earning a regular paycheck for over five years, and what I was learning on the job didn’t match what they were trying to teach me in college. So I just quit.

        My point is that I’m pretty sure I would have found a useful, productive niche in just about any era (I did in this one, although Corporate America turned out to be a rough fit), but in eras where there was more unplowed ground, who knows, maybe you’d all be using one of my inventions! XD

        But here’s the other thing. I’m built along sturdy lines well suited to manual labor. Which I enjoy. Many times during the stress- and conflict-filled corporate career I wished I’d just been a ditch digger or a farm hand. Working outside is wonderful! Finishing a day physically exhausted but able to look at the field you cleared, or the sidewalk you hammered to rubble and hauled away, or the house you just helped build, is an amazing feeling that — to be honest — outweighs any joy I got from building a great bit of software.

        In either case I wouldn’t be living in a world that is so twisted on values that it makes my head explode.

  • Steve Morris

    “I think we had it pretty good in the middle-to-latter-half of the 20th century.”
    So, Wyrd, you are a smart analytical guy. This period was when you were a young adult, exploring the wonders of the world anew. What is the chance that this perspective is simply confirmation bias?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yes, I am a smart analytical guy, so what are the chances I know all about confirmation bias and am smart and analytical enough to compensate for it by considering objective criteria?

      In truth, my childhood was far from idyllic, and I have no desire to return to it. I’m not longing for a friendly past so much as longing for a present with better values, especially the one that places a high value on intelligence, education, honesty, rationality, and acceptance of the real, physical world.

      Those are all things I think have declined in the last 50 years or so. You go back much further than that, and the values are usually good, but the technology is much younger, and your question was about a time when they were (in my view) in best balance.

  • Steve Morris

    Let me try a different tack. Let’s look at the time period of 50 years ago. 1966. Maybe if you were a white American middle-class kid, life was good in those days. Less so for other groups.

    But let’s take a look around the wider world in 1966. This was the year Mao launched the Chinese Cultural Revolution, persecuting, imprisoning and murdering millions of Chinese. The Soviet Union was under communist control. The Berlin Wall prevented East Germans leaving their own country. Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania and other European countries were under Soviet control. Spain was a military dictatorship; Greece became one in 1967. The Khmer Rouge was busy murdering millions in Cambodia. The Vietnam War was underway. Much of Africa and Asia belonged to the third world, where poverty and low life expectancy were the norm.

    In summary, in 1966 most of the world didn’t have access to much of the cultural values that wealthy Americans enjoyed. In 2016 that situation has greatly improved.

    Even in the US, what has changed most is that the “unwashed masses” you speak of have been given a voice, thanks to social media.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Your original question was: “Which point of technological & cultural development do you think was the high point?”

      As I said, life is too complex for that to be an answerable question, and my answer was within the constraints of technological and cultural curves. More importantly, my entire thesis here, and thus my answer, is about the arc of Western civilization, so what was happening in the Middle- and Far-East isn’t relevant. (And is life particularly better for them now?)

      Nor is the fact that oppressive governments existed then and still exist today. While many people may not have had access to the cultural values I mean, that doesn’t mean those values didn’t exist or weren’t desired (greatly!) by those people.

      And I think we might mean different things by “cultural values.” I’m not talking about wealth or refrigerators. (In fact, the values I’m talking about tend to be contradictory to wealth.) I’m talking about art, especially literature, and the ideas expressed therein. And while many governments try to suppress those things, the memes expressed in them spread nevertheless. (‘Cause as we know: Memez iz powerful!)

      I point to The Enlightenment as a time when we put reason and science at the center of our reality. And I point to how GOP candidates deny climate change science. Or how Americans, in general, have turned their back on the same things that lifted us out of the Dark Ages.

      It is our view of reason, of science, of authenticity, of discourse, and of behavior, that I speak.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      It occurs to me that there is an important distinction between denying the claim “it was ever thus!” and making a claim about “the good old days!” I am very carefully trying to do only the former, because I agree the latter is, at best, entirely subjective.

      In fact, in the post I do say that, for a reasonable general definition of “better,” the world does seem to be better over time. (It strikes me that perhaps we build on moral discovery the same way we do scientific discovery.)

      Was the world “better” after gunpowder or the atomic bomb (or the interweb)? All of those are powerful tools that are both awful and wonderful. (They’re awfully wonderful and wonderfully awful!) I think that, on balance, the world is better for having tools. (I always opt to open Pandora’s Box! XD )

      Here’s a thing, though: We’re reasonably careful about who we let play with gunpowder, and we’re very careful about who we let play with atom bombs (we’re even sorta kinda careful about who we let drive cars or drink alcohol). Yet we let everyone play with the interweb.

      With results that really shouldn’t surprise anyone. 😐

  • Steve Morris

    Well I agree that not every technological advance is for the better. The existence of atomic warheads isn’t something that I welcome. Likewise, in the future, home-made bioweapons and nanoweapons may pose a terrible threat to the world.

    As for the internet, I have written myself about how the memes that spread fastest often seem to be the worst kind. Not everything new is good. Not everything good is new.

    But on balance, I feel that we are moving very decisively in the right direction. And I don’t just mean refrigerators. What excites me is that secularism and rationalism have substantially displaced religion and superstition, at least in many European countries. Perhaps these things are slower to take hold in the US, with its very peculiar religious traditions. I think that another generation will be enough to tip the scales decisively, unless there is some kind of backlash.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “Likewise, in the future, home-made bioweapons and nanoweapons may pose a terrible threat to the world.”

      Totally agree. OTOH, the technologies associated with those can offer huge benefits. That’s really my whole point about tools, especially the powerful ones. They tend to have two edges: a good one and a bad one.

      Part of my thesis is that, as these tools become more powerful, it is incumbent upon us to be smart about their use. As our power grows, it is more important than ever to improve our knowledge and morals.

      “But on balance, I feel that we are moving very decisively in the right direction.”

      Maybe. One can certainly make a case for it, and as I said myself, the world does seem to grow more moral over time.

      However, if our modern world ends up killing us off due to climate change or a deadly virus or some other technological advance (you just mentioned nano- and bio-weapons), then perhaps you’d have a different view.

      Some of us are looking around and wondering if we aren’t approaching that point. And really all I’m urging is self-awareness, knowledge, and caution.

      “What excites me is that secularism and rationalism have substantially displaced religion and superstition,…”

      This remains to be seen. Anthropologists have discovered that societies with a “king god” (i.e. a “rule giving god”) are much larger than those without one. I’ve long wondered if religion might be an evolutionary tool necessary for civilization. It might be necessary to have these beliefs to prevent us from acting like animals.

      I’m perfectly aware that atheists are capable of being just as moral as anyone, but the point is that atheism doesn’t come with any kind of moral code. If anything, it’s underlying premise (that we’re just accidental machines) denies morality. It certainly doesn’t exist in the animal, mineral, or vegetable, kingdoms.

      So I find the rise of secularism depressing and potentially disastrous. I wrote an outline for an SF story once in which the atheists win and completely remove god from society. Which then collapses under its own lack of moral code.

      Kind of like I see it doing today, actually. I find the correlation worrisome.

      (Just consider that religious people with a moral code often have trouble with their morals, so how do we imagine the average human will behave knowing there is no moral code?)

      “Perhaps these things are slower to take hold in the US, with its very peculiar religious traditions.”

      Yeah, something like 75% of people here believe in the reality of angels.

      The problem is that religions are creations of humans trying to understand the infinite, so they can get a little screwy. But I (vehemently) oppose atheists who’d throw out the baby with the bathwater. Most religions may be some serious horseshit, but I do not believe spirituality or a relationship with god is (whatever god might be).

      Medicine was once rife with superstition. We didn’t throw out that baby; we updated it to make it consistent with science. I believe we should do the same with religion, which I perceive as a valuable baby (in some stinky bathwater).

      Atheists cite the excesses of religion (although the secular WWII is still by far the biggest mass murder event in human history), but rarely cite all the charity and social work done by religious people. On balance, they’ve done far more good for the world than ill.

      [Sorry… probably not a good idea to bring up atheism around here. I’ve developed a pretty serious antipathy towards the idea. I’ve had to stop following the blogs of anyone who discusses it regularly.]

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