The Golden Age Fallacy and Our Social Decline

April 04, 2012 By: erik Category: Complaining, Fighting Stupidity, Geeky, Internet, Science, Videos 3,630 views

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thumbnailRemember back when you were a child, and the world wasn’t so complicated and messed up? That was a simpler time, wasn’t it? WRONG. It was a simpler time for you, because you were a child, free to play and almost entirely free from responsibility. We live in the most peaceful time in all of human history. Thinking that things were better in the past is called the Golden Age Fallacy, and it annoys the crap out of me.

Every single generation does the same damn thing. People my grandparents’s age thought that rock-and-roll was corrupting the nation’s youth. People my parents’s age thought that video games and rap music were corrupting the nation’s youth. Yes, it’s true that running outside and playing with sticks and balls is far more healthy than sitting on the floor with the Playstation™ and eating Cheetos™, but don’t you think for a second that an average 12-year-old from the 1950s, if given a free choice, would choose to be outside playing kickball rather than playing Entrails of War: Bloodlust Savages in HD. The latter is just more fun. In the same way, whatever my daughter enjoys doing as a child will seem totally lame and boring to her kids. It’s just the way we are. Get over it.

Another way that this fallacy presents itself is when someone from a wealthy nation travels to a poorer nation, which is the only way to virtually travel back in time. Some tourists think, “Oh, how quaint that the people here take their clothes down to the river by donkey and wash them in the fresh river water! How natural! This is how humans should live. I envy these people.” Shut the hell up. No you don’t. There is no rational person that washes clothes by hand that would not prefer to have a washing machine to do it for them in a tenth of the time with a hundredth of the effort. Anytime the adjective “quaint” comes to mind, ask yourself if you really mean it in a positive way. As an immigrant back to The Old World, I catch myself falling victim to this fallacy sometimes.

What set me off on this little rant was a TED Talk, by Sherry Turkle, that I saw this morning about how the internet and smartphones and texting and social networking is making us more lonely. What? Are you out of your mind? I disagree with just about every point made in this talk.

As with absolutely everything, you can do smartphone social networking too much, but reasonable people set reasonable boundaries. Yes, I have been in a room with two other people, and every one of us was using their smartphone. But I’ve also been in a room with two other people in which all three of us were reading books. Does that mean that books are destroying our relationships? Down with reading! Why aren’t we talking to each other?! Give me a break.

The world is getting better for humans by almost every metric, but something in our brains makes us long for days of yore when life was actually harder than it is now. You know that quote by Stephen Hawking?

Time travel might be possible, but if that’s the case, why haven’t we been overrun by tourists from the future?

Perhaps it’s just that no one wants to come back and live in the relative squalor.

  • I love this entry so much. You sound angry …! I agree, though.

    • A rant without emotion is just whining. Thanks!

  • Anonymous

    You’ve done a great job with what is also one of my pet peeves.  Just a few points of information:  

    Rock music was actually better back then.  It could be argued (and probably has been) that anything after 1975 is just taking up space on the 8-track.  I might even be off by a few years.  Sure, there have been a few bright moments since then, but they are anomalies. 

    I think that to some degree your golden age fallacy becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as far as youthful entertainment is concerned.  While I can’t think of a single youth of my generation who would have eschewed the siren’s call of “Entrails of War: Bloodlust Savages” (Sounds great, by the way, is it available for PC as well as consoles?) we did also enjoy a degree of freedom that is almost unthinkable today.  In large part, because today’s parents (and grandparents) have become convinced that the world is now more dangerous than back in the “good ol’ daysâ„¢”.  My MiL would be willing to swear on a stack of Bibles that the neighborhood is crawling with kidnappers, just waiting to take advantage of unwary kids.  (She once refused to let me take my nephew to the library because, “that’s where paedophiles hang out”.)  No amount of showing her the statistics related to child death by sex predator vs. child death by car accident will convince her otherwise.  As kids are given less and less freedom to go off on their own to explore the neighborhood, they become more likely to take the opportunity to explore virtual neighborhoods.  

    Portugal actually has a fairly strong tradition of communal hand washing of clothes.  Should you ever get a chance (and it really is just a short road trip from Marga’s ancestral home in Extremadura  to Lisbon) you should check out the lavadouro píºblicos — just about any town will have one.  Women will get together and wash, gossip, and sing the morning away.  I have met several 30-40 year old women who continue to use this facility, even if only from time to time, rather than just sticking the clothes in the washer at home.  (Obviously, some of this is down to Portugal’s high unemployment rate, which provides an opportunity for people to while away have of the morning washing clothes.  However, the Portuguese are quirky about traditions, and this one, in particular, doesn’t seem likely to disappear anytime soon.)  In general, however, I agree that no sane person would prefer manual to machine washing.  When I first got to Spain, it was common to see women here hand washing clothes at communal lavaderos. I don’t remember the last time that I’ve seen that here.

    Great post.  

    • Josh, are you familiar with the Free Range Kids movement? It was started by a woman who got in trouble for letting her 9-year-old ride the NYC subway alone. The “entertainment, not news” media is most to blame for the all-too-common viewpoint of your MIL. Tragedy sells. Period. Are you too seasoned an expat to remember how odd it was the first time you saw a funeral televised on in Spain, with close-ups of the wailing widows? That’s TV gold. The US networks will figure it out eventually.

      I’m sorry, but EOW:BS is only for 3D virtual reality consoles.

      How ironic that those women washing clothes in public are doing exactly what the rest of us do on Facebook. You’re exactly right that practice would stop if there were paying jobs.


      • Anonymous

        I was going to cite the FRK movement in my post, but got distracted.  Last weekend we joined a group of other parents of similarly aged kids for a cookout in the “campo”. The kids, while more or less supervised, were left pretty much to their own devices.  What we observed was that group interactions were much more pacific than in a more controlled, playground environment.  Are parents responsible for kids not getting along?

        Actually, I don’t remember the whole funeral thing.  I don’t know that I can recall having seen a televised funeral, but do agree that some of the news reporting is more “morboso” than in the US.  

        As you observed, social media are just another form of human interaction, not a substitute.  Does the privately owned washing machine alienate people?  I suppose that an argument could be made that it does.  

        • I also cannot remember any funeral on TV now, but I assume Erik is talking about funerals of “farándula” people like Lola Flores, or the great artist “Camarón”.
          About the fact that “past time was better time” I re-read the other day this post from ‘La Pizarra de Yuri’ (sorry, in Spanish) talking about the same topic, more from a scientific point of view, but still valid, about how the past was not so good as we remember. As you (Erik) said before, we tend to idealize what the past was.

          Another very interesting article from the great blog also talks about it from a more economic point of view.

          Very interesting topic by the way.


          Offtopic: I love how Nora sings in Basque 🙂

  • Great post, Erik. Totally agree.

    Imagine, people used to play Pictionary with one another in person! Oh, those were the days!

  • Good point.  This whole “natural is better” trend that a lot of people have going these days really irks me.  Lice are natural, but they are not good.  Dying of infection is natural, antibiotics are not…I know which one I’d choose.  And as for Facebook, and all the other social media, I personally feel more connected than before I had them.  I’m having conversations with people that I’d never have otherwise.  So, I’m curious, what are “quaint” Old World customs that make you fall into this trap?  That would make an interesting post, by the way.

  • Hitch

    The so-called “golden age fallacy” is only a fallacy if the past referred wasn’t “better”.

    Did it never occur to you that things may really have been better sometimes in the past? In different periods in history?
    To deny this is to deny history itself.
    So your fallacy is calling this historical fact, a fallacy.

    Why don’t you claim that the world was not better pre WWII, since, according to your logic, it could not be so?

    It’s a “golden age fallacy”, according to you.

    Yet it was so anyway.

    Or are you going to say that in the midst of a “World War” it was just as good a time for living -if you survive- as any other?

    You also associate current “peace” with “better”, but you don’t even define “better”.
    You even make a most ridiculous statement, “The world is getting better for humans by almost every metric”
    And what metric are you using to measure this “better”, whatever it is you mean by that?

    Poor reasoning is the best one could say of this article.

    Your article “annoys the crap out of me”.
    So I wrote this to engage in “fighting stupidity”, i.e. yours.

    • Perplexico

      Your post was painfully stupid. Kudos.

      • Kameal Harb

        lol 100%
        I was just about to say that

  • Kameal Harb