The Wealth Explosion by Stephen Davies is not just about the when and where of that kink in the graphs. It is also a description of what that transformation in human affairs consisted of, not just materially, and in how people thought and felt and behaved. In an early chapter, “The Way We Once Lived and The Way We Live Now”, under the heading “The Growth of Sympathy” (pp. 26-28), Davies describes (in the bibliographical note at the end of the chapter he mentions this book by Stephen Pinker) how people started being nicer to each other:
Another significant change that marks out the cultural and mental world of the modern as compared to what went before is one that attracted much attention from an early date. This was the growth of what eighteenth and early nineteenth century authors termed ‘sympathy’ and ‘sensibility: As defined by authors such as Adam Smith and Lord Kames this meant the capacity to put oneself in the position of another person and feel an intimation of what that person felt or experienced. This was associated with a general ‘softening’ or ‘polishing’ of manners and behaviour. In other words, there was a tendency for people to be gentler, less aggressive, more self-conscious and controlled, less impulsive, more sensitive to the suffering or hardship of others. This was seen as being connected to the growth of trade and commerce and what they called ‘luxury’ and we would call affluence or comfort. In other words, as people became more connected to others, often distant, by the connections of trade and by social intercourse, and as their lives became more comfortable and less harsh so their psychology changed and they became gentler, less violent and aggressive and more controlled and ‘refined’ (to use a key term) in their way of behaving. In the language of the time this meant that the ‘passions’ as they were called, that is strong and natural human desires and feelings, came to be tamed and made milder and less fierce and powerful or even subject to the check of reason and calculation.
This may seem to be simply a reflection of eighteenth century rationalism and optimism but in fact there is a lot of evidence for the view that the modern world has indeed seen such a change. Again, people such as Smith, Hume and Kames thought that the change was gradual (although they were struck by the extent and rapidity of change in their own country and lifetime) but very soon after their own lifetimes the change in this aspect of human life also underwent an abrupt acceleration. At this point, many people will simply find the argument implausible. Given the terrible political events of the last hundred years and the widespread evidence of cruelty, violence and aggression that fill the daily news, how can anyone think that over that period human beings in many parts of the world have become less passionate, gentler and more in sympathy with the suffering of others?
One point to make is that the attention given to such matters and the horror they inspire are because there has been such a change. Things that were seen as unexceptionable and normal in the past, even if regrettable, are now regarded as egregious and horrible precisely because they are less common. Clearly something as intangible yet profound as a widespread or even general shift in the way most people feel or in their psychology is hard to measure or demonstrate. However, there are a number of indicators, some of which can actually be quantified. One is the evidence of delinquent behaviour as captured in the records of the criminal justice system. The evidence here is that over the last two to three hundred years there has been a long term secular decline in interpersonal violence. Three hundred years ago the bulk of the cases brought before criminal courts were crimes of violence. They now make up only a small proportion of the courts’ business. In addition the actual incidence of such crimes on a per capita basis has also declined so that they are a much less frequent part of experience.
There are several other prominent indicators. One is the change in the functioning of the criminal justice system, with a pronounced shift away from harsh and brutal or sadistic physical punishment such as public execution, flogging or branding. Another is the transformation that we can trace in popular attitudes towards children and animals. In very recent times historically what we would regard as brutal and cruel treatment was widespread or even normal for both whereas now this arouses revulsion and disgust. Literature and personal writings such as diaries and correspondence are another kind of evidence, which again shows a significant alteration in popular psychology, at both an individual and a collective level. Finally, there is the evidence of manners, where we can clearly trace what one author calls the ‘civilising process’ by which ways of speaking and behaving become steadily more controlled and moderate. Looking at this evidence we can say firstly that there has been a radical change in what historians call the ‘collective mentality’ of modern men and women, that is the common mental assumptions, habits and ways of thinking, feeling and behaving that they share. The second thing we can say is that this change became much more rapid and widespread among all levels of society at some point in the early nineteenth century. Here we can draw the analogy and connection with trade and economic development. In the case of trade and economic development, we can indeed trace a very gradual process of increasing trade and economic integration between different parts of the world and a slow corresponding rise in the level of economic development and standards of living. After the later eighteenth century, this process becomes so much more rapid and extensive that both it and its effects are wholly different order of magnitude – explosive in fact.
Similarly, there is clearly a long-term trend in the direction just described with respect to human mentality and ways of behaving. Thus, there is a very long term trend for inter-personal violence to decline. Our Stone Age ancestors lived in a society that was unbelievably violent by contemporary standards (as do many more recent hunter-gatherers) and we can trace a decline in levels of violence since that time. However, as with trade, the process while of long standing underwent a dramatic breakthrough or acceleration after the later eighteenth century so that, as in the economic sphere, there was a greater change in popular psychology and ways of behaving between 1800 and 1900 than for several centuries at least before then.
One of London’s more impressive architectural survivals from the Brutalist era is this building:
That’s the Tower Hotel, with Tower Bridge in the foreground. I am fond of this edifice, not only because of its Brutalism, but also because of its impressively cluttered upper reaches, which look like this:
Both of the above photos were photoed by me in 2016. (What is that VW sign doing there? Never noticed that before.)
I love the combination of orthodox Brutalism in the main body of the building and anarchy on the top of it. (See also this splendid edifice of the same architectural vintage.)
I also recall that this hotel played a prominent support role in the final scene of a long ago movie called Sweeney!, which was a movie spin-off from the TV show of that name. A sinister villain played by Barry Foster is being put on a boat by British spooks, after he’d stayed the night at the Tower Hotel, which then looked quite new and “modern”, not dated at all. But Regan (John Thaw) showed up and arrested the Barry Foster character for making money off of immoral earnings, and the Barry Foster character was immediately shot dead, by two other villains in a taxi, to stop him spilling any beans about even more sinister villains. (Regan was angry with the Barry Foster character because he had had a prostitute (Diane Keen) killed, and Regan wanted revenge.) All of which took place on the river bank between the Tower Hotel and the River. For some reason, this scene had a big effect on me, and a lot of the reason for that was the Tower Hotel.
The reason I mention this building is that it is a fine example of the sort of building that might go up in public estimation if it were decorated with the Magic Paint that I mentioned-stroke-invented in this earlier posting about Colourful architecture in the past and in the future. This was about how various ancient buildings, now as dreary in colour as the Tower Hotel has always been, used to be a lot more colourful, and about how similar effects might yet be contrived again, with … Magic Paint. (Magic Paint is paint that can take on any painted pattern at the flick of an electronic switch. Inventors: get busy!)
And the reason I mention this earlier posting about Magic Paint, colourful gothic cathedrals, and the like, is that someone on Facebook with quite a following has recently linked to this old posting, causing a rather gratifying spike in traffic here during the last few days. But, all I can learn from my traffic analysing page is that the link comes from somewhere on Facebook. It could well be someone I know, or know of, and therefore someone that some of my readers might know, or know of. Anyone? Maybe you, sir or madam, have just come from that very Facebook location of which I write, and can tell me who it was. That’s if you feel inclined.
I don’t know if it’s real or merely computerised. My first guess was the latter, but if so it’s very well done. Either way, this passed the LOL test with me. I really did LOL when I saw it.
This one is definitely a computerised contrivance, but once again, I really did LOL:
This may be a bit out of date. Now that the Dems are starting to fear that the riots are hurting them and helping Trump, they are starting also to disapprove of the riots.
Am I the only Brit finding American politics massively more diverting than British politics just now?
I think it’s because we just saw off Corbyn and Corbynism, for the time being anyway, and as far as Corbynism being in official charge of things is concerned, whereas in America they haven’t yet had their vote on the same approximate subject, but very soon will. This means that the contrast between what is now at stake here and what is now at stake there is far greater even than it usually is.
I think that Trump will beat Biden by a thermonuclear landslide, but that could merely be because I hope that Trump will beat Biden by a thermonuclear landslide.
So there I was, standing near the top end of Victoria Street, with two things on my mind and being photoed by me. There was Pavlova, and there was the fact that the road junction at the top end of Victoria Street is as muddled and meaningless and shapeless as the magnificent (Parliament) Square at the other end is clear and meaningful and shapely. Seriously, they’ve been hacking away at this place for the last decade, redoing Victoria Tube and much else besides. When you look at it all at ground level, you think: Why did they bother? What a missed opportunity to bookend Victoria Street with something almost as good as what happens at the other! But no, it a mess.
At which point, into this meaningless muddle there came these three persons, on their three e-machines:
That’s right, a small flock of e-scooters, driven by young persons. I knew I’d encounter such a site in circumstances that would enable me to photo it sooner or later, and that moment had arrived. The photos are not great, as photos. But, they do the job.
I vividly recall encountering my first flock of cyclists driven by young persons in hoods, and thinking: It’s only a matter of time before we are all reading about bike-by shootings. Because that was the atmosphere exuded by that cyclist flock. It is a minor but definite regret of mine that I did not record this prophecy before it was fulfilled, as fulfilled it very soon was.
However, I don’t believe that there are going to be any scoot-by shootings any time soon. E-scooters, in fact scooters of both kinds, are fundamentally different from bikes. Bikes work more safely if you keep your hands on the handlebars, but you don’t have to keep your hands on the handlebars. You can steer a bike using only your arse and your feet. You can therefore ride a bike and deploy a weapon, should you be inclined. However, it is my clear understanding that if you take both your hands off the handlebars of an e-scooter, you come an immediate cropper. Even taking one hand off one handlebar would severely endanger you.
Any assassin gang able to get their hands and feet on e-scooters can also obtain bikes, so bikes will continue to be the means of transport of choice for assassin gangs who can’t or don’t want to use a motor vehicle. (Remember, bike gangs can easily split up after they’ve done their evil deeds, and individual bikes can go places cars can’t.)
In general, e-scooters are just not as “empowering” as bikes. They are more unstable, more vulnerable, not least to bikes. I got the chance to interrogate a couple of e-scooter guys, a few days before I photoed the above photos, and this was what they told me. It wasn’t easy to explain, they said. You’ll have to actually do it to get what we’re saying, they said. But, e-scooters are kind of dangerous, they said.
This conversation is the first one I’ve had that made me less gung-ho than I have been lately about e-scooters than more. E-scooters may not be about to conquer the world after all.
I continue to see a steady and slightly increasing number of e-scooters in my local area, every time I venture out into it, and I do mean every time. But maybe this is a temporary phenomenon made possible by Lockdown and the consequent reduction in the number of threats to e-scooters. Maybe when business-as-usual resumes on all of London’s roads, as it surely soon will even as business as a whole in London takes a big hit, then maybe the e-scooters will retreat, instead of becoming ever more numerous.
What e-scooters probably need is dedicated e-scooter pathways. I have seen enough non-hooded, middle class e-scooters, and even a couple of e-scooter family flocks, to suggest that the political clout to contrive such pathways might materialise. But it will take its time, I think.
The C.S. Forester one I never knew existed, until Tom Hanks made a movie based on it. I wonder how it’ll compare with The Cruel Sea. Both central figures and commanders in these books had German sounding names, Krause in the Forester, and Ericson in The Cruel Sea, I recall some German trying to make a joke about Ericson’s name. Ericson was not amused. I wonder if Krause will be subjected to similar banter. Guess: yes.
The Blitz book is because I’ve always wanted to know more about that. John Ray’s book on the Battle of Britain was a very interesting read, so this one made good sense. And I seem to recall it having been very cheap, what with it having been published a while ago.
Following the chat we had yesterday about France and its various armies, Patrick Crozier and I will be discussing the Industrial Revolution. My core text will be the book on this subject by Steve Davies, but I’d be surprised if Ridley’s book on innovation doesn’t also get several mentions in our conversation.
Today I got out more. Meaning, I got out. The plan was to take a photo, and show it here, only hours later, instead of my usual average these days of about five years.
I started by putting out the rubbish, in the yard that my kitchen window looks out over. And already I got two photos I liked, of the little urban garden someone has created down there, and from looking upwards:
Yes, also lots of bikes. Courtyards are good places to store them fairly safely.
And here are four diverting things I saw on my walking about. Some big hair, and three educational mugs with national flags, times tables, and the periodic chart of the elements:
Then I did some shopping, staggered home with far too much stuff, in particular far too many chocolate biscuits, and am now knackered.
For a few days in June, the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square was hidden in a box, to protect it from demonstrators.
And on June 17th, I checked it out:
I also discovered that two other statues had been thus encased.
Although strangely, what with him having been threatened, not Lincoln:
I especially treasure photos like this, of moments in London history that are very striking, yet temporary. (Another of my photo-clutches that I especially like having photoed for this reason is all the photos I photoed of this broken crane.)
I vividly recall photoing these statues-in-boxes photos, yet when I went looking for them this evening, I couldn’t find them on my hard disk. I eventually looked on the back-up SD card that I always carry with me in my jacket pocket for when I forget to insert the regular SD card that is usually in my camera, and there these photos were. Still on that SD card, not yet downloaded to the hard disc, yet all present and correct. And I experienced that particular happiness that happens when life extricates itself from extreme misery, and back only to the extreme imperfection that is life’s normal state.
I returned on June 21st. By which time these boxes had gone and all the statues were back on view.
Every month for as long as I can remember, I’ve been buying paper copies of Gramophone and the BBC Music Magazine, “Music” being how the BBC refers to classical music.
All over my home, these magazines have accumulated in shelves and in heaps:
I haven’t had these magazines on order, because I don’t trust my neighbours not to let in burglars through the front door we all share, and because I like the exercise of actually walking to a shop and buying these magazines.
Which means that during the recent Plague, I’ve not been getting either of these magazines. The shops where I would have bought them have all been closed.
One of the many changes I am now contemplating in my life is: Not resuming buying these magazines. Are many people now contemplating a similar decision with regard to these or other such printed publications? Surely, they are. Are many people contemplating buying printed publications they do not now buy? I doubt this very much.
If “normal” ever returns, it will, for most of us, in big ways and in small ways, be a different normal, not least among those who publish the magazines like the ones in my photo. It’s not just the obvious ways in which we will remain nervous of the Plague returning, though that will definitely happen also. It’s that by being jolted into doing this for the first time, and not doing that any more, we are all now shedding old habits and being pushed towards acquiring different habits. I try to resist generalisations involving words like “we all now …”, but I really do think that the above generalisations are largely right. (You need only look at the recent numbers for postings here per month at this blog, on the left, to see this kind of thing happening to me and maybe therefore also for you.)
So, habits are being dropped, and acquired. And, are you, like me, and provoked by the above experiences, going beneath and beyond such changes of habit, and asking yourself: What other habits should I now decide to shed, and decide to acquire?
After all, and especially for the likes of me, life has just got shorter.