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The Illusion of Decline

In The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker contends that concern about the decline of language skill results from "the illusion of the good old days":

"As people age, they confuse changes in themselves with changes in the world, and changes in the world with moral decline—the illusion of the good old days. And so every generation believes that the kids today are degrading the language and taking civilization down with it."
- Pinker, in Sense of Style's Prologue

He illustrates the perennial nature of this concern with examples from 1978, 1961, 1917, 1889, 1833, and finally this from 1785:

"Our language (I mean the English) is degenerating very fast...."

He adds that

"According to the English scholar Richard Lloyd-Jones, some of the clay tablets deciphered from ancient Sumerian include complaints about the deteriorating writing skills of the young."

As usual, Pinker is not entirely wrong. Languages change, what is wrong today may eventually become accepted as right, and to some extent the sense that linguistic competence is declining is a result of an erroneous tendency to view change in the language as deterioration.

However, even if one can find complaints about the decline of language skills throughout history, it does not follow that such complaints are always incorrect. It is logically possible that language skills have been declining for as long as people have been complaining about it. Less radically, the incorrectness of some such complaints does not entail that they are all incorrect. If some are based on the illusion of the good old days, it does not follow they all are.

This form of argument, dismissal of a claim that things are getting worse based on the observation that people have long been making such claims, is also found with regard to the broader issue of cultural or civilizational decline. John Williams, in a New York Times Book Review note on Cultural Anxiety, notes that civilizational decline is

a perennial favorite for many authors. Every few years, the death knell sounds.
- John Williams, Cultural Anxiety, New York Times Book Review, Aug. 21, 2015

He cites Christopher Lasch’s “Culture of Narcissism” (1979), Neil Postman's “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (1985), and Sven Birkerts’s “The Gutenberg Elegies: the Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age” (1994), in each case providing a dismissive quote from a review. The reviewer of Birkerts's book suggested that the worry that reading ability is at risk might result from failure to envision how future iterations of an innovation might greatly improve on its first crude implementation:

In Henry James's Manhattan of carriage mews and horse droppings, no one could have judged the future of the horseless carriage without the capacity to imagine both reeking exhaust fumes and the purring sleekness of a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud.
- Bernard Sharratt, Are There Books in Our Future, New York Times, Dec. 18, 1994


As the internet has evolved, the same sort of concern has resurfaced, notably in Nicholas Carr's Is Google Making Us Stupid (2008), and in his book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (2010). For an overview of the issues Carr raises, see the Wikipedia article Is Google Making Us Stupid?.



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