Still the Same

Nineteenth-century critiques of technology show how longstanding many current concerns are

In early 2022, British journalist Johann Hari published Stolen Focus, a book-length argument that our “collective attention span” is collapsing. In an interview, Hari claimed he was inspired by the steady shrinkage of his own attention span. Activities that required “deep focus, like reading a book, or watching long films” were becoming more and more difficult. And he was not alone: Everyone around him was experiencing something similar, particularly the young people he knew. Hari blames many things for this “serious attention crisis” — pollution, big business — but most of all, technology. He argues that our attention has not simply collapsed, but been “stolen.” 

Hari packs his book with all sorts of shocking factoids. In the United States, teenagers can focus on one task for just 65 seconds at a time, while office workers average only three minutes. Citing a Carnegie Mellon University study, he insists that “almost all of us with a smartphone” are losing 20 to 30 percent of our brain power, “almost all the time.” Hari argues that there has been a gradual loss in our ability to concentrate, partly because of sleep deprivation — since 1942, he writes, the amount of time a person sleeps has been “slashed by an hour a night.” The reason for this, he says, is that 90 percent of Americans look at a “glowing device” — like a phone — within two hours of going to sleep. 

In our current “information age,” the contemporary story goes, we suffer in new and unique ways

The book sold well, and features some glowing reviews on its cover. Its claims have been disputed: Commentators like journalist and broadcaster Matthew Sweet have argued that the evidence underpinning his arguments is flimsy, misrepresented, and cherry-picked. Nevertheless, much of it feels true, and aligns with a cultural conversation that has been going on for decades. Stolen Focus is only the latest iteration of a relatively longstanding argument about the negative consequences of social media and the internet on our brains. In 2015, for example, Time magazine cited a study that claimed we now have even shorter attention spans than goldfish. Every few months, there’s a new spate of headlines alerting people to the latest studies on reduced attention spans. At least some of those studies were funded by authors or companies selling self-help books and products designed to solve the very problem they have supposedly identified. 

The demands on our attention that Hari pinpoints are part of a broader pathology of the contemporary age, as diagnosed by pundits, scientists, and luddites. The 24-hour news cycle and the onslaught of information produced by smartphones, the internet, and social media are supposed to be making us sick. In the early months of the pandemic, researchers found that news consumed online and via social media was associated with increased depression, anxiety and stress — more than when people consumed the same news via more traditional media, like television or newspapers. Other studies associate excessive smartphone use with OCD, ADHD, substance misuse, difficulties in cognitive-emotion regulation, impulsivity, impaired cognitive function, social media addiction, shyness, low self-esteem, sleep problems, reduced physical fitness, unhealthy eating habits, pain and migraines, and changes to the very volume and structure of the brain.

In our current “information age,” or so the story goes, we suffer in new and unique ways. 

But the idea that modern life, and particularly modern technology, harms as well as helps, is deeply embedded in Western culture: In fact, the Victorians diagnosed very similar problems in their own society. The kinds of anxieties that motivate books like Hari’s were also fundamental to an immense body of literature produced in the 19th century by English-language writers about the pace of social change, the pressures of new technologies, and the emergent diseases of modern life. The parallels to the present are obvious: “FOMO,” phone addictions, and the melancholia evoked by the constantly turning news cycle are the diseases of our modern life. But the Victorians had their own, too.

The late 19th century was, like ours, a time of hectic social and technological transformation. Telegraph cables, steamships, motor cars, and eventually airplanes knitted the world tighter and tighter together, and the pace of change felt unprecedented. It was an era of progress and technological innovation, but also a period of intense introspection and unease. With the new expediency of travel and communication came new diseases, physical, emotional, and mental. Passengers were warned about “train heart,” a condition that afflicted too-enthusiastic users of the railways, and doctors complained about the emotional toll of being constantly contactable by this new-fangled thing, the telephone. The doctor James Crichton Browne spoke in the 1860s of the “velocity of thought and action” then required. He identified the consequences, all negative, of the amount of information the brain now had to process — more data in a month “than was required of our grandfathers in the course of a lifetime.”  

Like today, work was central to concerns about the diseases of modern life. Industrialization, professionalization, and urbanization colluded with the explosion of cheap printed material and a growing audience of literate men and women to turn labor, of all sorts, into a subject of acute medical concern. While many worried about the industrial hazards of factory work, others fretted over the mental and physical health of what would now be termed “white-collar workers” — an expanding category of labor in the 19th century.

Passengers were warned about “train heart,” a condition that afflicted too-enthusiastic users of the railways

Authors elaborated lengthy texts on the impact of distraction, mental strain, and overwork on the professional man — these things could damage the psychological self as well as the physical body. In 1854, a concerned reader named John Marshall wrote a letter to the London magazine The Spectator drawing attention to a little-known malady that he called overwork of the brain. Victims might be able to walk, talk, eat, drink, and “at least partially” sleep, but they suffered a kind of “nervous excitement” that rendered them fatigued, anxious, and ultimately mad. Alienated from friends and other normal social contact, left untreated, overwork of the brain could cause permanent damage to a person’s sanity. This was a new problem, unique to this “age of boasted enlightenment,” an unintended product of progress. More people had easy access to literature, science, politics, and art than ever before, and were, as a result of these distractions,  sleepwalking to an early grave. This was, Marshall insisted, one of the “severest calamities” known to humankind.  

For many, these occupational anxieties were tied to new technologies. The main offenders were telegraphs, telephones, and trains — things that had fundamentally altered the pace of life, with a range of pathological consequences. Railways were a source of special anxiety. Medical writers were concerned that the introduction of train travel introduced a degree of hurry into people’s lives, reducing their quality of life and damaging their health. In 1868, a concerned physician wrote, “In our old coaching time, there was none of that hurry and bustle which now characterises our present mode of travelling by rail.” While in the age of coach travel “passengers leisurely took their places,” now “all alike hurry to one spot, with one object, to save the train.” This wasn’t just a cultural shift, but a biological one too: “Everything is changed, even our bodies are changing.” 

The same writer continued: “All this striving to do certain distances in certain given times has engendered an irritability in our organs which has told upon thousands, and will tell upon thousands more.” Today, in the 21st century, the same sorts of pundits diagnose an “age of productivity” with too little time for rest, reflection, or leisurely tourism. As a remedy for our “hyper-scheduled busy lives,” people recommend “slow living,” and companies sell things like “slow travel.” Similar anxieties prevail, albeit with different mechanisms for harm.

In 1845, the satirical magazine Punch described the threat of “railway mania,” a new disease provoked by proximity to, and obsession with, trains. Sending up contemporary anxieties rather than expressing genuine concern, Punch wrote of a disorder of the wits, “principally incidental to those who live by them; but it is by no means unknown among capitalises possessed of less wit than money.” Caused by a “tempting advertisement,” propagated by “the contagion of example,” (19th-century peer pressure or influencer culture) the first symptoms of the “railway mania” were idleness, inattention, and a neglect of study: “The patient leaving good books to read the newspaper supplement.” As the condition worsens, “reason is prostrated,” and the moral feelings are “perverted.” The sufferer becomes unable to take care of himself, while losing any sense of duty or obligation to others. 

Train travel was harmful, but it wasn’t the only damaging element of modern, 19th-century society. It was part of an entire culture of taxing, over-strenuous body and brain work. In an 1868 article, evocatively titled “Hurried to Death,” the author lamented: “We must hurry, we must bustle, we must travel by railways, we must read, write, and otherwise work our brain all day long.” 

The first symptoms of the “railway mania” were idleness, inattention, and a neglect of study

Other new technologies were just as bad — particularly those designed to speed up and ameliorate communication. The electric telegraph was invented in 1837, and the first telephone patent was granted to Alexander Graham Bell in 1876. Pre-empting present-day anxieties about the negative consequences of always being contactable, Victorians worried about the new ease of communication. They were particularly concerned about the impact of the telegraph and telephone on doctors (perhaps because it was doctors themselves doing the worried writing). One such perturbed physician described the growing difficulties “arising from the modern facilities for communication by the post, by the telegraph, and by the telephone.” Advertisements had started cropping up, posted by doctors offering telephone consultations “either by night or day.” One Pittsburgh practitioner had even devised a way of taking his telephone to bed: “Should any calls come during the night, he can answer them without leaving his room.” 

There were obvious perks to these new technologies: They made telemedicine possible before the internet, and gave some doctors a commercial edge over their rivals. But this hyper-connectivity had consequences. “Advice and explanation,” one physician argued, were too “easily asked for.” Patients were now able to contact their doctors over any small, inconsequential matter which required the “sacrifice of much time and labour from an overworked man.”

One late-19th century writer put the problem succinctly: “Civilization (like success) has its penalty.” New technologies, new industries, new professions, and new opportunities for travel were all seemingly marks of social and economic progress. But this progress had its drawbacks. In the Victorian era, anxieties about these consequences were tied up with concerns about civilization, racial supremacy, and imperial over-reach. 

The almost comical concerns about train travel and telephones had a dark underside. As a body of literature, they fed into a discourse of social and biological degeneration, which flourished around the turn of the 20th century. These texts dealt with the “apparent paradox” that civilization itself might be the catalyst of — as much as the defense against — physical and social pathology. Now that the West had reached its peak, both bodies and societies were set on a steady path of decline. If the British empire was anything like the Roman one, perhaps the end of the 19th century was witnessing a similar collapse. “Anglo-Saxon” and “Teutonic” races had reached their pinnacle, and were now suffering increasingly from social disorders, physical and mental ill-health, and moral deviancy. This kind of thinking also underpinned eugenics and its attempts to reverse degeneration and preserve the “quality” elements of Western society.

Clearly, pathologies of progress are not unique to today. As Matthew Sweet put it, Johann Hari’s book is “part of a long tradition that registers the pain of cultural and technological change — but over-reaches by telling you it is making you ill or stupid.”

Knowing that we’ve all been through this before might help alleviate some of the current worry: These Victorian writings make apparent the not-unprecedented nature of it all, hopefully making it slightly easier to bear. Illuminating the processes by which progress is turned pathological can help us navigate our lives online. 

Illuminating the processes by which progress is turned pathological can help us navigate our lives online

It also shatters one of the key assumptions that underpins so many Hari-esque anxieties about technology and its ills. Knowing that ideas about civilization and degeneration underpinned Victorian diseases of modern life helps us read and understand those 19th-century texts. But it also helps with interpreting current concerns about the negatives of new technologies and the accompanying social transformations. 

Which isn’t to say that those discussing the perils of the internet age are sharing space with eugenicists, or inspired by the same 19th-century concerns about progress and decline, race and empire. But it might, at least, prompt us to look beneath the current deluge — to dig through the present-day discourse in search of its own motivations and driving forces. 

It suggests that a degree of skepticism might be useful. Does the scale of concern match the scale of the problem, or is it more about misplaced nostalgia than real ill-health? Concerns about the pace of life and all its attendant pathologies are often shot through with the idea that society today has lost something it had before — something ephemeral, but nevertheless fundamental. A belief that at some point, in the not-too-distant past, people felt, behaved, and worked better. Lives were more relaxing, communication less hurried, and society more genial. But history suggests otherwise. 

We are only ever able to interpret our lives according to the contexts in which we live. The 19th century felt hurried and pressured for those who experienced it. Many of its technologies were met with enthusiasm, but also with anxiety and stress. This is true for then, for today, and even for some aspects of the 17th century. Take this quote from Samuel Pepys’ diary, written in May 1665. He had just had his pocket watch mended. It could only tell him the hour — it didn’t do minutes or seconds — but nonetheless he could not “forbear carrying watch in my hand in the coach all this afternoon, and seeing what o’clock it is one hundred times.” His addiction was so acute, that he was “apt to think with myself, how could I be so long without one.”

Agnes ArnoldForster is a writer and historian of science, technology, and medicine. She has written for the Washington Post, Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books, Catapult, and the Daily Dot. She is currently writing a biography of nostalgia, that will be published by Picador in 2024. She lives in London.