I’m mildly obsessed with Victorian England. Corsets, petticoats, horse carriages; my heart leaps at these sights in old photographs and film versions of Jane Austen. Every now and then I go on a rant about how much I hate the present time and should have been an upper-class Victorian lady, and people who have to hear these rants are quick to remind me of the not-so-glamorous reality of nineteenth century life. London was crowded and polluted, and there was awful economical inequality between social classes…all sorts of unimaginable things contemporary Londoners NEVER come across.
Sarcasm aside, I do acknowledge that for most people in Victorian England, life was not exactly as depicted in Austen’s novels. Before the sewage system was built, London was incredibly filthy. Diseases spread quickly and many illnesses that are easily cured today used to be deadly. Women had few opportunities in life beyond the choice between marrying rich and being a prostitute, and many of the lucky ones who married rich would end up escaping their bored and lonely lives into an opium haze while their husbands visited the prostitutes.
But I’d take that any day over the present reality. Because I see that time as a beautiful time blissfully unaware of the coming storm: the World Wars, the cultural plague of Postmodernity, and the worst of all evils in this world: smartphones. Yes, there were difficulties in life, but hardly comparable to the ones today. Now everything has been swept out of sight. I’ll bet the 19th-Century child labourers’ suffering was nothing compared to that of the kids making Nike shoes in sweat shops right now. Imperialism isn’t as visible in society anymore as it was during the peak of the Empire; it has been replaced with a more subtle but equally harmful cultural imperialism and exploitative global trade.
During one of my I-was-born-in-the-wrong-century moments a friend reminded me that in the Victorian times there was less to choose from in terms of eating, and I wouldn’t have been able to be a vegetarian as I am now. That’s probably true, but I would hardly have had a problem eating meat in that context: everything was locally farmed and hand-butchered, no mass production, factory farming, GM or dangerous chemicals involved. Local and organic was all there was.
And don’t even let me get started on clothes! I’ll bet even the 1800’s lowest-class working women had nicer dresses than I do. Contemporary fashion is horrendous. I always take forever to find clothes in shops and choosing outfits, but that has nothing to do with enjoying shopping or vanity – I just think most modern clothes look awful. But when I dress up in corsets and garters for performance (or, I must admit, sometimes when I’m home alone) – that’s a whole different story. All right, maybe it’d be a bit too much trouble to dress like that every day. But a lot of the stuff that’s fashionable at the moment doesn’t look good on anyone. Worst of all, as a result of extreme consumerism, clothes are designed to last about three wears. Seams rip in normal use and at very least the fabric is ruined after a few washes, and it’s often cheaper to buy a new item than get the old one fixed.
Technology was advancing fast in the 19th century, with the invention of the radio, telephone and photography, and had I lived in that time, I would probably have hated those things as much as I hate iPhones now. However, no Victorian socialite ever had the utterly unpleasant experience of being the only person in the room without a smartphone, trying to make eye contact with someone only to find that everyone else was staring zombie-like at a small gadget, completely lost in its hyperreality. Nor did any 19th-Century writer suffer from the constant availability of social media and the inexplicable phenomenon where as soon as they got temporarily stuck with their work, looking at pictures of cats or knowing what someone they met once on a holiday just had for lunch was suddenly fascinating.
I read The Time Machine by H.G. Wells a few weeks ago, and in addition to having nightmares where Morlocks eat me alive, I have become very aware of how people might be evolving – and not necessarily changing for the better. Wells wrote his novel some time after Darwin’s Theory of Evolution became widely accepted, and for the first time the human race was seen not as something created as an unchangeable image of an omnipotent divine entity, but as something that had changed in the past and could change in the future. It is no longer a question of how natural selection will change humans, but of how technology will change us. Floods of information shorten attention spans and the ability to Google anything erases the need for memorising. Out of Wells’ dystopias, I find the cerebral bifurcation of the Martians in War of the Worlds an even scarier scenario than the hierarchical one of humans in The Time Machine. Because every day I see more people of my own damned generation delegating what their brains are meant for onto electrical appliances. I still need to memorise routes to new places (not having access to Google Maps in my pocket) and enjoy memorising poems just for the fun of it, but I find myself increasingly more often reaching for the calculator rather than attempting to divide the sum on a restaurant bill in my head (and the last time I tried to impress the waiter with my super-speed counting-in-head, I got it wrong). So what if all of human race replaces their brains with gadgets, and then for some reason Internet collapses completely? That’ll be the end of it. Human life is fleeting and insignificant in any case, and I don’t want to spend the little time I have in a world controlled by iPhones. If anyone’s considering starting an anti-smartphone hippie commune, let me know.