Lessons From the Victorians

(February 16th, 2017) With increasing globalisation, life becomes more and more complex. It's not the first time, a society has to come to terms with information overload. An EU project investigates.

The unprecedented technological advances have “assembled all mankind upon one great plane, where they can see everything that is done, and hear everything that is said, and judge of every policy that is pursued at the very moment those events take place,” declared Britain’s Prime Minister, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, addressing the Institution of Electrical Engineers during its annual dinner in 1889. He was referring to the electric telegraph. In certain aspects, the Victorian society (1830-1900) resembles ours very much and thus, we could use his exact words to describe our present reality. Individuals, dealing with a world of ever-increasing speed and complexity; a flood of information and new emotional burdens characterise both periods.

Sally Shuttleworth believes we can learn from the challenges the Victorians encountered. She leads the DISEASES project; an EU-funded, Oxford-based research on the public and mental health of the Victorian society as it entered the “Golden Years”, when Britain reached the peak of its economic and political power and became an empire, once again. The project's idea is inspired by the pioneering work of Sir Benjamin Ward Richardson (1828-1896), who made remarkable efforts to understand and improve the Victorian lifestyle, from anaesthetics to the study of ‘diseases from worry and mental strain’. Amongst others, the DISEASES project focusses on conditions associated with certain professions, alcohol and drug addiction in the middle class, mental health within the education system and the development of phobias and nervous disorders.

“Early findings suggest striking parallels between the Victorian age and our own. The technology might be different, but the language of complaint and concern is remarkably similar,” writes the team in their mid-term report. Victorians often complained about what Sally calls “overload of information”, nervous breakdowns and stress. Their brains needed to process too much information in a hectic environment. Sounds familiar?

Unsurprisingly, in the Victorian era, the study of phobias flourished. For instance, Carl Westphal coined the term agoraphobia in 1871, the fear of crossing open spaces in cities. Ancient fears, such as being attacked by wild animals, were replaced with the stress of not knowing whether a machine will replace a worker at the factory or the anxiety of a long unsafe commute out of the dirty city. In our times, we face similar nightmares, wondering whether some software will replace us or whether we could avoid traffic jams and pollution.

“While remaining alert to the very decisive differences between the two periods, our research allows us to explore, in detail, how an earlier century responded to the challenges of 'modern life',” explain the researchers. The solutions, used by the Victorian society, might give us more options to improve our contemporaneous lifestyle. Of course, there’s a Victorian strategy that is clearly unviable for us. While they hated cats to the point of developing ailurophobia, the people of the 21st century simply love cats – just go to your favourite video provider and press play.


Photo: Public Domain

Last Changes: 03.14.2017