The dizzying pace of change that began as we moved from an agricultural to an industrial society has stopped. That's not only true for GDP and median wages, but for more concrete parts of life. Here I introduced the motivation for this series of posts about everyday evidence that progress has leveled off, and here is the first post about crime, housing, and nutrition. Later I noted how our vanishing interest in traveling into the future reveals our deep-down suspicion that it wouldn't look so incredibly different from today's world, so why bother imagining what it might hold?
Now let's look at something that exploded with the industrial revolution but is not constrained by technological sophistication -- children's books. Making them is much more dependent on their creators' imagination, not on how fast today's presses can print them or how many of them and in how much detail can be stored on today's computers. Stagnation in the output of dazzling new doo-hickies is understandable, and even stagnation within a specific genre of cultural work -- such as rock music -- but stagnation in children's literature as a whole? Well, believe it:
As part of my leisure research into what books to get my nephew as he nears 3 years of age, I came across these data that I've charted from 1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up (luckily for me, I've got plenty of time left for that). Almost all are from the industrial revolution and after; before then, children's books were not a well developed genre. I omitted 5 entries scattered through ancient and medieval times, and just to pick a round starting date of 1800 I left out 7 entries from 1620 to 1799, which lets us see the overall pattern in closer detail without altering the picture.
Once the shift to an industrial society got going, children's books immediately took hold in their own niche. As with technology, there was a decent burst of creativity throughout the second half of the 19th C., and another more impressive surge during the middle 50 years of the 20th C. At the end of this frenetic rise, there were about 10 times as many memorable kids books published per year compared to the very start in the early 1800s, when one or two would come out in a year. However, just as with technology, GDP, and median wages, around or a little after the mid-1970s the rate of increase slowed down and leveled off.
(I wouldn't make too much of the apparent nosedive at the end of the chart: the book came out in 2009 and only had 1 entry from 2008 and 3 from 2007 -- it probably takes the compilers of these gigantic lists several years to sift through all of the recent stuff to tell what's worth mentioning.)
Cultural innovation often reflects larger changes in people's lives, especially ones where they shift from one means of subsistence to another. For example, when people switched from hunting and gathering to settling down and planting crops, this brought about regular famines, epidemic diseases, greater social hierarchy, and wars involving large standing armies. It's hardly surprising that a lot of the mythology and religion that followed centered around the fall of man, battles among the gods, the apocalypse, and so on, rather than keeping on good terms with local plant and animal spirits.
The next shift in subsistence happened when agricultural people took up market-based industrial capitalism. A shift this massive introduces so many changes in people's daily lives that they can't help but write, paint, and sing about them -- not necessarily with the goal in mind of documenting these changes. For instance, the kids book Gorilla could not have been created in a world where there were no latchkey children to grow bored of their TV-babysitter and run off on a wild adventure with their toy gorilla as guide. (Think of how rare it was for the children of farmers and herders, let alone hunter-gatherers, to own toys, dolls, stuffed animals, etc., and how frequently these things play a role in the narratives of kids books.)
At some point the cultural innovation has more or less used up all of the great new stories to tell. During the hunter-to-farmer transition, we saw an explosion in new mythologies and religions -- and then it ground to a halt, with Islam being the last big religion to be invented. The farmer-to-laborer transition saw another burst of creativity, but that has stagnated in its turn.
And while on some level this awareness that culture won't be so spellbindingly fresh anymore is a bit of a downer, look back on the previous stagnation of brand new Big Stories -- people still found plenty in the ancient mythologies and religions to fascinate them for thousands of years, even to this day. And anyone who has made the effort to familiarize themselves with culture made before they were born knows how much fun stuff is already out there, so much that you probably won't be able to play with it all in your lifetime, let alone in enough depth to feel it growing old with you.