Xkcd Literary Criticism Essay

The debate as to whether or not the pace of modern life is detrimental to society, culture, and the human experience in general has been going on for longer than we may realize. Presently, the debate has focused on technology such as smartphones, tablets, and other portable electronics; however, many of the same arguments were made against newspapers, magazines, telegraphs, telephones, and even written correspondence 100 years ago.

People often tend to think of older times as better. The people complaining compare their present time to the time they lived in before, that is, a couple of decades ago, and this has been happening for over a century (at least). This comic makes a point that the older times people refer to, were also criticized in exactly the same fashion. Since the same criticism is applied to each generation by the generation before that one, every generation thinks that the one they were born in is the good one. This is presentism as explained by Randall in 24: Godel, Escher, Kurt Halsey.

The comic begins and ends with very similar arguments, perhaps emphasizing how these debates cycle and repeat over time. The comic does not directly state whether these opinions and criticisms were justified or simple fallacies. There is a desire to consider our present existence as good and reasonable and that society has been improving over time. The difficulty lies in considering the possibility that each generation was perhaps correct in their criticism.

On reading all of these quotes, one may find these quotes redundant and tiresome to read. Readers may find themselves skimming the text and skipping several quotes once they get the overall idea. This could be a self-referential point demonstrating that the writing style of older times was less convenient than the oft-criticized brief modern style.

Some parts of all that long texts are in bold, others not. Here is the summary for only this bold text, picturing just our Modern World:

The style of the comic is very similar to that of 1311: 2014, which was released half a year later.

The title text shows that the meaning of the institute of marriage debate has likewise been going on for quite some time.

Is it sad that after reading the first few, I thought "TL; DR" and found myself skim reading most of them since I'm meant to be working right now and not reading xkcd? ‎ (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Just finishing commenting on a special issue of the generational myth for a dedicated issue of Perspectives on Science and Practice. This here is a lovingly put together list of unique "life was better then" examples - which is exceedingly hard to do. Here's my commentary on why this occurs: "As Walker, Skowronski and Thompson (2003) review, autobiographical memory typically favors pleasant over unpleasant memories with bad memories fading with time, a notable exception to bad stimuli providing stronger reactions than good. This makes our recollection of our past biased towards the idyllic, and makes us very susceptible to the adage “Things were better then.” Combined with the “reminiscence bump” (Glück & Bluck, 2007), where people recall more events from their teenager and early adulthood years, which again tend to be recollected positively, the past will be a golden age for almost all of us, given time." Read this piece a day after getting our paper accepted, so neat timing. 19:50, 21 May 2015 (UTC)

That's obviously what's intended 09:53, 19 June 2013 (UTC)

I agree that this point was possibly intended and added text to the analysis, explicitly pointing it out. Jimbob (talk) 16:25, 20 June 2013 (UTC)

It was not what was intended. Randall used all those quotes to build a compelling argument. The fact that some people "don't have time" to read them all is simply a supporting case, albeit one that each person will have to come to personally. 18:05, 7 January 2014 (UTC)

I don't think it's sad. According to my 11th Grade Literary Analysis, the propensity to take shortcuts is a fundamental flaw in human nature, but introductory Psychology lauded our use of heuristics. I say you should find meaning in your humanity and ability to set your own priorities and allocate just enough resources to various aspects of your life in order to succeed in life where the objectives are unclear. 12:06, 19 June 2013 (UTC)DBrak

Did you just... quote yourself? Orazor (talk) 05:58, 29 September 2014 (UTC)
As I've often said: "You've got to listen to someone who quotes themself" Plm-qaz snr (talk) 13:03, 24 November 2014 (UTC)

The topic made me slow down, read, and understand. Perhaps the point was lost on me, but the expressions from a century ago seem much like those made today. One can't help but wonder if that means they were wrong then and wrong now or if our society was in a century long devolutionary spiral, terminating with Twitter or whatever is coming next. -- 10:02, 19 June 2013 (UTC)

I think you're on the right track, and these are exactly the types of questions that Randall was seeking to raise. Orazor (talk) 05:58, 29 September 2014 (UTC)

Had this continued to present day the most recent entry would be something like this:

lol didnt read #tldr #boredalready #yawn
- Most of 'Civilisation', Social Media
2013 12:11, 19 June 2013 (UTC)

Just added an explanation. Unfortunately, there's no transcript provided in the source code and I don't have time to type all that out (who does?). Also, I have no idea what to use for categories. Any suggestions? Smperron (talk) 12:36, 19 June 2013 (UTC)

Not a suggestion, but does anyone know if Randall types or writes it out, or copies and pastes? --Luckymustard (talk) 13:04, 19 June 2013 (UTC)
Looks like the letterforms are identical -- my guess is a custom font. 14:16, 19 June 2013 (UTC)

If this comic was meant to say that we should give up on these types of arguments, this comic did the opposite effect: I actually AGREE with all of this!

I mean, I tend to write long private messages, while the longest replies I get are also the most satisfying, since they tell me quite a bit of the recipient. Relatedly, I prefer to write long responses to pieces of artwork when I comment on art sites, telling people exactly why I like the art... what shines... what needs to be polished. (Of course, I am going to need to find a way to simply stay at a work and truly take in what is presented.) In fact, letter restrictions sometimes restrict me too much. I DO need to be more social, not having any reading material at hand (whether the material be a newspaper or a video game). I dislike people PUSHING me to look around myself; this is something I do automatically. In fact, while I like staying inside and exploring the wonders of the Internet hours on end, I also like going outside alone and looking around myself, seeing the wonders that other people ignore (probably because other people are too busy talking to yet other people). There really is a mental degeneration (You can see this for yourself in the comments other people leave in websites.) and addiction to stimulants. In fact, stress (and DIStress) is one of the main reasons why we have cancer far more often that the non-developed parts of the world, since stress compromises the body severely. Play, while easily abused, is never the less a necessary part of development, even while an adult. I wish I could keep up pace with the world, but I also hope, for the sake of the world and myself, that the world slows down to me. You can see for yourself how newspapers are being scandalous. I myself suffer from eating foods too quickly (yet there is the problem of ants and spoilage if I take TOO long when eating, a sad possibility due to me preferring to eat at the computer.) Rebellion (a problem that even I suffer) does cause people to want their own way, not knowing that they are just being a slave to impulses, their authorities having the experience to liberate them for the things that their subordinates really do want and shall really want. (The rebels do not want others to 'cramp their style,' but they fail to learn basic anatomy and lighting, much less on making a pleasing style!) There is an entropy in displayed morals, yet that is something that requires changing the hearts of people, though we can control this by 'starving' the problematic media (another bit of advice with which even I also struggle, my curiosity provoking me to see things that should not be seen), since they only proliferate if there are people to feed them. People all around us know that marriage feel into disarray. While legally-backed homosexuality (and, soon, polygamy), and, to an extent, abortion (regardless of the reason) have been causing their problems, marriage already fell in disarray when divorce (that is, breaking a lifetime vow), pornography (that is, selling the private bodies of people for your selfish desires), promiscuity, and birth control (that is, using a reproductive function for non-reproductive reasons and otherwise abusing the reproductive function) already led themselves to an array of evils.

Again, people would probably just skip my wall of text here, but I feel that I need to make my old-fashioned (whether for worse or better) opinion heard here. Greyson (talk) 15:16, 19 June 2013 (UTC)

In my honest opinion, your wall of text is a work of art in itself. I wholeheartedly agree with you, and I am the next generation. Life has been sped up too fast for us, and it is too often that I see my peers on their devices, or trying to do too many things at once. You make many valid points and good observations. ~Alithia 14:15, 4 March 2014 (UTC)

-- So, the argument has been going on for a long time. Does this comic imply that (1) we perceive that the pace of life was slower in the old days, but has always been as fast as it is today, or (2) that the pace of life has actually been speeding up for a very long time now? 15:31, 19 June 2013 (UTC)

I think that the pace of life has been speeding up for a long time now. Greyson (talk) 18:59, 19 June 2013 (UTC)
Perhaps it's the case indeed that the "pace of life" has been speeding up... but I wonder: to what end? Is this a problem? If so, why? In response to your "wall of text," I'm not sure that there are really so many negative repercussions to society today that we can quantify. Sure, cancer is more of a problem today than it was 100 yrs ago, but we are also living much, much longer today. So I have trouble imagining that it's due solely to "stressors" in our lives.
I'm not so sure that Randall was necessarily for or against the "modern life is rubbish" judging by the comic's quotes. However, I do believe he was trying to spur questions and conversations about it. So, to that end it's a pretty important contribution. Orazor (talk) 06:06, 29 September 2014 (UTC)

Added to the explanation, please correct any grammar, composition, or repetition mistakes, thank you. -- 16:40, 19 June 2013 (UTC)

Did anyone else notices that you can get the gist by only reading the bolded text? It's probably a just me. Anyone want to take the time to compile the bold text only and place it in the explination? Crsoccerfreak19 (talk) 18:47, 19 June 2013 (UTC)

I didn't see this before, but I think that work is a great idea. So my next job here is to work on that an checking if this does make sense. Thanks for your hint.--Dgbrt (talk) 20:39, 19 June 2013 (UTC)

I did an full update to the transcript. I used the existing parts here, many thanks to the contributors, the free web site OCR Online (the only one did work, in fact it did work as a hell) and LibreOffice Writer for changing the case to lower case. After that it was just some manual work without typing all that text.--Dgbrt (talk) 18:13, 19 June 2013 (UTC)

The meaning I took from this comic was very much Plus ca change. There are translated Roman messages that say very similar things about the current state of Latin, and I bet even that was merely an inadvertent echo of prior ages. As one who can be very verbose with (at least intended) correct spelling, grammar and vocabulary, I could go on at great length about how this works for the current day, but on this occasion shall restrain myself. Yours faithfully 20:56, 19 June 2013 (UTC)

Adding 'the sub text':

The art of letter-writing is fast dying out. We fire off a multitude of rapid and short notes, instead of sitting down to have a good talk oer a real sheet of paper.

In olden times it was different.

Men now live think and work at express speed. Sulkily read as they travel ... leaving them no time to talk with the friend who may share the compartment with them.

The age of leisure is dead, and the art of conversation is dying.

A craving for literary nips. There never was an age in which so many people were able to write badly.

The art of pure line engraving is dying out. We live at too fast a rate.

Nothing is left to the imagination. And human faculty dwindle away amid the million inventions that have been introduced to render its exercise unnecessary. Thirty pages is now too much. Fifteen pages. Further condensed. A summary of the summary. Those who are dipping into so many subjects and gathering information in a summary and superficial form lose the habit of settling down to great works. Hurried reading can never be good reading.

Mental and nervous degeneration among a growing class of people. Brain incapable of normal working... in a large measure due to the hurry and excitement of modern life. Almost instantaneous communication between remote points of the globe.

Teach the children how to play. Instead of shutting them in badly ventilated schoolrooms.

Increased demand made by the conditions of modern life upon the brain. We talk across a continent, telegraph across an ocean. We take even our pleasures sadly and make a task of our play.

The managers of sensational newspapers. Create perverted tastes and develop vicious tendencies.

To take sufficient time for our meals seems frequently impossible.

May I be permitted to say a word in favour of a very worthy and valuable old friend of mine, Mr. Long Walk? I am afraid that this good gentleman is in danger of getting neglected, if not forgotten.

People talk as they ride bicycles - at a rush - without pausing to consider their surroundings. The profession of letters is so little understood.

There is a tendency among the children of today to rebel against restraint.

Our modern family gathering, silent. Each individual with his head buried in his favourite magazine.

Deal openly with situations which no person would have dared to mention in general society forty years ago. Nude men and women in the daily journals.

Fitness and courtliness too often totally lacking.

A hundred years ago it took sol long and cost so much to send a letter that it seemed worth while to put some time and thought into writing it. A brief letter to-day may be followed by another next week - a "line" now by another to-morrow. (talk) 21:27, 19 June 2013 (UTC) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
Thanks [], I will put in my version here and I am happy if you can correct possible mistakes.--Dgbrt (talk) 21:58, 19 June 2013 (UTC)

Can anyone validate these are true quotes? I tried searching for the one in Google Books for Morley: Ancient and Modern and it came up with no results. They're great quotes, but is it possible they're made up?-- 07:31, 20 June 2013 (UTC)

At least one of the quotes is real: "So much is exhibited to the eye that nothing is left to the imagination" (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

The only point this comic is trying to make is that yes the olden times were different, but they were not as different as we suppose. The people had exactly the same intelligence and capacities as we do today, and apparently shared the same concerns about change, and the detrimental effect it will have on all parts of society. OF course, every generation puts itself in the position of greatest importance, and believes that the present moment is of the highest criticality. Sorry folks - get over yourselves. It isn't true. 18:05, 7 January 2014 (UTC)

"Our brains have just one scale, and we resize our experiences to fit." -xkcd: Connoisseur. I once saw an experiment where they ask random people to, without a clock, tell them when they thought one minute had passed. Overwhelmingly the young came in under and the old over. The world isn't moving faster you're moving slower. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

While there might be a tendency to look at this and say "Ah, you see, the complaints about the increasing pace of life has always existed and may thus be safely ignored today!", it's also worth noting that the earliest of the excerpts here began well within the heart of the Industrial Revolution, a time when humanity was changing at a pace unheard of in the thousands of years that had come before. It would be interesting to see if letters from a pre-industrial period still hold much the same complaints. Perhaps such things are a symptom of industrialization, and not inherent to humanity? 02:07, 27 July 2015 (UTC)

To be fair, the 1898 quote from Medical Brief was lamenting not newspapers in general, but rather tabloid-style 'yellow journalism', which is more obvious if you read the full piece (under the header "Newspaper Sensationalism"). 05:39, 24 May 2017 (UTC)

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.


While the comic is ostensibly about grad students, it is really Randall's way of poking fun at the relative rigor of different fields, reminiscent of 435: Purity. In the comic, Cueball attempts to pose as an expert in a given field (a recurring pastime of his) and sees how long it takes before the real experts detect his nonsense.

The first panel shows Cueball discussing an engineering problem with Ponytail. Ponytail is talking about an immediate practical problem involving heat dissipation. Cueball suggests 'using Logarithms' to solve it; logarithms are a mathematical tool used for expressing an exponential relationship as a linear one. While logarithms have many uses in engineering, they are an abstract mathematical concept, and not a method of dissipating heat[citation needed], so in the context of the conversation it makes no sense and outs Cueball as having grabbed a random word he knows engineers use and thrown it in to sound smart. With the engineer's conversation focusing on an immediate practical application, it only takes 48 seconds before he exposes himself.

The second panel shows a conversation with linguistic grad students who are apparently discussing the Finno-Ugric language family (a family of related languages that includes Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian). Cueball asks if Klingon is included in this family. Since Klingon is a constructed language, designed to sound "alien" and to avoid sounding like any human language, it cannot be part of any real linguistic family. Most linguists would instantly recognize the meaninglessness of the statement, which he has made after only 63 seconds of conversation.

In the third panel, the humour comes from the fact that the idea of sociology existing to rank human beings on some arbitrary intrinsic value is not only ridiculous scientifically, but also politically offensive. Cueball unknowingly recreates the logic behind some of the worst crimes in human history, a problem sociologists are trained to be very aware of. However, it may be something that a less educated non-sociologist would assume could pass within the field. When he describes his unscientific and offensive approach, we see one of the sociology grad students facepalming in exasperation. Because a non-expert may be able to sound somewhat educated in sociology before making such a slip-up, it is four minutes into the conversation before he is detected.

In the final panel, he attempts to pass as an expert in literary criticism. This field notoriously uses a great deal of impenetrable jargon, so when Cueball makes up seemingly meaningless sentences, no one notices. His quip at "deconstructing the self" may be a meta joke about the field itself failing under deconstruction... (or this sentence may be a meta-meta- example of someone applying literary criticism standards to the analysis of this specific comic). We find that rather than being caught out within minutes as in the other fields, he has now published 8 papers and 2 books. The humor comes from the fact that he has accidentally made himself into a recognised authority in the field, despite not having any idea what he was talking about. In this panel, Cueball is sitting in an armchair in the position of an expert lecturing to a student, who sits at his feet apparently absorbing his inane statement.

This implies that the field itself has published a great deal of meaningless things that only superficially look meaningful through the impenetrability of the jargon. The title text challenges the audience to take a look at the Wikipedia article for literary deconstruction if they don't believe this criticism applies - the Wikipedia article in question is almost constantly flagged for "cleanup" on the grounds that it's a jumbled mess. An archive of the article as it was when this comic was published is available here.


[Caption above the panels:]
My Hobby:
Sitting down with grad students and timing
how long it takes them to figure out that
I'm not actually an expert in their field.
[For all four panels below there are two frames crossing the border of each panel. The ones at the top left has a caption, and the one below right has the result of the timing.]
[Ponytail and Cueball is sitting across from each other in office chairs.]
Ponytail: Our big problem is heat dissipation
Cueball: Have you tried logarithms?
48 seconds
[Cueball is sitting in a chair at the center of a table looking left at another Cueball-like guy. To the right is a long black haired girl.]
Cueball: Ah, so does this Finno-ugric family include, say, Klingon?
63 Seconds
[Cueball is standing with his hands up talking to another Cueball-like guy and Megan who has lifted her arm to palm her face.]
Cueball: Yeah, my latest work is on ranking people from best to worst.
4 Minutes
[Cueball is sitting in a armchair with another Cueball-like guy sitting attentively in front of him on the floor.]
Literary Criticism:
Cueball: You see, the deconstruction is inextricable from not only the text, but also the self.
Eight papers and two books and they haven't caught on.
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It could be that no one understands the literary criticism, even if they read it. The panel shows a student listening to Cueball. A fun, alternative explanation is that Cueball has found his real niche! A natural genius in literary criticism! (I know that's not what he's driving at. Stick with my first explanation.)Theo (talk) 13:22, 13 August 2013 (UTC)

I know this is easy to find, but the wikipedia article on deconstruction is very relevant. There should be a link in the explanation. 01:05, 30 April 2014 (UTC)

I believe the multiple issues listed in the Deconstruction Wikipedia article speak for themselves:

This article has multiple issues. Please help improve it or discuss these issues on the talk page. 20:10, 27 June 2014 (UTC)

I'm wondering how anyone can make enough sense of that article to notice bias. :) NealCruco (talk) 17:24, 31 January 2015 (UTC)

I think that, on the literary criticism explanation, Randall wrote "Eight papers and two books and they haven't caught on" to mean that he talked about eight papers and two books, not that he has already had a literary criticism writing career consisting of eight written papers and two books and no one has noticed. 04:19, 16 July 2014 (UTC)

I disagree. A 'paper' usually means an academic paper, not literary work. Then, the books part follows suit. --NeatNit (talk) 06:52, 3 August 2014 (UTC)
Could also be a reference to the Sokal Hoax...implying he did the same thing over and over but without the "reveal." (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Given the "Eight papers and two books" that the narrator has written on literary criticism, could this actually be talking about impostor syndrome, where the author believes that they're frauds and that they're not as good as people think they are, but in actual fact are knowledgable in their field? --Sophira (talk) 04:13, 23 November 2015 (UTC)

I find the claim "Since Klingon is a constructed language, designed to sound "alien" and to avoid sounding like any human language, it cannot be part of any real linguistic family."- specifically the "since it's constructed, it can't belong to a real language family"- to be rather dubious. Now, full disclosure, I have absolutely no formal education in Linguistics- the closest is that I'm in my first year of learning German- but there's no reason a conlang can't belong to a language family.

For example:

  • Anglish, English's form of linguistic purism that aims to remove all foreign influences (or at least romance influences) from the language is arcane and distinct enough from normal English to the degree that it can be considered a separate language almost (about the same difference as between English and Scots). Anglish is pretty obviously constructed (a lot of vocabulary was mangled together to talk about modern concepts that didn't exist prior to foreign influences), but it's not a stretch to say it belongs to the Germanic language family.
  • Esperanto is probably the world's most famous Conlang, but it was greatly influenced by the author's experience with language. It takes its grammar from Slavic languages and its vocabulary from Germanic and Romance languages; while it might not be an obvious member of any language family, I wouldn't call it a stretch to classify it in one (or more!) based on its influences.
  • The biggest issue is that "real language family" is a dubious term- a group of related-but-distinct conlangs could be said to belong to the same language family, and it would be a real language family- if they're real languages, they form a real family.

Now, the given example of Klingon probably doesn't belong to any earthly families since it was meant to be alien, but the cause-and-effect statement is just a little fishy. Hppavilion1 (talk) 21:35, 30 March 2017 (UTC)

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