Recently I watched the Nostalgia Chick’s review of Kate and Leopold. One of her criticisms of the film (amongst many) was the speed with which Leopold picked things up in the present day.
This got me thinking, would people from the past really be so surprised and terrified by modern appliances as they are often portrayed to be in popular media? After some thought on the matter, I came to the conclusion that they probably wouldn’t. I do have a couple of caveats though, it depends on the time they are from and the thing that they’re seeing for the first time.
First let’s talk about time periods.
Since this is a post inspired by a review of Kate and Leopold let’s talk about Leopold. As you might be able to tell from the title, he was an Enlightenment era gentleman. What this means is that unlike a Medieval man, or even a Renaissance man, he’d be open to there being huge leaps in technological advances. Let us not forget that in this movie he’s been transported from 1876, a mere five years before the death of Charles Babbage. This is not a guy who’d be too surprised by technical advancements, he lived in a time of rapid technological advancement (although not rapid by our standards, but only because of their limitations). I mean, come on, the next year the phonograph was introduced, and we kept using those until the 1980s.
In Kate and Leopold, Leopold was massively Gary-Stued, but by all accounts this was a very clever man. He probably wouldn’t have been as brilliant as the movie made him out to be, but I have to ask: How would you expect him to react? Knowing what I just told you, do you think he’d not be able to master user friendly appliances? Let’s face it, we design things to be easy to use, so why would they be so difficult for a man in the prime of his life with a good head on his shoulders not be able to use them?
Now, let’s look at our Renaissance man. Would he react as well as Enlightenment man? No. He lives too far in the past for what we have today to be a reasonable leap in technology, things weren’t so radically different in his day to the way they were a hundred years prior. Yes, knowledge was flourishing, but let’s keep in mind that this was old knowledge. The Renaissance was Europe being given back the knowledge of the Romans and Greeks, with added improvements, by the Muslim world. Most of this knowledge was at least a thousand years old by the time us Europeans got it back. With this in mind, we can expect a certain level of rationalisation from Renaissance man, but it won’t be as well thought out as that we’d get from Enlightenment man.
Medieval man would have a harder time still than Renaissance man and this would continue back until before the Dark Ages, where Roman and Greek men would probably be better off than Medieval man, but worse off than Enlightenment man, then it’s back to the downward slope.
Why? Because it’s how easy they’d find it to rationalise what they’re seeing. Enlightenment man might not even have to rationalise, he might just be able to understand.
Think about it like this: ‘It’s nice when things make sense’.
Which is where the problems lie for Past man in his future, the world doesn’t make sense in the way that he is used to. Once he can make it make sense by rationalising it, then his fear will just go away.
Well, depending what it is.
Let’s look at the base line for Past man getting upset, the light bulb.
Really? After the initial surprise why would they not rationalise it as fire in a bottle?
Look at it this way, it’s like that part in the Colour of Magic where the foreigner Twoflower shows the wizard Rincewind an iconograph, a device for taking lifelike pictures. Rincewind rationalises it as light sensitive film reacting to the light coming in and making a picture. Twoflower shows him the small demon inside that paints the pictures.
Past man will be Rincewind in these stories, he’ll explain the world to himself in a way that he is comfortable with. It’s up the Modern man to play Twoflower and show him how things work and alleviate his misconceptions. Not to stop him from pissing his pants every five seconds.
People weren’t stupid in the past, they were ignorant of what we know now. Once they’re made aware of what we know now, there is no reason they can’t pick it up. Children manage it all the time, and remote tribes have repeatedly shown themselves able to take advantage of previously unknown technologies.
People are scared of what they do not understand, but that doesn’t mean they have to be right in order to have an understanding satisfactory for them to no longer be scared.
That said, anything that makes loud noises, moves on its own or appears to have people in it may cause problems.
On this list is cars, they move very fast and in a lot of cases are loud. They also move with no clearly visible means of locomotion and have people in. No matter how quickly Past man rationalises light bulbs (fire in a bottle), radio (captured echoes) or even TV (captured reflections as well as echoes. Ha! Weren’t expecting me to have a comeback for that, were you?), cars will still probably worry them. Those things are dangerous after all, and even Modern man can be scared by them. If something that fast catches you off guard, you’ll be scared, and Past man has the disadvantage of not having built a guard for them. Even once they understand them, it would still be perfectly reasonable for them to remain scared. Hell, it’s more logical to be nervous of them than not, 2,222 people died in road traffic accidents in the UK in 2009 and that was an all time low.
I suppose the long and short of it is that writers need to think about what the individual character is like and how they’d react to the modern day. If they’re meant to be a moron, fine, but if they’re not, give them a little more credit than being an easily scared idiot.
Besides, even though it is never a good answer to give an audience, ‘magic’ can cover a multitude of sins.
(Cross-posted to Character Assassination Blog)