My late grandfather always struggled to comprehend the internet. You can’t blame him: It was a monumental technology, introduced towards the end of his life – and though it might seem normal to us, the entire concept was just too abstract to him. When his children or grandchildren raved about something they had done on the internet, he would shake his head and say “I can’t believe what it all contains!“
The remark wasn’t so much about possibility as it was about space: To my grandfather, it seemed outlandish that a virtual entity could outgrow the physical world, that it could encompass so much stuff and still fit into a small computer.
I am not telling this anecdote to make fun of my grandfather. In fact, I know that a day will come when technological progress suddenly overtakes me. It is a realization I had when I found out about the shifting baseline syndrome. The term describes how every person considers the circumstances they were born into to be normal, which means that a following generation’s idea of reality will be different, having been redefined by whatever happens to be the new status quo. My grandfather worked with train signals, I work with websites. Nobody thinks twice about it.
But the syndrome also tells us something about our brains: Namely that they are excellent at projecting a feeling of normalcy in the face of ongoing changes. The baseline will shift, but you can cling to the reality you grew up in. One of the effects can be ignorance: Flying over the clouds at many hundreds of miles an hour is so normal that passengers are routinely bored on flights. Something like soaring through the sky, which must have seemed crazy just a hundred years ago, is so normale that nobody thinks about the physical underpinnings that keep planes in the air.
Crucially, we also don’t tend to worry about that inevitable point in time when, amidst of all the normalcy, the baseline starts shifting again. When new developments become outlandish, when we no longer know how to operate new devices, miss out on novelties and young people’s music starts sounding like noise. This is precisely what has happened to every single generation in world history, so why should we be spared?
Since we are steeping in our own reality, that point can be jarring. We are figuratively having the rug of our own reality pulled out from underneath our feet. Suddenly, we are no different than my grandfather and the internet, we no longer understand the status quo – like my grandfather struggled to understand the internet.
Many of the debates we have today are related to this very mechanism. Look no further than the political turmoil surrounding homosexuality or immigration. It is the product of a society unwilling to accept things that have long become part of reality. But since these issues aren’t perceived as such by the people clinging to their own reality, both appear to come out of nowhere – and generate feelings of fear or rejection.
Whenever the debate reaches its boiling point, I like to fondly think back to my grandfather. He may not have understood the internet, but he also understood that he didn’t need to. Perhaps because there were so many things he knew about that his grandchildren didn’t – and in the end it was all fair.
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