In his fascinating article ‘Welcome to the Future Nauseous,’ Venkatesh Rao describes a phenomenon he termed “manufactured normalcy field.” A normalcy field is essentially the mechanism by which a novelty is incorporated into the larger conceptual metaphors built out of familiar experiences, so that when the novelty finally arrives it seems normal, and sometimes even boring.
Rao uses the example of the the internet, which was incorporated into our normalcy field by tapping into the document metaphor. By thinking of web pages in terms of documents, the cognitive effort required to assimilate the internet into existing human experience was minimized. The internet might have evolved through other metaphors being stretched to cover it, such as architecture. Imagine, for example, that instead of opening web pages (document metaphor) you went into people’s web houses (architectural metaphor). The actual metaphors we adopted to appreciate what is happening with the internet were governed by that technology’s historical path of descent, and also by the path of least cognitive resistance.
The historical descent of the i-phone determined that it would be situated within the phone metaphor even though voice is one of its least interesting features. Indeed, it would be just as accurate to think of the i-phone as a calculator with enhanced features. Judging from the way i-phones are used, it would also be just as accurate to think of the i-phone as the adult equivalent of a baby’s pacifier. However, our ability to assimilate the i-phone into our normalcy field—and for it consequently to not seem novel and fantastic—is the result of it reaching us through the phone metaphor.
This helps us to understand why the future, when it arrives, is comparatively boring, and it never feels like we have entered into a sci-fi world, even though in a sense we have. Our cell phones work better than Captain Kirk’s communicator, and we have many other technologies that the Star Trek team didn’t even encounter when they landed on the most technologically advanced planets. Yet the reason it doesn’t feel like we are in the type of future a Star Trek viewer might have imagined back in the 1970s is because our time travel at a velocity of one second per is accompanied by a continuous state of manufactured normalcy. Changes only occur as quickly as the normalcy field can accommodate it.
In the 90’s Steven Roberts built a bicycle-type device (knows as Behemoth) that possessed many features of the i-phone, but pairing it with the bicycle meant that it was always too much of a novelty for culture to accommodate. Even though the technology of the Behemoth is now outdated, it still seems like a novelty, while the i-phone (the pinnacle of our technological advance and capable of performing feats that at one time would have been considered magic) seems normal. It seems normal because we think and talk about the i-phone as if it were just a fancy phone. The i-phone can actually perform functions that at one time would have required dozens of entire office complexes: it is a supercomputer that you can hold in your hand. When someone holds an i-phone in their hand and see in real time what someone on the other side of the planet is doing, or instantaneously access an almost unlimited amount of data about any conceivable subject, they don’t feel like they are in a Star Trek movie because the i-phone has come to us through the extension of existing media. Similarly, when phones were first introduced in the late 19th and early 20th century, they felt normal because we thought of them as extensions of speaking tubes.
If anything might seem novel and exciting, air travel should. Yet the full novelty of air travel has still never reached us thanks to a manufactured sense of normalcy. You are whizzing through the air at almost unimaginable speeds and yet it doesn’t feel like a roller-coaster ride: it feels like you’re just sitting in a stationary cabin while the world around you moves. In other words, air travel feels more normal and less novel than what our ancestors would have experienced on a fast chariot. Now the sense of normalcy we feel in an airplane doesn’t just happen; rather, it is manufactured through a network of conditions from climb rates to bank angles to acceleration profiles. Put all these things together and after take-off flying doesn’t feel like flying. In fact, skying at 5 mph feels more like flying at 500 mph in a 747.
The above observations are a summary of some points in Venkatesh Rao in his fascinating article ‘Welcome to the Future Nauseous.’ What is really interesting is that many of these same psychological principles apply to moral innovation as much as to technological innovation. Rao doesn’t make these connections, but they seem pretty evident.
When it comes to novel moral and sexual practices, normalcy happens in much the same way that technological normalcy is mediated to us. Changes that would at one time have seemed novel become widely accepted only in so far as they become incorporated into the larger conceptual metaphors, categories and paradigms embedded in familiar group experiences.
Homosexuality is a prime example. For many years homosexuals have sought public legitimization of their activities, yet they are now realizing that the way to manufacture the sense of normalcy is to piggy-back onto categories that the public already have the conceptual apparatus for appreciating, such as liberty, marriage or equal rights.
Just as the i-phone might have come to us through the calculator metaphor (imagine someone saying “I can speak to someone through my calculator”), so same-sex marriage might have come to us through different ideological channels. For example, it could have arisen out of mid twentieth-century feminism’s fixation with heterosexual marriage being oppressive because it allegedly institutionalizes prostitution. Imagine that a bunch of feminists like Gloria Steinem, Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon had got together and started saying things like, “Marriage allows men to control women, so we need to undermine the hegemony of the traditional family by stretching the boundaries for what can count as family. What better way to do this than same-sex marriage.” Had same-sex marriage come to us via that path of descent, it probably would have fallen on deaf ears and only been appreciated by a few radicals, in much the same way as it didn’t work to build a prototype of the i-phone on the model of a bicycle. For despite massive family breakdowns throughout the last half of the twentieth-century, the core values of traditional marriage are still too pervasive for same-sex marriage to have come to us via a direct attack on the traditional family. Instead, same-sex marriage is coming to us through a clever appropriation of family values. Indeed, it is being presented as a tribute to marriage, as if all that is needed is simply a quantitative enlargement of the pool of people eligible to marry and not a quantitative shift in the very idea of what marriage actually is.
We saw a similar dynamic in the abortion debate last century. Abortion could have come to us via the eugenics movement, and many of the original abortionists were in fact propelled by eugenics theory. Or abortion could have come to us via the population control movement, as a way to thin out the number of people. These paths of descent have worked in bringing abortion to other parts of the world (for example, in both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union the government defended abortion as a tool for eugenics, while the China uses it as a tool for population control). However, it wasn’t until abortion became a metaphor for liberty and freedom of choice that it became widely accepted in nominally Christian nations like Britain and America. By tying abortion rights to market metaphors like consumer choice, and political values such as liberty, abortion activists were able to stretch existing normalcy fields. As a result, it is opposition to abortion that now strikes many people as strange.
Given the slippery slope that is already occurring in nations that have legalized same-sex ‘marriage’, it seems clear that after same-sex ‘marriage’ is legalized, people will begin seeking legal legitimization for further perversions such as polyandry and pedophilia, perhaps even under the category of ‘marriage.’ Had we gone straight from real marriage to polyandry, it would have been like going directly from speaking tubes to the i-phone, which is something that few people in the public would have had the been able to smoothly assimilate. However, if perversions such as polyandry ever achieve legal sanction, it will be because such perversions feel normal, and the reason they will feel normal is because they were preceded by homosexual ‘marriages’, just as the novelty we feel about the i-phone is diminished by thinking of it as simply a fancy phone. It is not hard to see how polyandry could be packaged as simply an extension to the logic of same-sex ‘marriage’: after all, if “love has no gender”, then is it really rational to think that love has a number? If same-sex ‘marriage’ is a necessary consequence of the maxim that “government must stay out of the bedroom”, then polyandry may be simply one more application of this same principle. However, as Alastair Roberts points out in his article ‘Why Arguments Against Gay Marriage Are Usually Bad‘, when this state of affairs is realized, it won’t feel like sliding down the slippery slope at all: same-sex ‘marriage’ will already have shifted the normalcy field sufficiently so that these new perversions will feel just as normal and natural as same-sex ‘marriage’ feels now for many people.
Union of Persons
Just as the cell phone tapped into the metaphor of the telephone instead of the calculator, and thus participated in a line of descent going back to speaking tubes, so the idea of same-sex ‘marriage’ has tapped into a line of descent going back to traditional marriage, but mediated through the intermediary notion that marriage is little more than a committed relationship between two adults. It was that idea—that marriage is a union of persons—that created the co-ordinates whereby the changes we are now seeing can be integrated into the existing normalcy field. Elsewhere I have argued that this “marriage is a union of persons” idea has two primary historical antecedents. First, industrialization helped to contextualize marriage less in terms of the emotional fulfillment the relationship promised to provide (see here), while feminism has undermined the necessity of gender in this relational matrix (see here). But regardless of the origins, the fact remains that we tend to see marriage as little more than a romantic relationship of persons, while the intrinsic goods attached to marriage (the legitimacy of children, the integrity of inheritance, etc) are seen as secondary. The ease with which people accept the completely fallacious fertility objection (“procreation can’t be intrinsic to marriage because otherwise infertile couples couldn’t marry”) is a testament to this fact. The fact that we view marriage in this way allows the normalcy field to be sufficiently stretched so that now same-sex ‘marriage’ doesn’t strike many people as anything strange.
Another way to make the same point would be to say that same-sex ‘marriage’ doesn’t seem novel to us because it hides a complex moral evolution underneath concepts that have become familiar to us, in much the same way as Rao describes advertising and technology “[hiding] a complex construction process underneath an apparently familiar label.”
I showed in another article that some gay activists are open about the fact that what is really at stake is the normalization of homosexuality. Things like tax breaks and fiscal advantages are by and large a smoke screen. Their true goals is for us to move past toleration to approval, and they know this can only happen by changing the normalcy fields so what might once have seemed perverted and strange strikes us as simply one more lifestyle choice.