Friday, February 17, 2012

Who Decides What's Normal?

adjective 1. conforming to the standard or the common type; usual; not abnormal; regular; natural.
2. serving to establish a standard.
3. Psychology .
a. approximately average in any psychological trait, as intelligence, personality, or emotional adjustment.
b. free from any mental disorder; sane.
Every once in a while I get the urge to write about the word "Normal"... an urge that I suspect is itself abnormal at best, or simply uncommon at worst. How often does the "average" person think about the word normal? In point of fact, who wants to be average anyways?

One seed that grew many of the thoughts in today's blog ramble was planted in my brain while driving through Illinois many years ago as we took the Highway 70 route on our way east to see my family rather than the usual routes through Chicago, the nation's epicenter of highway congestion. Alongside Bloomington, IL is the sibling city Normal.
It set off a series of questions in this head of mine which had been voided by ten straight hours of driving. What is a normal life for people in Normal? Do people who grow up in Normal, Ill. feel abnormal when they move elsewhere? Who originally decided to name the town Normal? Did the guy, probably a man, declare, "This is Normal!"? Why? What is normal behavior on a Friday night in Normal? Is Normal behavior similar to the typical behavior of residents in Superior, Wisconsin? Are people in Normal typically more boring than people in San Diego, Sandusky or Sacramento?

In case you're wondering, Normal has a population of 52,497 as of the 2010 census, not a really big town even though it is the seventh-most populous community in Illinois, outside of the Chicago Metropolitan Area.

A second seed that led to this topic coming up today -- topics frequently emerge in my head like numbers in a Bingo machine -- was an Ann Mack YouTube video about social media trends for 2012. During her talk she several times cited "human pre-history" as the origin of our social behavior. I couldn't help but ask myself if there weren't some anti-social people in pre-history as well?

As for current trends in social media there's no question that all the real-time documenting of one's personal activities online is something totally new, and probably even considered bizarre in some circles. Let's pick a normal name like Rick. Rick is listening to Hey Jude on Spotify. Rick is reading, "Questions about the bombing lead to more fears in Middle East" in The Nation. Rick is brushing his teeth and getting dressed for work. Rick is reading, "Facebook Fatigue" by Will Smith on BBC Online. Rick is listening to Feelin' Groovy on Spotify.

Is this normal? In America today it appears to be typical. But is it normal?

In Huxley's Brave New World this would indeed be normal. The very idea of having a private life, a private self, was abnormal in that future 600 years A.F. (After Ford) In Orwell's 1984 the same depersonalization was at work. The kind of original thinking Winston was doing, and recording these thoughts in a private journal, was totally abnormal and illegal behavior. Real life, for him, was a process of trying to find those nooks and crannies where Big Brother wasn't watching.

How happy-go-lucky we American are, though. We hand Big Brother all of our most intimate thoughts on a virtual platter. And it all seems so normal.

It is increasingly normal to carry devices around with us so that we are continuously linked to the matrix, the web, the cloud, the wired universe with its virtual cables and pipelines of information and data streams. Mack said one reason so many plug in is their own fear of missing out. But what are we missing out on? Ultimately, perhaps we just want to be like everyone else... we want to be normal.

Oh well, we all know that what's normal today will be out of fashion tomorrow. The new thing will be... what? I'm not sure I want to go there yet.

Time will not permit me to elaborate on post-modernist philosopher Michel Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge, which addresses many of these same themes, albeit in a much more erudite manner. In the meantime, have a great weekend. Be grateful for all you've got, even if it isn't the latest and the greatest. Till we (virtually) meet again.

Note: Definitions supplied by

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