This Is Normal
We like to believe we live in a skewed reality. What if we don’t?
“On Tuesday, in this most normal year of 2020, President Donald Trump woke up, hopped on Twitter, and fired off a few tweets amplifying a conspiracy theory that a cable TV host he dislikes had murdered someone decades ago,” Giled Edelman wrote for Wired in May. “Later that day, for the first time, Twitter made the momentous decision to flag Trump for tweeting false information. Amazingly, it was in response to a completely different set of tweets.”
In this most normal year of 2020. I got stuck on this sarcastic aside. There’s a theory out there that we’re living in an alternate timeline. At some point in the not-so-distant past, the theory goes, we skewed off our so-called normal trajectory in the space-time continuum and ended up in a warped version of our world. Evidence for this theory abounds. In the regular timeline, for instance, the Berenstain Bears children’s book series was spelled ‘Berenstein’. New Zealand was actually somewhere north of Australia. Sinbad starred in a 1990s movie called Shazaam.
Aside from the feeling that things have simply changed from how we remember them (which, in reality, is likely caused by the Mandela Effect), events feel as though they’ve become increasingly weird or unexpected. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series, for one thing. Britain voted to leave the European Union. The government confirmed the existence of UFOs. We’ve been living through months of lockdown because of a global pandemic. Even a recent bizarre spat between actor Ron Perlman and Senator Ted Cruz might be small proof of our altered state. And, of course, Donald Trump became president. This one event, and all subsequent related occurrences, is usually held up as the most convincing abnormality.
How we ended up allegedly sidetracked from our regular timeline remains a mystery, but there are theories about that, too. One holds that it’s all the work of CERN — that when it fired up its Large Hadron Collider in 2008, it unknowingly cast us into this new reality. It could be that we’re actually slipping in and out of parallel universes all the time.
But there’s another, simpler theory. What if we’re wrong about our apparently abnormal state of affairs? What if our current reality — the one that looks so strange — is actually normal?
The foundation of our interpretation of the world, writes L.M. Sacasas (author of the Convivial Society newsletter on technology), is narrative. “Narrative is our default sense-making technique, in part, because it reflects our fundamentally time-bound existence,” Sacasas wrote. “But narratives are not merely a chronological list of all events or happenings. They are selective and purposeful: events are included so as to yield or imply meaningful relationships, establishing not only what has happened but also why and with what significance.”
What’s changed recently is how we build the story that helps us understand not just who we are, but where and when we are. The way we now gather or receive information about the world is fractured like a database — “a loosely arranged set of data points whose significance and meaning has not been baked into the form itself,” Sacasas argues. While narratives still exist, through the lens of digital media, they become “tenuous and subject to constant revision. They are but one possible path through the database,” Sacasas wrote. Maybe a bit like slipping in and out of parallel universes.
Of all the possible narrative pathways we can choose, how do we know which one is based in reality? We don’t.
This “narrative fracture” might help explain why so much of current existence feels off-kilter. It’s possible we can’t make sense of things simply because the technological filter through which we absorb and interpret the world is deliberately scattered and undermines our ability to create a more or less complete picture of reality in our minds. One thing always leads to something else tangentially related. It takes a lot of effort to stick with one storyline, if such a thing exists. So, for the most part, we’re left in a perpetual state of narrative angst. This might explain why we ‘doomscroll’ — less as a masochistic addiction, and more as an attempt to reassure ourselves that all possible realities, all the many narratives through which we could build our sense of reality, are as bad as the one we’re in right now.
These fractured narratives are also anti-historical, as what digital media is designed to do is constantly show something new. Our feed is endlessly refilled. Each post is in some way different — even if it’s presenting us with something we’ve already seen. Nothing lasts. Nothing sticks — including memory.
In that environment, it becomes nearly impossible to properly gauge what is actually new. This is especially true with viral content, which arrives loaded with assumptions, most of all that it’s a must-see — that is to say, something completely novel. It’s temporally disorienting, because in a world where everything is always new, the past essentially disappears — it’s placed beyond our reach. Structural theorist Guy Debord put it this way: “When social significance is attributed only to what is immediate, and what will be immediate immediately afterwards, always replacing another, identical, immediacy, it can be seen that the uses of the media guarantee a kind of eternity of noisy insignificance.”
This media landscape often results in two seemingly opposite things being equally true: that nothing makes sense and everything makes sense, because one presentation of reality is as legitimate as any other. Trying to understand the world via any medium that deliberately erases the past — or presents history like it does everything else, as deconstructed and disparate factoids — means not only that we are mentally unmoored from the meaning of our world, but also that we are subject at all times to deception.
This poses a problem: of all the possible narrative pathways we can choose, how do we know which one is based in reality? Well, we don’t. That’s how someone else’s misremembering can quickly become everyone’s misremembering. All it took for a bunch of people to be convinced that Berenstain Bears were once spelled with an ‘e’ rather than an ‘a’ was one person’s mistaken memory. It was perfect fodder for an anti-historical distribution channel like digital media, where not only everything is possible, but also where everything was possible.
This innately confused contextual landscape creates more than insecurity; it subsequently fosters a desire for simplistic comfort. In the last few years, we’ve seen this manifest most obviously in the demand for binary choices about how to interpret what we’re seeing. Overwhelmed by scattershot information, we demand to know which bits of information are right and wrong. We want things to be fact-checked or to come with warnings and labels. What we’re looking for more broadly is clarity about what story we share. But turning back to the system that created our confusion in the first place seems like a bad idea. All we will get is continued fragmentation, stuck in a loop of narrative annihilation.
All of this seems pretty grim, but the solution to this problem might be relatively simple. What if instead of trying to identify an unending list of apparent abnormalities, we accepted everything as normal — in that everything that’s happening follows a known trajectory, rather than an inexplicable one?
This is not to say that we should consider everything to be perfect or even fine. It’s also not to say that we won’t find things very strange from time to time, nor that we shouldn’t push for change. However, it is to say that we would not consider events as appearing from nowhere, or existing without explanation. Accepting our current state as normal would mean that abnormalities would not immediately be considered illogical. It would mean accepting that these things around us are not random, or happening by cosmic accident — and that when we recognize problems, they are our own, created by the decisions we’ve made. It would also mean that we have not left our timeline, and instead that we are being led to look at it the wrong way.
Finally, accepting our current state as normal would relieve us of the cognitive trap that our digital media environment sets for us: the expectation that because its narrative structure is fractured, so is reality. In fact, reality is not fractured in the same way at all. It just can’t be properly accessed via the digital media we use every day — the ones designed to decontextualize our world by propelling us into a state of never-ending novelty where we are powerless and confused, and that we will never escape by asking for a fact-check.
So, in case you were wondering, here’s what’s actually happening: It’s spelled Berenstain. Donald Trump is president. Britain is leaving the EU. There is a pandemic. Systemic racism is real. The arctic is 38C. Politicians are challenging actors to wrestling contests. In this most normal year of 2020.