Creeping Normality: The Dangers of State Gradualism

Creeping normality explains why what once was unacceptable to society is now an accepted normality. A powerful tool for governments and institutions, we should all be cautious of it.

There is an old metaphor that has been used a lot over the last year. It goes something like this:

Take a frog and put it into boiling water, and it will jump out of the water immediately. But take a frog and put it into cool water, and then gradually heat the water up, and the frog will not notice the changes until it is too late.

By modern scientific accounts, this isn’t actually true. The ‘critical thermal maxima’ of frogs has been determined in a number of experiments. If the container is small enough, the frog will eventually panic and make its escape.

But the boiling frog metaphor still has its use. Indeed, it points to a stark reality of humanity. That is, if change is sufficiently gradual, people may be unable to see sinister threats to their wellbeing, even as they stare them in the face.

In the social sciences, this effect tends to be referred to as creeping normality. As we lose sight of recent history in favour of the latest sugar high or hollow distraction, the dangers of this concept are becoming more prevalent by the day. Let’s explore it.

What Is Creeping Normality?

Creeping normality is the process by which initially unacceptable major changes to our way of life can become acceptable by introducing them gradually in incremental, often unnoticeable steps.

The term creeping normality is often used interchangeably with “gradualism” and “landscape amnesia”, but it is essentially the same thing. As time goes by, we anchor our idea of normality to more recent anchors, normalizing changes and delegitimizing or forgetting the “old normal”.

Examples of Creeping Normality

Examples of creeping normality are everywhere – and they are not all necessarily sinister. The below are three examples of creeping normality that will have a lasting impact on society. They are important, not just because they impact our way of life, but because they may converge in the future.

#1: The Public Society

With the revolution of the internet, we have seen a gradual, partially voluntary erosion of privacy. The rise of social media has normalized a previously unthinkable degree of public transparency, where personal stories, photos, relationships, emotions and networks are shared with the world. Meanwhile, we have gradually given away more of our personal data (from fingerprints to spending habits) in exchange for convenience in the palm of our hands.

Many of these steps are not incrementally calculated steps led by the state. Indeed, many of these steps have happened at the same time and at different speeds. What’s more, many of these things have improved our lives.

But 25 years ago, had you asked someone whether they’d be willing to share their personal details, passwords and day-to-day lives with countless companies and governments, you’d have a received a very different response than today. The central point, therefore, is that we are increasingly normalizing the exchange of privacy for convenience.

“Who cares?!” you say. “I have nothing to hide – and life is much more convenient!”

That may be the case, but governments and institutions now have access to an unprecedented pool of Big Data. And as we normalize each step towards lower privacy, we increase our cyber-vulnerabilities and the degree to which those who monopolize this data can control our lives and decisions.

In short, data is now the currency by which the world is controlled. We are the product. While many will see these changes as simple steps into a technologically advanced future, as we move up the steps of creeping normality, time will tell where this privacy paradox is taking us.

#2: The Cashless Society

As technologies have advanced and calls for convenience loudened, our move to cashless societies has also become a creeping normality.

This process started, of course, with debit and credit cards working alongside our physical cash system. It then morphed into a world of contactless payment, negating even the need to type a PIN or swipe the card.

As a parallel and decentralized world of cryptocurrencies has emerged, we have further normalized the idea of digital cash. Supported by the idea that we can control the spread of disease through vaccine passes, we are in the process of normalizing digital identification.

Our familiarity and adjustment to the concepts of digital ID, contactless payment and cryptocurrencies is a logical bridge into more centralized systems of digital cash known as Central Bank Digital Currencies (or CBDCs).

There is nothing then stopping these merged systems evolving into social credit systems, as the dual creeping normality of diminishing privacy and cashless societies converge.

Boiling water sounds insane when the water still feels cool. Had you asked someone at the start of this cashless transition whether they would accept a mobile payment system, you’d have probably received much more skepticism than now.

#3: The COVID Society

But if anything exemplifies the process of creeping normality right now, it’s the escalation of COVID-19 measures. Whether you agree or disagree with the escalations, there is no question that creeping normality is playing its role. As many of the top policymakers have said, “there will be no return to the old normal”.

Let’s look at this objectively. The below illustration is a simple chronology of measures based on what have seen so far in the western world. We started with the emergency lockdowns in March 2020. Since then, we’ve seen a gradual shift toward the “new normal” of mass vaccination and vaccine passports.

Of course, we cannot ignore that some of this is a reaction to dynamic circumstances. Policymakers point to new variants and increasing cases as justification for these measures. Judge for yourself whether these measures make sense in the medical, ethical and economic context. The purpose of this illustration is simply to illustrate creeping normality in action.

What comes next, I don’t know. I’ll steer clear of rose-tinted or dystopian predictions. One thing is pretty sure right now: we are more likely to get further from our starting point of “3 weeks and back to normal” than closer.

Creeping Normality: Accelerators, Brakes and Reversers

Creeping normality doesn’t always happen at the same pace. The nature of the change, the context of the change and the environment in which the gradual change is taking place matter.

My own perspective is that there are three main factors that can act as accelerators, brakes and reversers of creeping normality: emergencies, technologies, and generational experience.

#1: Emergencies

An emergency – or even a purported emergency – can act as an accelerator for a creeping normality that is already in play. For example, COVID-19 accelerated a work-from-home evolution and will act as a platform to introduce or at least acclimatize people to the idea of digital identification.

In truth, both of these things were inevitable. Companies invariably would seek to reduce costs and move to flexible working arrangements. And as the internet ecosystem grew, governments would inevitably look to digital identification as a central solution.

Emergencies can work the opposite way, too. A natural disaster or war footing could reverse a creeping normality towards more individualistic, virtual ways of life, demanding collective civic duty instead.

#2: Technologies

Technologies can influence the pace and direction of change, too. The internet and social media allow for the rapid transfer of information. During the most serious cases of creeping normality, these platforms can serve to remind us of where we came from. On the other hand, they can accelerate change through the spread of unhealthy emotional contagion. Platforms can be echo chambers where nuance is lost and confirmation bias thrives.

#3: Generational Experience

Last but not least, nations are likely to be more perceptive to creeping normality if they have living generations that have seen something similar before. That can be an inhibitor for positive change, as skepticism slows technological adoption, for example. But it can also act as a safety net when the signs of creeping authoritarianism take hold.

(For more on how generational constellations can shape attitudes to authoritarianism and crises, I recommend The Fourth Turning by Neil Howe and William Strauss.)

How to Manage Creeping Normality

So how do we manage creeping normality if we see it? And do we manage it at all?

Remember your circles of control. By definition, a new normal is not something you’re about to reverse singlehandedly. There is little net benefit to ruminating on a creeping normality you hate. You will simply kill yourself faster by worrying about it. So, focus on what you can control, starting with the below ideas.

Observe history. To better see creeping normality, keep an eye on the chronology of events. Don’t forget where you were before. Write it down in a journal if it helps. Return and reflect on changes every so often.

Accept the worst. Creeping normality may not feel “normal” to you but, by definition, it is normal to most. History tells us that a well-organised and determined minority may put up healthy resistance, but when we see creeping normality in action, it is prudent to assume that minority might fail. Accept the possibility that the new normal is as bad as you expect. Confront the worst-case scenario and ask yourself some personal questions about it.

Don’t panic. Recall that if the container is small enough, the frog will eventually jump out. It’s our job to keep an eye on changes in the size of the container and act accordingly. That doesn’t mean catastrophizing and worrying ourselves to death, but it does mean keeping an eye on a course of change that has the capacity to change our lives for the worse.

Act. Some creeping normality is inevitable. You could go anywhere in the world, and you’d still face it. In other words, you’ll have to come to terms with it or face being miserable. On the other hand, some may be avoidable. A creeping normality of authoritarianism is unlikely to grip the whole world for a simple reason: people eventually hate it, and there will always be international competition. If the worst comes to the worst, scout the market and look for other options.

Summary

Let’s sum things up:

  • Creeping normality is the process by which initially unacceptable major changes to our way of life can become acceptable via gradual, incremental introduction.
  • Modern-day examples of creeping normality include our exchange of privacy for convenience, our transition to a cashless society, and the incremental escalation of COVID-19 measures.
  • Modern technologies, responses to emergencies and prior generational experience of creeping normality can accelerate, slow or reverse the process.
  • To manage creeping normality, we should avoid catastrophizing while keeping our eye on changes that may alter our way of life for the worse.

There will always be creeping normality in the world, but right now, this concept feels more important than ever.

If you take one thing from this article – just one – whatever your opinion of today’s creeping normality, let it be this. Don’t forget what was once unacceptable – and don’t forget why.

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