Shifting Baselines

On a system scale, human beings are short-lived creatures with even shorter memories, so I suppose I shouldn’t find it so surprising that we usually fail to notice change. In a sense, we actively ignore changes by resetting our baselines as we go, comparing the present to the recent past and ignoring what may have happened before.

“Baseline creep” refers to slow changes, even in our individual lives, that are generally invisible. Visit family you haven’t seen in years and someone may comment “how much you’ve changed,” even if, from your perspective, nothing much has. Your baseline changes as you grow and age, but they are still comparing you to who you were a few years before.

Baseline creep also affects our social memory, especially from generation to generation. Things that fall out of our immediate experience also often fall out of our awareness. Few human beings now alive can recall when flocks of millions of passenger pigeons darkened the sky for hours at a stretch, or when the giant American Chestnut was the most common forest tree east of the Mississippi. Few of us who do not remember have any idea that these things were true. Their absence is human-caused and dramatic, but we scarcely notice.

There are ways that we do remember: when our cultural language celebrates a history of change, such as with civil rights, human rights, and women’s rights, we continue to recall, to a point, the state of things that came before. When we continue to revere symbols of past change, like the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, we recognize something about the intensity of that change.

But when there no cultural language, we paint the present over the past with a carelessly wide brush. The current structure of businesses is a good example—we imagine that business has always been structured the way it is now because we have no memory of how it once was. Thus business-related anachronisms often go unnoticed in fiction. The HBO series Mad Men, renowned for its careful historical accuracy, was nonetheless plagued with anachronisms in the language its writers used about business

Likewise the notion of corporations as citizens of any kind is a modern one. Corporations were considered powerful tools in need of careful control by the writers of our constitution, and had to operate on specific and restrictive charters. When the Supreme Court decided that the constitution gives corporations speech rights as individual citizens, they did so based a chain of reinterpretations of the constitution. Each reinterpretation set a new baseline, each not far from the last, but with an end result very far from the original idea that corporate power is a necessary risk to be heavily restricted.

We assume by default that what is now normal has always been, but baselines can also be reset so that we notice what we had previously ignored. Growing up in Virginia, I had almost never been on a major road that was not walled in by dozens of billboards. In Vermont, though, there are no billboards at all. Throughout my first semester of college, I appreciated the beauty of driving in the Green Mountains, but I didn’t realize part of why until I travelled home that winter. The five-hundred-mile horizon of advertising was invisible to me when I saw it daily, and only obvious when my baseline had been reset.

I think recognizing the impact of baselines is a key part of changing society’s entrenched ideas. Because we tend to assume that big ideas have always existed in their current form, we also imagine that their inertia is great and their foundations unassailable. Some may be, but I think many are just waiting for the right alternative to become the new normal.


An American Chestnut in southern Massachusetts, a rare survivor of the chestnut blight.

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