Nicholas Agar in the OUP blog (Image credit: “City Lights”, by Unsplash. Public Domain via Pixabay):
Humans have flexible psychologies that enable us to flourish in environments ranging from the Arctic to the Kalahari Desert. Walruses and meerkats lack this psychological flexibility. They are unlikely to work out how to survive an exchange of habitats. Hedonic normalization permits a human raised in the high Himalayas to find that environment normal. The same psychological mechanism that hedonically normalizes humans to Arctic and desert environments normalizes us to the very different technological environments of the 1st and 21st centuries. We can predict that it will normalize us to the technologies of the 23rd century. Differences in hedonic normalization mean that ancient Romans, 21st century New Yorkers, and 23rd century residents of Cairo view cars powered by internal combustion engines very differently. What for the Romans is a quite miraculous technology, is boringly familiar to the New Yorkers, and repellently primitive and polluting for the Cairenes.
When we overlook hedonic normalization we tend to significantly overstate the extent to which technological progress will boost the happiness of future people. I would be very happy to abruptly find myself on board a 23rd century starship. But this is not how people hedonically normalized to 23rd century will feel. The error of ignoring hedonic normalization is especially apparent when we think about the past. Techno-optimists point to the big differences that technological change has made to our world. Mary Beard’s description of the streets of ancient Pompeii covered in animal dung, rotting vegetables, human excrement and flies makes modern city dwellers glad to be alive now. But imagining how a time traveller from the early 21st century would feel to find herself marooned in Pompeii does not tell us how people hedonically normalized to that time felt. Doubtless the Pompeians would have preferred cleaner streets. But the filthiness of their streets did not affect them in the way that it would affect someone normalized to our comparatively refuse and excrement-free highways and byways. To see this more clearly consider how people from the 23rd century will feel about life in our times. The conditions of our cities are clearly not perfect – but they are not nearly as bad for us as they will seem to someone normalized to the cities that 23rd century technologies will build.