A New Look at What’s Normal

Wired has an article on well curves, curves whose distributions are weighted towards the left and right ends instead of towards the center like a “normal distribution” or bell curve.

[A] surprising number of economic and social phenomena now seem to follow… the well curve.

[...]

Large companies… are becoming gargantuan enterprises…. Meantime, small enterprises are also proliferating…. Yet while the big grow bigger and the small multiply, midsize enterprises are waning. The pattern is similar in geopolitics. The past decade saw the rise of both huge multinational federations (Nafta, the European Union) and tiny secessionist movements and small independent states. But the political entities in the middle – countries such as Italy and Spain, for example – are on the unprecedented brink of losing population.

[...]

High-end luxury hotels and low-end budget chains are doing well – but at the expense of midprice accommodations. In retail, Wal-Mart is soaring, boutiques are thriving, but middlebrow Sears is struggling. As The Wall Street Journal noted last year, “consumers are flocking to the most expensive products and the cheapest products, fleeing the middle ground in between.”

Then there’s the drooping middle class. The Federal Reserve Board’s latest analysis of family finances showed that from 1998 to 2001, American incomes were up across the board. But when economists divided the population into five equal segments, a well curve emerged. “Incomes grew at different rates in different parts of the income distribution,” the Fed reported, “with faster growth at the top and bottom ranges than in the middle.”

Other examples range from the size of screen in consumer electronics (an increasing number of small screens on PDAs and well-phones and of large screens like the 45″ plasma screens and HDTVs) to standardized test scores (a large number of students score very well or very poorly, with fewer scoring just “average”). The implications of this might turn out to be quite significant. Bell curves are what we think of as “normal” (in the real-world, not just the statistical sense), with most people being more or less average and a small number of people at the ends of the distribution being “deviant” in some way. These well-shaped distibutions suggest that we are in a period of divergence, that there are developing normativities that are at odds with each other, perhaps even struggling against one another. It is too easy to read this as a single polarization of society–the widening gap and clearer differentiation between rich and poor may or may not be related to the widening gap between high and low scores on standardized tests, for instance–but it does show a need to begin to reassess our concept of “normal”, as well as our society as a whole.

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