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Schuyler Brown

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Not In Love With New Anymore

Posted: 10/20/09 04:01 PM ET

What a relief: we're not in love with New anymore.

Several years ago, pre-recession, I started writing about a condition I was observing in the homes of Americans. A condition I saw reflected in pop culture, high culture, and the advertising that hawks it: Neophilia.

Neophilia is in itself a new word. It was popularized around 1999 in techie and sci-fi subcultures to describe the trait of being enthralled by all things novel. Riding a wave of fin de siecle excitement, it quickly moved from fringe jargon to mainstream meme as it accurately captured the growing cultural belief that progress is measured in terms of the novelty versus quality of the idea. Almost overnight, Neophilia crept into our collective psyche, coloring our consumption habits and clouding our judgment.

New houses. New furniture. New cars (and that patented new car smell). New gadgets. New ideas. We traded in and traded up before the old showed signs of wear. We popularized businesses catering to our obsession: car leasing, disposable fashion (Zara, H&M...), premium handbag rental services (Avelle, "The New Bag, Borrow, or Steal"), plastic surgery. Simultaneously, we saw the expansion of services designed to handle our swiftly growing piles of unwanted, not-so-new goods: Craigslist, eBay, recycling programs and services like The Salvation Army. We've even fostered a new segment of society living purely on the excess of our lifestyle: freegans.

As it will, advertising reflected our addiction right back to us. Agencies stopped talking about the quality of their strategic ideas and started shouting about the newness of them: Disruption! Innovation! BANG ideas! BIG ideas! Campaigns got points for shock value. Meanwhile, there were more and more products to advertise as our desire for newness was willingly fed by a corporate culture that demanded growth. New seemed a win-win.

Of course, in many ways there's nothing new about Neophilia. It's hardwired into our brains. Neuroscience has pretty much taken the romance out of the crush and demystified 'the honeymoon phase' by mapping attraction to novelty. Want to spice things up in the bedroom? Try something --anything -- new. Look at human progress, it's a series of breakthrough ideas and paradigm shifts based on revelations that quickly divided the population into those attached to the old way and those willing to get on board with the new.

What's different about our recent obsession, however is the absence of any other qualifier. Scientific breakthroughs have to be accurate, provable, and true. Technological advances should offer an improved user experience. Artistic movements should offer a marked technical or ideological advance in the trajectory of artistic expression. Problem is, they weren't. We gave up all other demands as long as the thing was fresh and shiny.

But, a couple of influences have brought this trend to a screeching hault in the last year or so. Let's start with the environment: remember Neophilia's win-win scenario for consumer culture and advertisers? Unfortunately, it's actually a win-lose-lose when you bring the planet into the equation. Corporate America still likes the idea of unlimited resources and eternal innovation -- a win -- but the planet most certainly feels a loss and that means ultimately humans lose, too.

The second influence is the economy. People simply can't afford to be obsessed with novelty right now. And while I think reports on the dawning of a new American modesty are exaggerated, (historically, spending has been pretty resilient when times are flush again), I do think the recession has been a wake up call. Over-indulgence, once the luxury of a few, had become a mainstream entitlement. Now that sobriety has set in, and enough people have been jolted from their Starbucks-induced stupors to see the futility in it all, we're wondering...why? I believe the lasting gift of this particular recession will be that it allowed us the space to see the consequences of our actions.

How is the new sobriety manifesting in culture and commerce? Services like car shares and bike shares are breaking Americans of their automobile infatuation, reusable water bottles are breaking the bottled water habit, cohousing developments and urban communes are teaching people to live interdependently and efficiently, consuming fewer resources and maximizing efficiencies of space and manpower. Sites like etsy.com are exposing more people to handcraft and recycled products. In home decor, modernism has been replaced by shaggy chic, an attraction to vintage pieces, salvage, and antiques. From my vantage point, even fashion's getting less brand/season conscious as die hard fashionistas proudly sport last season's winter coat...Don't I look thrifty?

Does all this mean new is out? No. There's plenty of innovation afoot -- we've got to figure out how to live in a post-Neophilia world. The marked difference is, however, this innovation is not about newness for newness' sake; it's about finding great new ideas that make real progress. Not for their break from the past -- no, some of the best new ideas are stolen outright from our ancestors -- but for their ability to actually advance us into a win-win-win paradigm.

 

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