Reclaiming the innocence of novelty and consumption

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Riding an expressway to nowhere?

Buying into consumerism, the argument goes, fixes us in the present – our purchases and choices are ‘for now’ because there will always be something newer, something more exciting, something more fashionable, something better.

In his examination of our culture of immediacy, Professor Tomlinson (who I really will quote for the last time) has argued that our contemporary consumer culture is characterized by an expectation of what he terms ‘delivery’, rather than of satisfaction.

What I mean by this is that there is probably a widespread disbelief in the capacity of consumer goods to provide ultimate satisfaction; but that there is, none the less, an expectation that the capitalist system will  – and should- continue to deliver the goods… We expect consumer goods to be functional or novel or amusing; to be stylish, fashionable of good value and of good quality; we increasingly expect them to provide the ‘lifestyle semiotic’ function that marketing strategies so intensely focus upon. We expect warranties and after sale service. But in the vast majority of cases these expectations stop short of a conviction that they will, in any profound sense, satisfy our deepest desires. This is not however an obstacle to continued consumption, particularly since it is combined with the happy expectation that something new is always on the way and so it is not necessary – nor does it do – to invest too much into the thing of the moment.”

And so for example, we increasingly treat cell phones as a disposable item, with Americans changing their cell phones every 21.7 months, the British every 22.4 months, and Koreans every 26.9 months.

And yet it it is a pursuit gets us nowhere.

For buying into consumerism condemns us to the futility of the ‘hedonic treadmill’. Whatever we do (i.e. buy), our happiness is a relatively constant state. Regardless of how good things get and what we acquire, we’ll always be about the same level of happy.

The enemy of satisfaction

Many lay burden of responsibility for this on the shoulders of consumerism, capitalism, its rapacious corporations, and its partners in need-generation, the advertising-media complex.

We can bemoan the constant promises, the conjuring up of alluring dreams and illusion of happiness, the constant invitation to make real the unlived lives advertising presents us with, the incessant fueling of dissatisfaction with what we already have. We can point out that capitalism doesn’t actually want a satisfied consumer.

Here’s the writer and critic Judith Williamson:

Ads… Show you a symbol of yourself aimed to attract your desire; they suggest that you can become the person in the picture before you. But this merging with an ‘objectified’ image of yourself is impossible; the desire for it is simply channelling of the desire… They ensnare us in a quest for the impossible.”

Here’s the author George Monboit writing for the Guardian:

Invention is the mother of necessity. To keep their markets growing, companies must keep persuading us that we have unmet needs. In other words, they must encourage us to become dissatisfied with what we have. To be sexy, beautiful, happy, relaxed, we must buy their products. They shove us on to the hedonic treadmill, on which we must run ever faster to escape a growing sense of inadequacy…  Advertising encourages us to compare ourselves with those we perceive to be better off. It persuades us to trash our happiness and trash the biosphere to answer a craving it exists to perpetuate.”

This is Paul Hawken in his book The Ecology of Commerce:

Advertising… deceives young and old alike into making purchases that are inappropriate, unnecessary, or wasteful  feeding a level of consummation that is responsible for overshooting biological carrying capacity.”

And here’s the novelist and surveyor of contemporary culture, Douglas Rushkoff making the same argument:

Of course, the consumer must never be allowed to reach his goal, for then consumption would cease. The consumer must never feel completely at home in his present, or he will stop striving toward a more full satisfied future. Since consumption makes up about half of all economic activity in America, a happy consumer would spell disaster fashion must change, and products must be upgraded and updated. In order for the economy to grow, this must keep happening faster.”

You get the picture.

It’s an old line of argument.

The hero of Swift’s Robinson Crusoe published in 1719, remarks:

It put me to reflecting, how little repining there would be among mankind, at any condition of life, if people would rather compare their condition with those that are worse, in order to be thankful, than be always comparing them with those which are better, to assist their murmurings and complainings.”

Of course it would be foolish to deny that capitalism and its helpers are willing accomplices in feeding (and yes, from time to to time distorting) our dissatisfactions and our chasing of hopes.

But as the sociologist Professor Tomlinson has noted, we should recover what he dubs the “innocence” of our desire for novelty.

The case for making the case

Making this case it matters for we are as an industry, fairly poor at making a case for what we do to the those beyond the confines of marketingland.

Moreover, the perception that advertising is populated by a bunch of manipulative  scheisters is hardly our best bet for winning in the battle to acquire talent. Google makes the world navigable, searchable, accessible, knowledgeable and connected. We make people buy shit they don’t need and probably never wanted.

And it leads to the kind of “can advertising be a force for good hand?” hand-ringing that is tantamount to an admission that – up until now – it has indeed been a force for if not downright evil, then at least all manner of other undesirable outcomes.

The case in brief

While our appetite for the new might indeed as Rushkoff puts it, be “immensely convenient to the system demands of capitalism”, our desires are first and foremost a function of human nature, rather than the result of the dark machinations of corporations.

We are born novelty-seekers. And if we take issue with that, then we take issue with being human.

Aside from this point scoring however, there is another consequence of this natural impulse.

It leads to good (and great) things.

Wired for novelty

The human mind does not have unlimited capacity and bandwidth. We must be efficient. We must filter and choose, if we are to function, survive and prosper successfully.

And in the name of both efficiency and survival, we’re adapted to place that spotlight of attention on the new and novel. We are built to focus our finite mental resources on new sights, sounds, thoughts and feelings and to filter out the rest.  After all, potential threats and new resources are much more likely to be novel than familiar. Survival prospects are are not good for an animal that is not suspicious of novelty. As the professor of social psychology Jonathan Haidt has put it, it is change that contains new information, not steady states.

However, there is also survival value for the initial caution to fade if the stimulus is actually proves to be non-threatening.  ‘Exposure effect’ occurs, the Polish psychologist Robert Zajonc argues, because nothing life-threatening follows the  repeated exposure of a stimulus.

With time and repetition then, this stimulus eventually becomes a safety signal – as the tale of fox and the lion from Æsop’s Fables of Ancient Greece beautifully illustrates:

A fox who had never yet seen a lion, when he fell in with him for the first time in the forest was so frightened that he was near dying with fear. On his meeting with him for the second time, he was still much alarmed, but not to the same extent as at first. On seeing him the third time, he so increased in boldness that he went up to him and commenced a familiar conversation with him.”

Indeed this arousal by and adaptation to novelty is so essential to any species’ survival that infants less than a day old will stare at a new image for about forty-one seconds, then tune it out when repeated exposures render it familiar.

This phenomenon is in part, simply a property of neurons. Nerve cells respond excitedly to new stimuli but gradually fire less as the stimulus becomes familiar.

Even the most exciting and novel of stimulus with repetition eventually becomes part of life’s wallpaper of familiarity.

The author, poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman vividly captures how the new and exciting eventually becomes submerged within that taken for granted world:

Novelty will always rivet one’s attention. There is that unique moment where one confronts something new and astonishment begins. Whatever it is, it looms brightly, its edges sharp, its details ravishing… It is a form of revelation, a new sensory litany. But the second time one sees it, the mind says, Oh, that again, another wing walker, another moon landing. And soon, when it’s become commonplace, the brain begins slurring the details, recognising it too quickly, by just a  few of its features, it doesn’t have to bother scrutinising  it. Then it is lost to astonishment, no longer an extraordinary instance but a generalised piece of the landscape.”

Our most intimate of relationships are not immune to this novelty wear-out.

The males of most mammalian species have a definite urge towards seeking variety in their in sexual partners. In the laboratory this has been called the ‘Coolidge Effect’.

If a male rat is introduced to a female rat in a cage, a remarkably high copulation rate will be observed at first. Then, progressively, the male will tire of that particular female and, even thought there is no apparent change in her receptivity, he eventually reaches a point where he has little apparent libido. However, if the original female is then removed and a fresh one supplied, the male is immediately restored to his former vigour and enthusiasm.

The ethologist Frank Beach is credited with giving the phenomenon the name in 1955, after one of his students suggested the term at a psychology conference. He attributed the name to an an old joke about President Calvin Coolidge.

The President and Mrs. Coolidge were being shown separately around an experimental government farm.

When the President’s wife came to the chicken yard she noticed that a rooster was mating very frequently. She asked the attendant how often that happened and was told, “Dozens of times each day.” Mrs. Coolidge said, “Tell that to the President when he comes by.” Upon being told, President asked, “Same hen every time?” The reply was, “Oh, no, Mr. President, a different hen every time.” To which the President responded : “Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge.”

The virtue of novelty-chasing

Our chasing of the new, our appetite of the novel, our hunger for new distractions and sensations, our dissatisfaction with the present, and with the familiar is fundamental to progress and improvement.

As the historian Fernand Braudel has put it:

Can it have been merely by coincidence that the future was to belong to societies fickle enough to care about changing the colors, materials and shapes of costume, as well as the social order and the map of the world – societies, which were ready to break with their traditions? There is a connection.”

Dissatisfaction with the dark gave us the lightbulb.

Dissatisfaction with the horse gave us the car.

Dissatisfaction is an engine of progress. And progressed we have.

In his book The Rational Optimist Matt Ridley Rational Optimist reminds us that the vast majority of us are much better fed, much better sheltered, much better entertained, much better protected against disease and much more likely to live to old age than our ancestors have ever been.

Never mind what’s happened over the last thousand years.

According to Ridley, in 2005 compared with 1955, the average human being earned nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), ate one-third more calories of food, buried one-third as many of her children and could expect to live one-third longer. She was less likely to die as a result of war, murder, childbirth, accidents, tornadoes, flooding, famine, whooping cough, tuberculosis, malaria, diphtheria, typhus, typhoid, measles, smallpox, scurvy or polio. She was less likely, at any given age, to get cancer, heart disease, or stroke. She was more likely to own a telephone, a flush toilet, a refrigerator, and a bicycle.

The English poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold understood the relationship between progress and restlessness.

His  Culture and Anarchy was written in the wake of the Second Reform Act of 1867, which extended the voting franchise (hitherto limited to only twenty percent of males) to all male householders of England and Wales.

Much preoccupied with the notion of human growth, the quest for human perfection, and the common good, Arnold believed that human perfection was to be achieved through:

The ever-increasing efficacy and in the general harmonious expansion of those gifts of thought and feeling, which make the peculiar dignity, wealth, and happiness of human nature… not a having a resting, but a growing and a becoming, is the character of perfection as culture conceives it.” 

For him, if society was to perfect itself therefore, it had to commit itself to never being at rest. Progress was just that. Constant forward movement. Restlessness, not resting.

While for Arnold, the achievement of human perfection demanded constant movement, for Joseph Campbell movement and dynamism were simply humanity’s unavoidable fate and condition now that the old constraints of tradition no longer exerted their hold:

Growth, as long as it lasts, will be the measure of the life of the modern Western man, and of the world with all its promise that he has brought and is still bringing into being: which is to say, a world of change, new thoughts, new things, new magnitudes, and continuing transformation, not of petrifaction, rigidity, and some canonized found ‘truth’.”

Arnold and Campbell remind us that while our natural fascination with novelty can lead to creating and consuming stuff that’s trivial, trashy, worthless, polluting and toxic, it can also lead to some very great things indeed.

Neither dumb nor duped

Writing of the very obvious technological development we have all witnessed in our lives, Kevin Kelly argues that:

Perhaps more than any other signal, this constant surge daily persuades us that things improve… We buy the new over the old. Given the choice between an old-fashioned tool and a new one, most people  – in the past as well as now – would grab the newer one… If the new is not really better, and we keep reaching for it, then we are consistently duped or consistently dumb. The more likely reason we seek the new is that new things do get better. And of course there are more things to choose from.” 

We seek novelty not because we’re dumb.

Or duped.

But because we are human.

And because we want better.

Is that really so bad?

Dear consumer

Your desire for novelty is innate. It is not an invention of dastardly advertisers.

Assume, therefore, your share of responsibility for the consequences (both good and bad) of your choices.

Dear marketer

Of course enable consumers to make better, more informed choices, adopt sustainable business practices, reward and enable moderation, and mitigate some of the excesses of consumerism.

But at the same time, recognize that seeking to stifle growth and the pursuit of novelty (or indeed to demonize it) is to pick a fight with human nature.

****

Sources

Diane Ackerman, A Natural History Of The Senses

Fernand Braudel, Capitalism and Material Life, 1400 – 1800

Dewsbury, Donald A. ‘Frank A. Beach, Master Teacher,’ Portraits of Pioneers in Psychology, Volume 4, p269-281.

Elaine Hatfield and G. William Walste, A New Look at Love

Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability

Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants

Recon Analytics, International Comparisons: The Handset Replacement Cycle, 23 June 2011

Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist

Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now

John Tomlinson, The Culture Of Speed: The Coming Of Immediacy

Judith Williamson, Decoding Advertisements: Ideology And Meaning In Advertising

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3 comments

  1. Julian

    Hi Martin, again another well argued case. I would suggest referring to a couple of things:

    1) The Century of the Self, Adam Curits (I think the first episode) – where they discuss Edward Bernays persuading humans they need to move away from functional needs to buying items that represented different sides of their identity, at the start of the 21st century. So I am agreeing that without capitalism we might not have consumerism (as we currently know it).

    2) Theory of Fun, Ralph Koster – great book on game design, and how the human learns the world around them. After a while you begin to ‘chunk’ the world, as it is no longer new to you, and then can focus on the details in the space. This is linked to a survival technique. So I am agreeing that novelty in your surroundings is not contingent upon consumerism, but inherent human nature.

    What is slightly disconcerting, is that you don’t offer a way out of consumerism, feeding off our novelty instinct :( i.e. is there a way business can have a relationship with their audience that is not based on disposable novelty?

    I await this in your next well argued article!

  2. Tom Ewing (@tomewing)

    Hi Martin –
    This makes a very eloquent case for novelty-seeking as part of human nature and a motor of innovation. What I don’t think it makes a case for – perhaps this is for a later post? – is that marketing and advertising is the best, or even a very good way, of satisfying that part of human nature.

    To use a perhaps tenuous comparison – I’m from Britain, so have spent a while this week arguing about porn, and it’s on my brain. More so than usual. A conservative might say “Porn is bad because it makes people think about sex.” And I might reply “But sex is awesome”. But then someone less conservative might object “But porn is a bad substitute for sex.”

    And it seems to me this is similar to your argument. The basic anti-advertising line runs “Advertising is bad, it makes people want new stuff”. And you are saying “Wanting new stuff is part of human nature”. Quite right! But is advertising the best route to wanting new stuff? Without advertising – or with a lot less of it – would we still crave novelty and look to satisfy that craving? Undoubtedly! As you say, it’s human nature. But might we satisfy it in different ways, or value different routes to novelty more?

    (Perhaps this is where the body of what you might broadly call “post-Cluetrain” planners and marketers (tho the roots go way back) are going. I don’t know.)

  3. Pingback: Reclaiming the innocence of novelty and consumption | the Wheat and the Chaff

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