Reclaiming the innocence of novelty and consumption

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Riding an expressway to nowhere?

In his examination of our culture of immediacy, Professor Tomlinson 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.”

Consumer culture fixes us in the present – our purchases and choices are ‘for now’ because there will always be something newer, something better.

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.

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.”

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.

Note for example, the ambivalence of language here:

“While advertising is often seen as an impersonal and consumerist force, compelling people to buy into a lifestyle they cannot afford, it also has the potential to have a hugely positive impact, believes Diana El-Azar, Media Director at the World Economic Forum: ‘communications could be a hugely positive force in influencing people’s behaviour.” 

http://www.ogilvydo.com/creativity-as-a-force-for-good/#.UeVZBPmH7OY

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.

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.”

Even our most intimate of relationships are not immune to 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 with what 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.

The vast majority of cultural, social and technological change is overwhelmingly positive.

The long-term trajectory in the longevity, education, health and wealth of an average person is a steady, measurable rise.

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.

We want, desire, and buy this stuff because it’s better.

As Kevin Kelly notes:

The obvious wave of technological development we have witnessed in our own lifetimes. 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?

Postscript

It would be naive, ignorant or utterly unfeeling to ignore or belittle the fact that billions still suffer terrible inequality , deteriorating regional environments, local war, genocide, and poverty.  There are people who still live in misery. And too many of these are worse off than they were just a few months or years before.

Nor can any rational person ignore the steady stream of new ills bred by our inventions and activities, including new problems generated by our well-intentioned attempts to heal old problems.

The steady destruction of good things and people seems relentless. And it is.

But the steady stream of good things  – born of our innate appetite for the new – is relentless as well.

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,’ in Portraits of Pioneers in Psychology, Volume 4

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

Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants

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

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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