New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change by Winifred Gallagher
Published: 2011 by The Penguin Press
Source: Received from Publisher for Review
When I began reading New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change, I was expecting a diatribe about how today’s consumer culture gives almost every product a limited life span to encourage more and more consumption. This topic is touched upon, but instead what I found was a very interesting account of the value and importance of novelty in civilization.
As the author, Winifred Gallagher, describes, neophilia (desire for novelty) has had an evolutionary purpose; it has helped civilization react to events or situations which in turn has led us to the world we live in today, for better or worse. Using the example of Homo sapiens versus Neanderthals in prehistoric times, Gallagher notes that Homo sapiens, as strong neophiles, were able to adapt to periods of potentially disastrous change and evolve into the “human race” as we know it today, while the Neanderthals, as neophobes (novelty-resistant), preferred the comfort of their insular surroundings, didn’t interact with anyone else, and as result drove themselves into extinction.
In the present era, novelty works on a spectrum. There are extreme neophiles – those who are extremely sensitive to and distracted by new stimuli in their environment – and extreme neophobes – those resistant to any newness at all – but most of us fall somewhere in between. It is a survival instinct to react to novelty and change (as Gallagher explains, a swerving car on the highway is a novelty in one’s average existence and is thus reacted to as such) and how we determine an event on a separate danger spectrum is likely to determine how we react to it from a novelty point of view.
Going into my preconcieved notion of the essence of this book, Gallagher does go into the consumer side of novelty and especially how in our present day novelty is represented by the latest gadget or even the buying experience itself. This appears to be a relatively new phenomenon, which Gallagher compares to an almost religious experience:
By the lights of the old Protestant ethic consumer meant something like “spendthrift” or squanderer. the avid customers queuing up for Black Friday sales and the latest Apple productcts, however, resemble religious pilgrims who prove their devotion by sleeping in front of the shrine on the night before they’re permitted to purchase the Holy Grail.
Related to this is Gallagher’s thought that the pursuit of new “stuff” has resulted in society – specifically, American – losing touch with the purpose of novelty. In today’s turbulent economy, with young people fearful of what the future has in store for them; and the increasing number of seniors who are typically more conservative (and more neophobic), Gallagher notes:
All of these social influences contribute to a newly fretful America that’s wary of original ideas that have uncertain outcomes, much less of active problem finding.
Aside from the descriptions of studies on the science of novelty which I found uninteresting (I am NOT a science person), I found this book to be extremely interesting and a pleasant surprise to what I had originally expected. The concept of novelty is much much more than material, and is more important than I had ever thought.