By Jann Holland
The word “new” is at once intriguing and provocative, and next, overused and seemingly ineffective. Despite its proliferation, marketers and consumers alike continue their “new” love affair. New continues to have significant power and meaning, but what does new mean now?
Google the phrase “new in 2012” and results are shown for new foods such as bacon ice cream and gluten-free hot dogs; engineering innovations such as Pixel, a new 12,300 square-foot, carbon neutral office building located in Melbourne, Australia that claims to be the most sustainable workplace ever; and Rapidblocs, a new modular whitewater park system that debuted at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Subsequent results highlighted new hairstyles, new cars, new movies, and even new dishwashing detergents.
How can the word have any real value when it’s juxtaposed with such a wide range of people, places, things and experiences? And yet, our fascination continues.
The Ecclesiastes passage, “…there is nothing new under sun” dates back to the 3rd century BC when the author concludes that there is nothing new of lasting importance. He explores the philosophical argument that as an individual searches for new ways of looking at life, the same themes and ideas surface that have indeed been pondered for centuries.
Despite a desire to be original, each generation seems to have the same epiphanies as previous generations. A more simplified interpretation of the passage is found in the phrase, “Everything old is new again,” which illuminates society’s tendency to pull ideas from the past and position them as “new.”
The headline of a recent Fast Company magazine article states, “How to improve educational performance? Bring back recess.” Recess is the new solution for ensuring that kids have fun while learning valuable life lessons in conflict-resolution, teamwork, inclusion, leadership and more. This insight isn’t new, but it appears to be news.
New is cyclical. Old songs are reformatted and sung by new artists, and suddenly people attribute the song “Higher Ground” to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, when in fact Stevie Wonder wrote and released the original song in 1973. Many thought the 1990 hit film Total Recall was a brand new sensation, when it was actually based on another film that was released in 1966. Bell bottoms return to the fashion scene as a new style of pants called “flares.” Gamers download new apps for classics like Ms. Pac-Man, Centipede and Asteroids.
I have a love-hate relationship with the word. For example, my frustration relates to society’s insatiable appetite for new and its accompanying disposable attitude. How can we teach a child to take care of something so it will last when it’s often easier to buy a replacement? The other day, I showed my daughter how to polish shoes. Has this turned into a bygone art form similar to that of a handwritten note? If she wears Toms Shoes (new in 2006), then she really doesn’t need to know how to polish shoes anyway.
New has become a status symbol. Why would anyone keep their old iPhone 4 when the new 5 has enhanced features such as a better camera? After all, if we don’t have the newest version, then we are hopelessly out of style and behind the curve. (And our photos on Instagram will stink.) Through planned obsolescence, updated, new versions of electronics hit the market each year, enticing us to abandon the now seemingly old for new.
New is not always better. The commercialization of farming has left some consumers feeling like fruits and vegetables no longer taste as flavorful as they once did. Certainly, we appreciate the year-round availability of our favorite produce, but what have we given up in return?
The author of a 2010 blog submission in The Economist titled, “The death of built to last,” reflects on the quality of his 50+ year-old bicycle pump that never, ever breaks down. In sharp contrast, he laments about the plastic pumps he was resigned to using while living in East Asia. The pumps were so poorly designed that they typically lasted less than a year. Unfortunately, in most cases, “built to last” is bad for business.
Is new as special today as it once was? In the late 1800s, children and families alike experienced new on an infrequent basis. Reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder book series as a young child, it struck me how rare and special it was for Laura to receive a new calico dress or a new pair of shoes. Meanwhile, when I was young, my closet was bursting at the seams with new clothes, shoes and toys.
Our love of new has not triumphed over our appreciation for old: Consider writers who continue using their vintage typewriters because they still love to hear the whack of a key on freshly inserted paper. The continued success of the PBS show, “Antiques Road Show” reinforces the notion that old should continue to be celebrated because old is the fabric of our past and representative of simpler times. Recently, I noticed a small wooden cabinet built into an exterior wall of one of my mother’s rental homes. When I inquired, my mother responded, “That was where the milkman would place bottles of milk.” My children looked in awe.
Nevertheless, no one can deny the lure of new. An ad for Norton antivirus software pokes fun at the blinding exhilaration that results from the purchase of a new electronic device, dubbing the condition “newphoria.” The copy reads, “NEW is the time for Norton.”
Susan Krauss Whitbourne’s 2012 article in Time Magazine states,
“The lure of the new applies to consumers with a particular personality style. Psychology researchers have shown that each of us has our own level of craving for new things. They call this ‘novelty-seeking,’ or the sexier alternative, ‘neophilia.’”
Compelled to seek out the newest products, neophiliacs experience a high similar to the rush of pleasure that occurs in the reward centers of the brain whenever an addiction is satisfied. Ephemeral at best, the high fades quickly, leaving individuals searching for their next fix. The article goes on to state that neophilia is not always a bad thing, for being open to new experiences is an important aspect of adapting to our rapidly changing world. Properly managed, the brain benefits from this stimulation.
In many ways, social media is designed on a platform of new. On Twitter, once a tweet gets pushed down to a certain level in the feed, chances are it will die a quick death. Pinterest provides a continuously updated feed of new ideas and favorite things. Tumblr encourages viewers to use their “Explore” button because “there’s a whole world of new passions to discover.” The controversial Snapchat app allows users to share images or videos that disappear within a few seconds, and it claims to process more than 30 million messages per day. Social media’s appetite for new is seemingly insatiable.
Returning to my love-hate relationship with new, there are many things I love about it. After 20-plus years of running, motivating myself to crawl out of my warm, cozy bed to run in frigid temperatures at 6 a.m. can be difficult. To combat this, every once in awhile I treat myself to a new pair of socks or running shorts. It’s funny how purchasing just one new song for my iPod Shuffle will reinvigorate me.
Many people talk about the allure of a new book: They love the way it smells and how it feels to crack open the spine and turn the first page. The purchase of a new book can inspire people to read, and that’s a wonderful thing.
New also equals innovation. Technological innovations can save or improve our quality of life. Advancements in medical technology cure a disease or prevent one from spreading. New products and services can save time, money and valuable resources. In this context, new is powerful and vibrant.
New crosses language barriers. During last year’s Christmas break, Dr. Teresa Carroll, associate professor of biology, took 13 Drury students to Roatan, an island off the Caribbean to collect data for the Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences. In advance of the trip, Dr. Carroll and her students raised funds to purchase rain boots, school supplies and backpacks for more than 100 children who live in Roatan. During the rainy season, raw sewage flows down the streets, and since most of the children do not have rain boots, they often contract parasitic diseases that enter through cuts and scrapes in their feet. The simple gift of new rain boots brought an incredible amount of joy to the children, as well as to Dr. Carroll and her students.
In evaluating my love-hate relationship with new, I lean more toward love, because new brings promise and opportunity. It is refreshing and energizing. Overall, new is a hall pass for renewal. The cyclical nature of human life and plant life, both include an element of new.
Let’s hear it for the enduring attachment to new. And if you don’t agree with that, well, tomorrow’s a new day.