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(December 1999) [Printed in "Reality Module No.13."]
The Cult of the New
It is ..."the irrational belief that what's new is always better
than what's old."
"Progress is the continuing effort to make what we eat, drink and
wear as good as they used to be."
One of the things I learnt from watching the excellent TV series "America in the Fifties" was that the consumerist culture is very new.
Prior to World War II and after there was a culture of 'making do.'
But in a growing economy a 'making-do' culture just won't do. The manufacturers need to create a market for their increased output. They brought the advertisers onboard.
Advertising became psychological. New products linked with genuine human needs. The consumer being made to feel good about their decision to buy as well as with the products themselves.
The linking in our minds of purchasing with the fulfilment of psychological needs has been achieved. (As discussed in "Future Imperfect. Part 2" this is a delusion. In a nutshell - you cannot use external objects to solve internal problems).
The advertisers succeeded only too well. In the 1990s we find the celebration of the new (the years' new model what-have-yous glorified in the media), and magazines full of glossy ads for stylish new products and extolling the consumerist "Yuppie" lifestyle. (You are what you own!)
Once fashion was just clothes (expensive - and in one year and out the next) - now fashion would extend to all objects.
The throw-away consumer society is the first thread.
Then there is mankind's endless curiosity and the desire for the new.
It began with cave paintings (making a place special) and is exhibited in a million different ways.
When we do not change we can stagnate. The human being seeks stimulation to keep the mind alive.
This is neither good nor bad - it is just how things are.
This is the second thread.
The third thread is the simple fact that often the new is better!
New inventions can be genuinely useful and can serve valuable functions. Examples are mobile phones, personal computers, and email.
We lose the plot when we realise that this isn't always the case!
"Within five years any fridge that isn't on the Internet will be obsolete."
We live in a society which is obsessed with the advance of technology. We seem locked into a mad rush into the future, a wild ride of technological acceleration.
This mad rush has its associated pathologies.
One is the irrational fear of being left behind: e.g. If you don't buy a personal computer and get on the Internet you won't be able to take part in mainstream society and not only that - you won't be able to function in the brave new world that is coming into being!
Is this irrational? Yes! Suppose you didn't have a television set. How would you take part in "social intercourse?" What could you talk about? You'd be out-of-touch with world events, and the topics of the moment - wouldn't you? You wouldn't!
Our culture has many channels - and will continue to have them. If you cut out the Internet and television you are left with radio programs, newspapers, magazines, and - of course - conversations. You can get a pretty good idea of what is going on in our world without the electronic media or the Internet.
The Internet is not yet an essential part of everyday life and, even when it is, it will not be the only channel available for its purposes.
[Computer literacy is a different matter. Computers are complex things and we'll have to know something about using them for most of the jobs in the future. But - many of the computer courses I've done are obsolete (hardly anyone uses MS-DOS anymore, or WordPerfect 5.0 for DOS, and the shortcuts I learnt for Windows 3.1 are of limited use in Windows NT) - even the need for application-specific knowledge is transient. My advice is: learn as much as you want to - but no more!]
In its extreme form the technophilia that characterises the "Cult of the New" borders on paranoia. Critical faculties are shut down, and the new is embraced simply because it is new. We embrace the new because we are terrified that if we don't we too will be superseded, discarded, without a place in the technological future. [We are confusing ourselves with the commodities we use and discard. This is pathological.]
Why the headlong rush into the future?
It seems to link with mankind's desire for completion/perfection: the very spiritual quest for a perfect world where we can be supremely happy. I'd argue that science and technology are only a tiny part of the answer (despite our society's obsession with them) - the real answers will come from how we live together.
There is a second link. Despite our sense of adventure human-beings value security. In 1999 very few of us feel secure. The only way we feel we can get to a secure place is to move.
[My musings on security lead me to fantasising about owning a TARDIS. It is a powerful symbol. More impregnable and intensely private than a castle, with as much room as you'd ever need for precious things and memories. And at the same time a small part of the world - and able to move freely about it. In a mad ever-changing cosmos there is a still point - a home. The TARDIS combines both freedom and security. (I have found the TARDIS to be a powerful metaphor for the mind - but that is for another essay).]
Most of us don't have a house filled with yuppie artefacts - because we don't have a yuppie income.
But the consumerist culture can take hold - and we might find ourselves longing to replace what we have with something more contemporary and stylish.
This temptation must be challenged!
The primary feature of postmodernism, my arts-minded friends tell me, is the reiteration of the past (like fractal reflections at differing scales) - the breaking apart of all previous cultural references & the creative recombining of them into new structures. It is like the Simpsons making casual allusions to movies, other TV shows, or to historic events or persons.
It is a new creature made from selected elements of the old - and which acknowledges those elements.
The commonest TV or advertising motif is the expression of the moment - houses with all the latest furnishings or models in all the latest fashions. (This serves to foster the "Cult of the New" because we see these images and can't help but notice how behind-the-times our own things are.)
In SF likewise we can have sterile cities of the 22nd century - where every building is of the same age and fits into the one overall design.
This is an ideal, and I'd say a highly undesirable one! With the expression of the moment there is always the pressure to keep pushing the envelope of artefacts forward in time - and it never never stops!
It is - temporally - one-dimensional! (A line that keeps moving...forwards...forwards.)
Real life (and British SF) isn't like that. We are living in post-modernist two-dimensional temporal space.
It is grand! It is like we are living in a tapestry space of many decades of time. In my abode my computer is from the 1990s, my CD-player from 1987, my speakers from 1978, my dining table and chairs from the early 1970s, my desk from the 1960s, my chest of drawers from the late 1940s, and my favourite chair from the 1930s. I have human artefacts reaching back to the time when Jesus was a carpenter, and rocks from before the Jurassic age.
I revel in this two-dimensional temporal space - (past and present coexisting) - and you might too. Don't fret because you don't have the latest of everything - enjoy contemplating the history of the objects you do have.
A true postmodernist will creatively combine the old & the new - 1930s dishes and a 1990s computer. In resisting the "Cult of the New", we are choosing instead our own richly textured present. We are not heading uncritically into the future - but actively choosing what new things we will embrace, and what old things we wish to retain.
Each of us can construct our own unique post-modernist world, based on our own very individual preferences.
Copyright © 1999 by Michael F. Green. All rights reserved.
Last Updated: 26 June 2003