The next new thing

We’re always looking for the next new thing. Not simply the new thing; not simply the newest thing. But the next new thing. We know that even after the latest new thing there will be another, the next one. We must always be ready for it, prepared for it. We may need to start now saving up money for it (e.g., the next smart phone). The next new thing, though we know not yet what it may be, already has inherent demand upon us because we think, intuitively, that whatever is new must be better in some way than the old, else why would anyone develop it?

Well, marketing and advertising are all about that, leading us to believe that every new change in the product (perhaps save the much bragged-about new packaging, see Packaged Pleasures: How Technology and Marketing Revolutionized Desire, Gary S. Cross) is developed for our benefit. The claim may be true but we are unable to evaluate it, to apply informed consent to the claim. For example, every update of software and hardware on my computer and my smart phone, comes with an description of the new qualities, sometimes even a tutorial. These may assert that the system will work better, although I had been unaware that what I had had was not working well. There may be new features, for example on the camera, which enable me to do creative things. I often wonder whether these result from some other consumer suggesting, “Hey, could you make a change to do this?”, or if from some engineer’s hunt for other uses for this technology, heretofore unimagined. We all know that some of the changes will be designed to gather ever more of our communications and records and photos into the “cloud” (a deliberately deceptive term evoking a wonderful ethereal, pure, light quality, even though the information is in a mechanical/electric massive piece of machinery somewhere in air conditioned vaults filled with thousands of other such energy-consuming storage devices), and reduce or manipulate our sense of privacy and possession. No informed consent here.

There are related memes: “adding value,” “elevating” something, e.g., a food dish, and “the next level.” Frequently, potential volunteers for various groups I sponsored, affirmed that they would participate only if they could “add value,” the popular expression at work. I supposed that they would add value, but perhaps not the way they expected. Perhaps their own character would deepen the moral and ethical quality of the work done in the group; or their presence would be so pleasant that others who were perhaps growing tired of the work would stay just to be in their company. Even had I not hoped that they might take the group in a new direction or an additional one, I would have viewed their presence as “adding value.” But perhaps not in the quantifiable way expected at work.

Does everything need to be elevated? I can see on TV food shows what that means, and I applaud it. But I am also aware of chefs who pride themselves on continuing to prepare dishes in a traditional way according to cultural norms or family recipes or both. I hear about these preserved traditions weekly on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Toronto “Metro Morning” broadcast of Suresh Doss’ explorations of local food places. Also, there is apprenticeship (see The World Beyond Your Head, Matthew B. Crawford): one learns how things have been done up to now, thoroughly subordinating oneself to that discipline, and then graduating to a place at which one can change, or improve the discipline. An example would be developing a new hand tool to accomplish a particular way of shaping wood, or even a power tool; or a new way of repairing organ pipes.

“Taking something to the next level,” invites similar comments as “elevated.” Should there be constant seeking for a next level? Is there an ultimate level, perhaps perfection?

 

The famous Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (see above photo of sculpture in front of Toronto headquarters of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) performed and recorded the “Goldberg Variations” early in his career, doing so with the precision for which he is famous. Later he did this again. Was this to get closer to a perfect interpretation, or because now he felt the music differently (which would not necessarily be perfection, nor a next level, but simply different) or because he thought there might be a next level, whether or not it might yet be perfection?

In considering “the next level”, my imagination is held by the metaphor of climbing a mountain. Must one do so to “conquer” it, i.e., get to the top? Or to see the other side? If the latter, is it not just as well to walk around the mountain, or walk up to only a certain level and then walk around it, and look on the other side? Is it necessary or even beneficial to go to the top, where probably you cannot bide? How about finding a nice place on the side at some level and staying there, getting to really know where you are rather than always trying to get somewhere else? You could settle there, learn how to live, enjoy what there is, and greet others as they go up and down the mountain. Maybe encourage others to stay near. Start a family, or a community. Establish a way-station or hotel. Perhaps this is just as good as, or better than, taking something to the next level. You see how this relates to the three memes I’ve discussed above.

We barely have time to begin to learn about the new thing before there is something newer. We may refrain from acquiring it (not the new phone/camera or computer, perhaps, until on-line support is dropped or repairs no longer possible, or the support systems and upgrades for the newer things overload our ancient models and render them almost useless). Or we may be unable to stop the installation of the next operating system update, even though it may exclude some older app still on our computer, or may interfere with it (although, honestly, sometimes the update after that one corrects this error – I have a scanning app which sometimes is rendered useless by one update, restored next time and perhaps even made to run better, then brought back to the lower performance by the subsequent update). No consent here, informed or otherwise. One feels pushed to consume.

I listened recently to a radio broadcast about pop culture. The people being interviewed were all participants in rap music and the rap culture. They explained that, coming from other countries and from minority cultures, they were “saved” by rap: something about the music and/or the culture which spawned it, brought them in, gave them a place to be and eventually, a place to make a living through their own artistic statements. The interviewer asked each of them whether they thought that some young people are influenced by the rap culture to do criminal acts, and violent acts. The answers were “unfortunately, yes.” Why? They each ascribed it somehow to the next new thing, the phenomenon which never allowed their young minds to take time to understand the moment, let alone get comfortable in it, take time to think about it, savour it, put it on like clothing and model it for a while, figure out how it helped them find their identity at a time of life when identity IS like putting on some clothing to see how you look and feel: CHOOSE it and consider the choice for a while. No. They know that there will be a next new thing; that they will hear about it from others who may grab it before they can (“be the first in your neighbourhood…”). They rush to be the next new thing. (See also Sherry Turkel’s Alone Together.)

At greatest risk of loss in all this is grace. I’ll deal with this topic exclusively in a later blog, but for now I want to describe it this way: an attitude or essence of character. It is a person`s clear ability, without being troubled by it, to allow you room for error or offence. A person with grace has enough reserve power, self-confidence, resilience, and good humour and affability, to be in your presence in such a way that you do not feel the person is judging you, feeling differently about you, feeling threatened by you, or in anyway not well disposed toward you. I often find grace in everyday life. It tends to happen in short spaces of time, is often unrecognized for what it is, and so ends before I have time to savour it. Guarding that small bit of time for grace in between all other doings can be life-saving. It gives the heart time to beat without working under pressure and anxiety. It gives everyone time to pull back from the fray. It provides space between us so that we are not always touching or wrestling with people or problems. There should be time for grace between every new thing.

The next new thing may be wonderful, helpful, a major improvement in one’s life. I am not advocating that people should avoid it; nor that we should forever prefer to remain where we are. But the absence of informed consent to the influence and perhaps even domination by the next new thing, is objectionable. Perhaps the phenomenon of returning to older things is a symptom of this – someone has enough time to evaluate the qualities of the new and compare these with what had been. They can acquire informed consent or dissent and decide for themselves what combinations of the new and the previous, they want in their lives. Examples are the return of film and print photography, vinyl records, use of paper and fountain pens, sending greeting cards, writing paper letters of thanks, and possessing a physical book rather than just an electronic version.

The danger of the next new thing is that it can seem to require that we forfeit informed consent altogether, that we race to keep up and never hope to take time to consider it. There would be great danger if we in a democracy were to succumb to this pressure altogether. The very threat of this recalls the danger of the “politics of eternity,” explored in my fifth blog, “Character in politicians.” We must resist the seeming inevitability of the next new thing by giving ourselves time to understand what the last new thing meant in our lives. We may miss the next new thing while examining the latest, and have to skip over the next one altogether, missing out on its qualities and benefits, in order to catch up with the next new thing being dropped on us from the assembly line. One may wonder whether the very fact of the next new thing means that the previous new thing really hadn’t offered much, and it was just as well to have given it a miss. Perhaps this is where futility lies, and waste. Consider, for a moment, the example of clothing: so much clothing is now manufactured at cheap prices, that many people possess clothing they never get around to wearing. Sensitive to the issues of pollution and waste, they donate them to used clothing operations which in turn try to meet the clothing needs of poor people. But eventually there is still clothing left over in excess of our ability to recycle it, and so it is simply burned, even while new clothing is manufactured. Exercising the right of informed consent may help us avoid such waste, and live more responsibly on the planet. Perhaps we can decide for ourselves (see Data for the People, by Andreas S. Wiegand) what we want developed next, and what we don’t want developed next, everything from electronics and computers to weapon systems and transportation devices, to clothing. Perhaps we need not only informed consent, but informed consent far in advance.

We must resist the seeming inevitability of the next new thing by giving ourselves time to understand what the last new thing meant in our lives. We may miss the next new thing while examining the latest, and have to skip over the next one altogether, missing out on its qualities and benefits, in order to catch up with the next new thing being dropped on us from the assembly line. One may wonder whether the very fact of the next new thing means that the previous new thing really hadn’t offered much, and it was just as well to have given it a miss. Perhaps this is where futility lies, and waste. Consider, for a moment, the example of clothing: so much clothing is now manufactured at cheap prices, that many people possess clothing they never get around to wearing. Sensitive to the issues of pollution and waste, they donate them to used clothing operations which in turn try to meet the clothing needs of poor people. But eventually there is still clothing left over in excess of our ability to recycle it, and so it is simply burned, even while new clothing is manufactured.

Exercising the right of informed consent may help us avoid such waste, and live more responsibly on the planet. Perhaps we can decide for ourselves (see Data for the People, by Andreas S. Wiegand) what we want developed next, and what we don’t want developed next, everything from electronics and computers to weapon systems and transportation devices, to clothing. Perhaps we need not only informed consent, but informed consent far in advance.

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