Curiosity is not a uniquely human trait. One only has to look at lion cubs exploring their habitats to see this. But what makes humans unique is that a result of what is known as neoteny, a biological principle where human adults retain juvenile characteristics, we remain curious throughout our lives. As a result, we are automatically drawn to novelty–when we see something new and shiny, we need to define it, to ascertain whether it is something of value, interest, danger or indifference.
This continued curiosity has driven culture forwards, because curiosity fuels learning, exploration and development. It has led us to amazing discoveries and powered art, literature and music. The idea of seeking out the new is at the heart of all humanity’s great stories- from Beowulf seeking out Grendel, to Alice following Mr Rabbit. And as such it is something to be valued. In the words of Stewart Lee, don’t trust anyone who ‘were they to find themselves locked for sixty years in an empty underground bunker which contained nothing but a wooly tea cosy, would not be curious enough to see if the tea cosy would make a serviceable hat.’
Culture and marketing has utilised this to its advantage. For years, Private Eye has had a regular feature called ‘The Neophiliacs’, in which it gathers comments from journalists and broadcasters proclaiming x to be the new y. The fact that they’re able to fill this every week says something about the amount of exposure we have on a daily basis to the idea of the ‘new’. Anyone who has worked in any form of marketing for longer than a week will know power of ‘new news’, of a pack redesign, or ‘new and improved’ messaging. Brands have long invested in the new over their core values and offering.
But in recent times our exposure to the new has become overpowering. The internet in our pocket; social media; 24 hour news. What was once a new and exciting thing has become a dominant part of our daily lives. And it seems as though this onslaught of the new has dulled our appetite for it. Nostalgia and retrophilia dominates the cultural landscape of millennials, from our music to design to food, shown by sales of vinyl reaching a 25 year high in 2016.
We see this in successful brands, from the permanence of the Swoosh and Just Do It to the shape of the Tabasco bottle. Successful new brands, like Fever Tree, increasingly try to suggest a sense of authenticity and value rather than novelty. New restaurants and bars deliberately cultivate an atmosphere of authenticity by using second hand and deliberately mismatched furniture.
What this shows, is not that people don’t care about new things, but instead that new for new’s sake is not enough. What people care about is meaning- they want the things the own, buy and do to have value, rather than just be a shiny distraction. There is so much new out there, the key is to ensure that new means something.