A meditation on the importance of old stuff

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Why is it that people obsess so much over novelty? Whether it is electric cars, artificial everything, genetic wizardry, information, or the newest iPhone, one could almost say that there exists a form of novelty psychosis, an incurable collective case of neomania, the love of all things modern, for its own sake.

And it is not new. A search in google turns up Victorian obsessions with flying policemen and postmen, automatic learning, vacuum-cleaners and appliances for “remote viewing”. Wondering about what can be invokes an pleasant and adventurous feeling to an otherwise drab daily life. Leonardo DaVinci would agree that turning on the fantasizing machine creates a fun-filled and rich existence. But where DaVinci was a doer and a builder, most people get stuck in the “for its own sake” modus, and just keep on updatin’, renewin’, and replacin’ stuff.

Merely cosmetic

Most of the time updates and new features are merely cosmetic. One can say that, despite the fact that the phone has been invented a long time ago, the newer versions are not so different from the very first telephones. The basic function still is that you can have a long-distance conversation. And that’s it. One look in a modern kitchen tells you that you still need pans, pots, a heat-source, and utensils for stirring the porridge. Just like in classical times.

Same with cars. Or personal computers. Even the future of energy is based on centuries old wind-mills. You see not many really thrilling changes in most of the current (technological) inventions. There is the impulse to buy a new thing, but eventually the new item looses its novelty, and you return to your baseline of well-being. Like you were before you bought the item.

Hedonistic follies

The Hedonic Treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation, is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. According to this theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness. This includes more impulse buying, more status games, and more general nervousness. The result: less well-being.

Novelty psychosis in the past

The old is superior to the new

Interestingly, this treadmill effect does not hold up with the acquiring of classical art, antiques, old books, or other non-digital, non-3D-printable things. When an artifact is unique, the result of skilled handiwork, a product of fine craftsmanship, or it is something that survived a long period, the higher level of happiness is lasting. Don’t take my word for it. Psychologist Daniel Kahnemann did extensive research into this topic.

Nowhere is this effect more visible, than in architecture. Cities used to form in an organic, fractal manner. There is the town square with a church, and houses where built around it. It grew as an living social organism, with a soul. Nowadays, urban planning is top-down, and thought-out on the drawing-board by well-meaning idealists. The result is a contemporary social architecture that is smooth, non-fractal, generally unwrinkled. It feels dead and soulless. Compare this to the richness and frivolity of old buildings and European inner cities. Fractal growth, whether in cities or in individual houses, has an organic quality, which syncs nicely with humanity.

Journalist Christopher Caldwell saw it well, when he wrote that “Le Corbusier called houses machines for living. France’s housing projects, as we now know, became machines for alienation.” Or you can ask any inhabitant of Lelystad, the Netherlands.

Learning to slow down, or…

In futuristic projections almost anything that was imagined never took place. When one looks past the cosmetic changes, it becomes clear that the future will look closer to our world than we often like to think. That might be because the future, like the present and the past, will be inhabited by our desires. We tend to over-technologize it. And whether we like it or not, our desires still are – after two million years of evolution – a product of our passions and our senses.

Learning to go back

Techno-thinkers and techno-tinkerers tend to have an “engineered mind”, analogue to a computer. they seem to be under the influence of certain autistic tendencies. It is smart to keep in mind that unconditional neomania goes hand-in-hand with a denigration of history. And with that the proverbial baby is thrown out with the bathwater. Gone is the connection with the elders, the connection with the past, one’s roots. Burned are the bridges to pure, uncomplicated times.

It is easy to forget that the past is a better teacher about the future, than the present. Everything that survived longer periods, is superior to the newer and to the younger. Recent inventions still have to proof whether they will survive into a ripe old age. Time will tell if something is worthy.

What survives, must be good at serving some purpose, that only time can see.