A bright look at our fascination with the new and different.
Gallagher (Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, 2009, etc.) examines how we deal with the ever-increasing amount of novelty and rate of change in our lives. Since the 18th century, when the technology of the Industrial Revolution converged with the ideas of the Enlightenment, the new and novel have played a soaring role in Western society. “We already crunch four times more data—e-mail, tweets, searches, music, video, and traditional media—that we did just 30 years ago,” writes the author, “and this deluge shows no signs of slackening.” Given our affinity for novelty, we are in danger of becoming so distracted by trivial yet instantly gratifying new things that we no longer focus selectively on the important things that help us adapt to change. We must learn to manage our neophilia, or affinity for novelty. Drawing on studies and interviews with social scientists and others, the author offers evidence that the brain is actually a “novelty-seeking machine” and that about 25 percent of Westerners of European descent have a gene linked to robust novelty seeking. While the author’s discussion of our penchant for the gratifying novelty of the most trivial matters will be familiar to many readers, she offers many interesting observations: taking a short break during sex and other pleasurable activities allows you to re-experience the activity’s novel delights, and society strongly influences whether neophilia is a vice or a virtue (with early Christianity discouraging an enquiring mind, and the Age of Reason encouraging it). The information age, begun in the 1960s, brought better, easier access to more kinds of data; the digital revolution has taken the novelty boom up a notch, leaving many chronically distracted and less able to engage in deep thought. Gallagher points to the age-old remedy of moderation and notes neophilia will undoubtedly prove valuable in a future where the only certainly is constant change.
Engaging and cautionary.