February 29, 2012

Staff Picks: The New Theseus and Novelty Minotaur

By: Dylan Schleicher @ 7:44 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

Theseus was always in search of his next adventure, choosing to travel overland to meet his father in Athens so he could clear the road of its notorious monsters and villains (such as Procrustes, who business book readers may recognize from Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Bed of Procrustes) rather than taking the safer sea route suggested by his grandfather. And when he learned that Athens was sending seven young men and seven women in war tribute each year to be devoured by the Minotaur—the half-bull, half man pet monster of the cruel King Minos of Crete—he decided he would be one of the fourteen to go, that he would try to rid the world of yet another monster.

Winifred Gallagher's recently released New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change, explains the tendencies each of us has (or lacks) for novelty and new experiences—or neophilia—and what those tendencies mean for each of us and our collective future. The author identifies three personality types—neophiliacs, neophiles, and neophones—which have three different levels of affinity for "the new." Neophiliacs passionately, sometimes addictively pursue new technologies and experiences, while Neophobes actively avoid them, preferring to stick to the safety and known outcomes of their routine. Each of these extremes accounts for around 10 percent to 15 percent of the population, leaving most of us reading the book from the comfortable middle as neophiles—not scared of too much change nor bored by too little, neither first adapters nor Luddites.

The story of New is the story of human progress, and the first part of the book explores the origins and evolution of our neophilia. As Gallagher puts it: "As we've moved from the epoch of hunter-gatherers—the vast majority of our time as a species—to the agricultural, industrial, and information ages, our neophilia has changed and developed with us." It's a story given greater depth from recent advances in neuroscience and and increased understanding of how the brain functions—advances that are well documented and made easy-to-understand in the book. Early on, Gallagher helps us begin to view our brains less as an impartial data crunchers and more as surprise detectors, focusing on what's new and different in the world around us, reacting to the dangers and opportunities presented. This has profound implications for how we understand the world, shapes our interactions with and reactions to it. As Gallagher explains it:
The main reason you're drawn to the novel or surprising is that it can upset the safe, predictable status quo and the game plan you've based on it, perhaps even jeopardizing your survival. [...] To survive, you must be aroused by the new and different. To be efficient and productive, however, you must focus your finite mental energy and attention on those novel sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings that somehow matter and screen out the rest. Just as arousal alerts and orients you to new things, the complementary process of adaptation helps you filter out the unimportant ones.
This has been critically important not just for how we understand the world and evolve as a group, but for how we develop as individual personalities. So, the second part of the book focuses on our personal inclinations for novelty and what that means for us as individuals. Ms. Gallagher writes that "The tendency either to approach or avoid novelty is the most important stable behavioral difference among individuals in the same species, period." But it is not just orientation to and adaption of novelty that is important, it is the adaption to and reorientation of perception, the ability to reinterpret, to find something unknown in what most assumed was already known, to find something novel in what has become commonplace. It is how we innovate in the arts, in the sciences, in business. Gallagher offers up the example of Einstein:
Einstein's ability to interpret the same old math and science that his peers knew by heart in bold new ways testifies to his virtuosity in ... neophilic, uninhibited, right-brain thinking. As [Oshin Vartanian, a psychologist at Defense Research and Development Canada-Toronto] says, "Novelty-seeking is talked about as if there's a novel object out there somewhere that you find, but usually it's the perceiver who has to interpret it as novel. Creative people can see things in a fresh way and produce new ideas because they can relax the usual perceptual and conceptual constraints that define entities."
That holds true in every field and for almost every innovation. The author could have just as easily used the example of Steve Jobs in consumer technology, Pablo Picasso in the arts, or Bill James in baseball to illustrate her point. Each found new dimensions to explore in an established order, exploded preconceptions, and altered the fields they worked in (and the culture) forever.

Even here, though, in the exploration of psychology, human temperament and how individuals can shape the culture, there are stories of how the culture around us shapes our neophilia. One such example is illustrated by the fascinating etymology of words such as "curiosity" and "interesting." Rarely used before, the words became more commonplace with the increased number of, and time for, "curiosities" and objects of "interest" during the the industrial revolution. These novelties became so commonplace that the lack of such distraction began to equal "boredom," a term that didn't appear in the English language until the later eighteenth century. Since then, boredom has gone from being viewed as an individual vice to the natural state of man, with a steady stream of new inventions and entertainments devised to feed our neophilia.

This brings us to third part of the book, which explores how our environment shapes our neophilia and what the digital information revolution is doing to it. Technology has gone from something that simply helps us cultivate and navigate the world to become a labyrinth of consumer choice and novelty that needs to be cultivated and navigated in its own right. The complexities range from information overload—we now have access to more information than we'll ever need, want, or use at our literal fingertips every waking moment of our lives, and it can now take us hours just to check our mail everyday—to navigating a world we're increasingly living online, creating a lot of "something's gotta give" dilemmas.

The simplest one concerns a basic quality shared by all living things: responsiveness to the environment around you. As you know if you've had a run-in on the sidewalk or highway with someone who was engrossed in his or her wonder phone, you can't live in a screen and the real world at the same time.
These seem like modern annoyances that come in tandem with modern conveniences, but at some point we have to reevaluate whether it's all even convenient anymore—what with all the overload and distraction these devices are producing. And all the while it's changing the way our brains are wired and societies are structured. We're creating a new Minotaur, half man, half bull to navigate. Gallagher sums up the difficulty we now face.
The larger problem that underlies the pursuit of new things just because they're new isn't the waste of time and money per se but the fact that we've lost touch with neophilia's purpose. This great gift isn't meant to push us to buy stuff we don't need or seek constant entertainment but to help us adapt to change, from the economy's volatility to the climate crisis, and learn about and create useful new things. [...] Like the agricultural age's plow and the industrial age's steam engine, the information age's electronics have changed the human experience as previous generations have known it. Just as we once focused our neophilia on advancing the ways of life enabled by farming, and then by powerful machines that mass-produced goods, we're now concentrating it on processing and organizing all kinds of electronic data that are the foundations of our work and play. Like the upheavals that preceded it, this revolution is already propelling us into the next phase of our cultural if not quasibiological evolution. If we're to make the best use of our neophilia in a new epoch of endless novelty, we must make conscious decisions to ensure that it's working for us, rather than the other way around.
The bells and whistles can be incredibly invigorating, entertaining and even helpful, but it's important to step away from time to time to make sure the technologies we adapt into our everyday lives serve their intended purpose—to help us stop the needless yearly sacrifice of Athenian youths to the man-beast Minotaur. Or as Gallagher more accurately and succinctly puts it:
Our capacity for handling new things is already being tested by an unprecedented explosion of them. Figuring out how to respond to this embarrassment of riches by becoming more productive rather than more distracted is easier if you understand a few basics of how and why you brain reacts to new things.
It is not that the digital revolution is inherently good or bad for us or our businesses—it's not, or it's both. Or it can be either depending on how we use it. It can distract us or make us more efficient. As Nicholas Carr writes in The Shallows, Douglas Rushkoff talks about in Program or Be Programmed, and Charles Duhigg will teach us in his upcoming book The Power of Habit, we have to be conscious of how we're being conscious. We have to mindful of what we're mindful of. We have to make a habit out of forming good habits. Add Winifred Gallagher to that important chorus of voices, and let's hope their song is catchy enough to get stuck in people's heads.

Before entering the Labyrinth to battle the Minotaur, King Minos's daughter Ariadne became smitten with Theseus and his cause, and gave him a ball of thread so that he could find his way out again if he could indeed defeat the beast. In this book, our neophilia is our Theseus and Winifred Gallagher our Ariadne, showing us deep into the labyrinthine structure of our brains, our culture, and our technologies, helping us explode myths and misconceptions along the way, and unraveling just enough thread for us to find our way out again with a more complete understanding of ourselves and the moment we find ourselves in.

About Dylan Schleicher

Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.