Novelty and Capitalism

Many people have noted that innovation in the modern world is slowing down. If you look at the technological progress made from 1920 to 1970, compared to the fifty years following, it’s clear. There have been fewer major innovations. Peter Thiel was hoping for flying cars but all he got was 144 characters. There are a host of explanations for this slowdown. One that perhaps hasn’t been proposed before is based on novelty. Perhaps companies have discovered how much we like novelty, and have decided to simply amuse us, instead of inventing new stuff.

Novelty is an important driver of human behavior. Looking at the logo of a new brand, new fashions displayed in a store window, or even new messages on our phones, gives us a tiny jolt of pleasure. Modern technologies seem to give us these jolts without end — our days are a constant stream of texts, tweets and videos. The constant proliferation of this novelty is one of the things we tout as evidence of our superior market economy. Think of a world without novelty and bland soviet Russia or communist China comes to mind — places where everyone wore the same clothes, and ate the same food.

Recent research has shown that dopamine is released in our brain when we experience anything new. In other words, there is actual physical pleasure accompanying something as banal as a new logo. This isn’t just true of humans. Dangle a piece of string for a cat, and it’s enthralled. Every ounce of its being is focused on that piece of string. Dangle it a second time. The cat is still interested, but less so. Dangle it a third time. The cat is bored. But dangle the string from a new position, and the whole performance starts again. Is this because cats are stupid? Having owned lots of cats, we would have to say yes, at least partly. But there’s more going on. It’s the novelty of the situation that captivates them. When the novelty wears off, they lose interest. We can see the same thing with fashion (not with cats — they seem oblivious). A new look is spellbinding, but eventually people get tired of it. But then the next new thing is introduced, and people are enthralled again. Wait long enough, and you can re-introduce something people saw before, to rapturous reviews. Everything old is new again.

We experience this dopamine rush many times a day, first because of the normal variety of life, but also because companies use it to sell products. Advertising relies heavily on keeping our attention by exploiting our love of novelty. More recently, social media companies have perfected the use of novelty to keep us engaged. Next time you hear your phone buzz, pay close attention to how you feel. You’ll notice a tiny burst of pleasure. Companies also use new packaging in an endless attempt to keep us engaged. Why improve a product if you can just change the color of the box?

The pleasure of novelty isn’t unique to humans and cats. Many mammals have it, which suggests its origin. Taking an interest in everything that’s new probably confers a survival advantage. That new footprint in the sand might be a new kind of animal to hunt. Or it may be something that will hunt you. Regardless of which it is, it pays to investigate. Any animal that had a genetic mutation that caused this release of dopamine would be more likely to have offspring and pass on that mutation. Those that didn’t, were more likely to get eaten.

But what does all this have to do with innovation? We rely on capitalism to give us better products all the time. But something isn’t working. Many products aren’t as good. Innovation is slowing down. Perhaps novelty is to blame. Perhaps companies have discovered that “better” is hard, but “different” is not. As capitalism has developed, companies have become better at playing the game, and they’ve found a few shortcuts. They have discovered that all they have to do is put the same product in a new package. Could capitalism one day reach an end state where almost nothing is invented, and companies constantly reinvent the same things in different packages? That would be a disappointing end to capitalism — very few improvements in products, but lots of dopamine rushes. Because in the end, we’re all just cats chasing pieces of string.