Pursuing repetition in a world of novelty and spectacle

When I assign full books for my classes to read, one complaint I hear consistently from students is this: the book is too repetitive – the author keeps making the same point over and over. I admit to having similar thoughts at times where I wonder if a book could have been ten pages long and effectively made the same argument.

Yet, one of the jobs of an author is to remind their reader of their argument. Readers should not easily get lost. I distinctly remember my eighth grade Language Arts teacher telling us that we need to keep restating our argument. Granted, the author should do this in new ways each time.

Is the problem then that the book authors are indeed too repetitive or are we today less interested in repetition? A Foreward of a recent book I read included these lines:

But the best books aren’t the ones that have all brand new information. We don’t have context for that. Instead, we need new voices telling us old things…

Many of the questions that vex humans are not new ones, even if their form might change. The quote above is from a book about living in the suburbs. Even though suburbs in the current American form have been around about 100 years (thinking about suburbs based around driving and featuring mass-produced housing), the questions are similar: how does one find fulfillment? What leads to lasting success? What is the good life?

But, how do you answer such questions if modern life is about new experiences and novelty? Perhaps this is supposed to be an answer to those questions: the good life involves new adventures and change.

Or, perhaps repetition helps answer these big questions. Patterns. Habits. Consistent behaviors. Rituals. In a religious setting, liturgies. Novelty can be good but what is it anchored in? Can humans truly go from topic to topic or experience to experience without anchoring beliefs?

Repetition can be hard to get excited about yet it is a regular feature of our lives. Washing the dishes. Regular interactions with people. Doing the laundry. Making food. The activities may not be exciting and novel but they do help form us.

Going back to the book example, repetition is good. Having read many books and written pieces, I am not sure exactly when an author crosses a line between good repetition and annoying repetition. However, maybe we all need a little more repetition of good arguments, experiences, and patterns.

The age of “neophilia”

A new book cites a sociologist who says we are in a world of “neophilia”:

We are addicted to new products, say Botsman and Rogers. They cite Colin Campbell, a professor of sociology at the University of York, for the diagnosis – that we suffer from ‘neophilia,’ where novelty seeking is the new phenomenon. “Pre-modern societies tend to be suspicious of the novel. It is a feature of modernity that we are addicted to novelty.”

As a stark example of how obsolescence was built into our minds, the book traces the tale of how GM’s Alfred Sloan launched Chevrolet by convincing his team ‘to restyle the body covering of what was essentially a nine-year-old piece of technology under the banner of product innovation.’ The Chevrolet was a remarkable success and the idea of ‘perceived obsolescence’ and ‘change for change’s sake’ was born, the authors note.

“GM went so far as to define its strategy as choreographed cosmetic ‘upgrades’ to ‘Keep the Consumer Dissatisfied.’ In 1929, Charles Kettering, director of research for Sloan, wrote an article declaring, ‘The key to economic prosperity is the organised creation of dissatisfaction…’”

Of course, this obsolescence means more products are sold. It would be intriguing to be privy to some of the conversations corporations must have about particular products: “do we make it a little cheaper so the consumer has to buy a similar product sooner or do we aim for a higher reliability rating in Consumer Reports“? (Do the reliability rankings in Consumer Reports necessarily correspond with the longevity of products or how long consumers hold on to them?)

The contrast between the pre-modern and modern world is interesting: we moderns are skeptical of tradition and conservatism. Does this mean “neophilia” is a product of the Enlightenment?

Facebook loses users in the US, UK – what does it mean?

Facebook has had a meteoric rise – but there are some signs that the growth is slowing:

Fearing for their privacy or perhaps just bored with using the site, 100,000 Britons are said to have deactivated their accounts last month.

And Facebook fatigue seems to be catching. Six million logged off for good in the U.S. too, figures show.

Worldwide, the rate of growth has slowed for a second month in a row – and as it aims to reach its goal of one billion active users, Facebook is having to rely on developing countries to boost its numbers…

‘By the time Facebook reaches around 50 per cent of the total population in a given country, growth generally slows to a halt,’ [Eric Eldon] explained.

This article is rife with speculation: users could be upset with privacy, people could be fatigued or bored with Facebook, etc. Here are a few of these scenarios with my own thoughts:

1. There are only so many people in the world who will use Facebook anyway. It requires using the Internet consistently, whether this is by computer or some mobile device. While it may be “normal” for the younger generations (though the user rate is not 100% here either), it is used less by older generations (even though there has been growth among these sectors). I wonder what sort of saturation point Facebook itself predicted.

1a. Is it really a big deal if Facebook’s growth is now concentrated in developing countries? Is this really any different than many other American companies?

1b. Perhaps we have entered Facebook’s “mature” stage where they can no longer coast based on word-of-mouth and spectacular growth and now need to fight for new users. How long until we see Facebook TV ads trying to entice new users?

2. The article suggests the novelty of Facebook might be wearing off. Perhaps it doesn’t have enough new features – even though the changes in recent years have induced much hand-wringing, it really hasn’t changed that much. Perhaps it has too many people on there and is no longer exclusive enough – this point was driven home by The Social Network as the Winklevoss’ started with a plan to capitalize on the exclusivity of Harvard.

2a. I wonder if Facebook itself is happy with the progress it has made. On one hand, it could generate a lot of money based on targeted advertising. On the other hand, there is some evidence that Zuckerberg wishes it was much more open than it is now. Even though there are no more networks, many people are still tied to friends and acquaintances and don’t wander too far beyond this. How do you connect these newer users around the world to established users or would this be a no-go among users?

2b. The day-to-day novelty of the product should consist of what one’s friends add to the site. Without interesting status updates, pictures, news, and more, what else draws users? Farmville? Making a “friend” connection is one thing – but this is not too interesting if neither side adds new information. So beyond vanity, how can users be provoked to add more?

3. I don’t really buy the privacy argument. Some people are concerned but they are concerned about privacy in a lot of other places as well. If people were really worried about privacy, there would be a lot of things that they wouldn’t do on the Internet, let alone Facebook.

4. Perhaps some people are interested in the story of Facebook losing steam. After all, a narrative where Facebook keeps rising might not be that interesting. How long until we see more stories about competitors to Facebook, like Twitter in the US, or Orkut elsewhere?

5. These numbers regarding the loss of users have no context: how do they compare to similar figures from previous time periods? Is this an increase in the number of users who have left? Certainly, not all users have continued with Facebook after joining.

Seeing TV tropes as a kind of programming language

A new season of television is nearly upon us. Some of the new shows will survive, many will not. Most of the shows will draw upon established television tropes. (How many procedural shows do we need??)

In the midst of these tropes, Scott Brown of Wired suggests we shouldn’t expect novelty but instead should look for something else:

But here’s an original thought. Let’s embrace the standard semantics of tropery—let’s stop seeing a welter of clichés and instead call it what it is: a programming language. The site [tvtropes.org] was launched by a computer programmer, and the coder’s ethos comes through: Seeing all of TV (and film and literature and theater and manga) history written in Trope, you begin to understand how these story widgets—standard, reusable parts like phonemes or Legos or the basic codons of DNA—can be arranged and rearranged to create something unique.

This is an interesting perspective – instead of focusing on what is being repeated, viewers should examine how writers and producers use their creativity to rearrange the existing pieces of the existing television corpus.

This article reminds me of some other recent news, particularly that about college students and plagiarism. What some research has found is that some students have difficulty accepting the argument for intellectual property; they see content as sharable and open. What matters more then is taking existing content and putting it together in new ways.

Brown suggests “originality is dead.” I hope not. But perhaps taking his advice will make watching similar-but-slightly-different television shows more palatable.