New and Improved

Chaos in Print

I’ll never forget one of the lessons taught to me by my junior high Social Studies teacher. Somehow, he got off on a rant about “new.” “People are suckers for the words ‘new,’” he said. “If it’s got that word ‘new’ on it, people will go for it. The new car, the new clothes,” and then he glared at me and filled his voice with his trademark venom. “The new Star Trek movie.” What can I say? It was 1991 and the only thing I was talking about was the upcoming Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. But, at least to me, he made his point. What is it about “new” that gets people all swept up? Why are they so focused on making things newer? There are many examples of this. Trouble over in China recently made the comment that Chinese people think Canada is a much better country, because everything here is so “new,” compared to their classical buildings built 600 years ago. But let me present a case study much closer to home.

I’m living at home with my parents. I own a DVD player, and have a modest DVD collection. There are many nights when there isn’t anything good on TV and I’ll throw one of my discs into the player. And that always leads to my father’s heavy sighing and constant complaint: “Are you watching this again?” Mr. Anderson recently visited me, and we watched An Evening With Kevin Smith, throughout which my father heavily sighed and my mother begged us to let her watch something on TV. When I returned Mr. Anderson home, he said to me, “Boy, your parents really don’t like Kevin Smith, do they?” Well, it’s not Kevin Smith they don’t like. It’s DVDs. Thanks to me, they had to watch An Evening With Kevin Smith a third time! My parents would much rather watch the newest episode of Law & Order: Bylaw Enforcement Unit than be subjected to the greatest movie ever made…again. Seeing a movie twice is one too many times for them. When it comes to entertainment, “new” is the only thing they’ll tolerate.

Well, that’s not completely true. Dad always complains about my taste in animation and always holds up the brilliance of Looney Tunes. And Mom makes us watch The Sound of Music every Christmas. So there are some old things they tolerate. But they are highly indicative of the problem.

Movies nowadays are made or broken by their opening weekend grosses. It has become very, very, very unusual for a movie to make more money it’s second week out. Fast food restaurants have some kind of “new” burger every month. My parents, too, are addicts for the “new” cop show. So why?

Mr. Anderson and I actually had this conversation a few months back. The conclusions we came to was that “new” has some form of connotation meaning “better.” Obviously, if it’s new, then that means they took what was old and made it better, right? But then we started to split hairs. There is also a bit of a comfort factor with “new.” People are always quick to snap up the newest product from their favourite artists, but they’re more reluctant to embrace a new artist. So, even when it comes to new, there is a bit of a comfort zone.

Which is why we’ve got the current trend of trying to fix brand names to everything. What would you rather drink? A new vanilla flavoured soft drink, or new Vanilla Coke? Thanks to this concept, we’ve got three colours of Mountain Dew, three flavours of Coke, four flavours of Pepsi, and even Mint Sprite, which has to be the most awful soft drink ever created. This is why my parents debate as to what their favourite Law & Order show, why, this fall, we’ll be subjected to a third CSI show, and why I have to put up with Star Trek Enterprise. It’s also why we’re currently being subjected to a spate of comic book audiences. It’s new, but it’s got a built in audience! People like new, but they don’t like different.

So how can we get people to try something that’s new and different? That breaks down to what my old high school English teacher called the “hundredth monkey syndrome.” I’m sure we’ve all heard of it. They did this study once where they watched monkeys on an island. Now these monkeys, they loved to eat potatoes. Then, one day, a monkey started taking his potatoes down to the beach and washing them before he ate them. He was alone in this for a while, and then a second monkey joined him. Then it was just those two for the longest time, and then a third, and so on. The number of monkeys who were washing their taters slowly increased over the years until, one day, 100 monkeys were washing their taters. The day after that, every monkey was washing their potatoes. So then, it’s often been speculated that there is a breaking point; a hundredth monkey that has to be reached before something becomes acceptable to a whole society. Something that’s new and different is no longer different once that hundredth monkey has been reached.

Now that’s all well and good, but I don’t care about taters. How do we get people to embrace things that are old and familiar? I just want people (i.e. my parents) to be able to embrace old things so I can watch my DVDs in peace. This also came up in my conversations with Mr. Anderson. Obviously, there is a first time for everything. No matter how old something is, it’s new to someone who’s experiencing it for the first time. Based on that, everything is new. Ergo, my parents should be willingly embracing my DVDs. And they do…the first time I watch it. After a second time, the DVD is no longer new, so why watch it again? The lack of surprise? No longer being ignorant of what happens next? The entertainment industry is so…disposable. Use it once, throw it away.

That must be the problem. We all grew up in 1980s, when disposable culture became en vogue.

But I just can’t think of a solution. The concept that new is better is firmly entrenched in the minds of society. The only way I can combat it is to sit down, fire up the DVD player, and put up with the disgruntled noises made by my parents as I watch Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country again. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll eventually embrace the fact that old can be just as good as new.

Can you believe that? The new, 2-disc special edition of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country comes out in just a few short days. Somewhere, my old junior high Social Studies teacher is laughing.

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