Neophobia is not new
Neophobia, fear of the new, is not new. No doubt some wag in some cave was asking their kids to ‘put those axes away, they’ll be the death of you’. From Socrates, who thought that writing was an ill-advised invention, people have reacted with predictable horror to every piece of new technology that hits the street. It happened with writing, parchments, books, printing, newspapers, coffee houses, letters, telegraph, telephone, radio, film, TV, railways, cars, jazz, rock n’ roll, rap, computers and now the internet and especially social media. The idea that some new invention rots the mind, devalues the culture, even destroys civilisation is an age-old phenomenon.
I’m with Stephen Pinker who sees neophobia as the product of superficial reaction about cognition that conflates “content with process”. The mind and human nature is not that malleable and obviouslyly not subject to any real evolutionary change in such a short period of time (I say this as I’ve heard the word ‘evolve’ in such questions). Sure the mind is plastic but not a blank slate waiting to be filled out with content from the web. It is far more likely that the neophobes themselves are unthinking victims of the familiar destructive syndrome of neophobia, than our kids.
Neophobia as a brake on progress
Thomas Kuhn and the evolutionist Wilson, saw neophobia as a brake on human thinking and progress, as individuals and institutions tend to work within paradigms, encouraging ‘groupthink’ which makes people irrationally defensive and unsupportive of new ideas and technologies. As Bertrand Russell said, “Every advance in civilisation was denounced as unnatural while it was recent”. Religion, for example, has played a significant role in stalling scientific discovery and progress, from the denial of the fact that the earth rotates around the sun to the position of women in society and medical research. Education is a case in point.
Neophobia as a medical and social condition
Interestingly, the medical evidence suggests that neophobia, as a medical condition, is commoner in the very young, especially with new foods and then the elderly, who have deeply established habits or expectations that they may see under threat. It fades throughout childhood and flips in adolescence when the new is seen as risky and exciting. Then it gradually returns, especially during parenthood, and into our old age. It is a cycle, with parents bemoaning the lack of interest of their children in what they enjoy, forgetting the fact that their parents had exactly the same reactions, as did theirs. To see this as predictable neophobia, is the rational response.
Tool of our tools
Neophobia exaggerates the role of technology. Have we ‘become the tool of our tools’ as Thoreau would have us believe? There is something in this, as recent research suggests that tool production in the early evolution of our species played a significant role in cognitive development and our adaptive advantage as a species. So far, so good. But far from shaping minds, the more recent internet is largely being shaped by minds. Social media has flourished in response to a human need for user-generated content, social communication and sharing. Input devices have become increasingly sensitive to human ergonomics and cognitive expectations, especially natural language processing through voice.
That is not to say that what we use on the web is in some way neutral. Jaron Lanier and others do expose the intrinsic ways software shapes behaviour and outcomes. But it is not the invisible hand of the devil. All technology has a downside. Cars kill, but no one is recommending that we ban them.
The internet, as Pinker explains, is not fundamentally changing ‘how we think’ in any deep sense. It is largely speeding up findings answers to our questions through search, Wikipedia, YouTube etc., speeding up communications through email, whatsapp, whatever. Speeding up commerce and fundraising. It provides scale and everyone can benefit.
A particulary incisdious version of neophobia are those who secretly use it but in public despise it. For years I’ve read dull journos and TV presenters decry social media, then seen them fall over each other to get their ‘follower’ numbers up on twitter. The duplicity is astonishing. Rather than see it as part of their profession, they saw it as the enemy – big mistake.
There’s many types of the all-too-common, social medianeophobia. It’s usually a sneer. I’m OK with you not being on Facebook, I’m not OK with you telling me an idiot because I am. First they often know nothing about the medium, assume it has nothing but cat videos and don’t know about the links, the chat fucntion and don’t really know that the Wikipedia they so often use was crowdsourced. Second, the lurkers who sneer but always seem to know what you’ve posted. What’s wrong with these people? I don’t mind lurking, I do mind sneering lurkers.
We have the late, great Douglas Adams to thank for this stunning set of observations:
1) Everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;
2) Anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;
3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.