Novelty does not necessarily belong to the new. Not anymore. Novus, as the word’s etymological root, means “new” quite explicitly, but it also means “original” or “unusual”. The newness of novelty is not absolute.
Increasingly, we might define a novelty as that which has either escaped or is newly present within the typical order of things. As the new stagnates in its postmodern crisis, we find that novelty is as applicable to the tired cliché as it is to a bold new mode of expression.
As a result, Arthur C. Clarke’s assertion that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” begins to lose its potency. Now it is more often the case that any sufficiently redundant technology is indistinguishable from magic also. Our most mundane analogue mediums are transformed by the passage of time into weird objects – not nostalgic objects but objects utterly decontextualised.
Old objects acquire a new power. They become relics, in the true sense of the world – the spiritually potent yet abandoned remains of old ideals.
Occasionally, this process provides older generations with an opportunity to laugh at their youngers, who are oblivious to the cultural power captured within these relics. There are countless videos online, for instance, in which we see parents give their children a VHS tape or a Walkman or something similar and ask them to guess how it worked. What is always captivating about these videos is that, whilst the children’s guesses as to what a given object is for may be way off the mark, their logic is often sound; they are simply approaching a past object from the perspective of an unfolding present.
“A VHS tape is for watching movies”, someone might say, offering up a clue. “Well, where’s the screen?” the child asks in response, curiously turning this opaque rectangle over and over in their hands.
We might interpret this hypothetical child’s attempt at reasoning to be a fine use of their imagination but, as François Bonnet has argued, “Contrary to popular belief, children do not have excessive imaginations.” In fact, when confronted by new sensations and experiences, “a child rapidly runs up against the limit of his imagination, then finds himself before the most radical, the most terrifying unknown.” This is most evident when a child hears something go bump in the night but, when confronted with the cultural artefacts of a previous generation, the situation is more complex. We don’t see terror but curiosity; the terror is instead projected onto them from anxious adults that corral around.
Consider the video above. The children’s innocent reactions to this strange object – a Walkman – are perfectly understandable; the incredulous adults betray a potent anxiety that lingers behind their smiles. After all, these children may not know how a Walkman works but they remain “digital natives”, always-already at home with technologies that baffle their elders.
One of the adults shares a telling anecdote in this regard, adding that his daughter recently went on his laptop and started jabbing at the screen, thinking it was touch-sensitive. “She is too used to her tablet”, he laughs, shaking his head with an obligatory and knowingly-clichéd “kids these days!”
But this clip was first uploaded online six years ago. At the time of writing, the screen of the laptop I am writing on is touch-sensitive.
Can we go so far as to argue that the contemporary intuitions of children predict the future? To watch them mocked, no matter how gently, is to see the joke backfire. A child’s lack of imagination with regards to the past comes full circle as adults find themselves just as incapable of imagining the possibilities of the present. In this sense, Bonnet’s description of a child’s terror and uncertainty when faced with a “new” aesthetic experience is just as applicable to the adults themselves, who are today routinely confronted with rapidly accelerating technological experiences that they can barely keep up with.
It’s interesting what it means to be a digital native. My dad, of the Silent Generation (b. 1942), was trained on computers in the military for a missile system and that was when he was straight out of college. He then worked with one of the earliest commercial computers in a factory during the ’60s, a computer that filled an entire room and operated through punch cards.
I grew up with a personal computer that he bought, along with an Atari system, in the ’80s when I was in elementary school. Then we had access to the early internet in the ’90s when my dad was a professor. Around that time, I mostly used computers as fancy typewriters to write papers for school. But there were some simple computer games we had.
Those relics are part of the digital era. Many of the major internet platforms were developed by GenXers. We had all kinds of technology growing up. Not only walkmans but also portable CD players, along with VCRs. I had a watch with dozens of functions, including a calculator. There were also many small video game systems being developed back then that were relatively small. The Game Boy was first produced in 1989.
The difference back then was the relics of an even earlier era were still around and in use. GenXers knew how to play a record on a turntable, how to dial an rotary phone, etc. Technological change was much slower and more gradual with decades of overlap between technological eras. It was the same with media. I lived during the rise of cable tv, but I spent most of my childhood watching network tv that played reruns of the same shows my parents and grandparents watched.
This created a sense of continuity. I can make and catch cultural references from decades before I was born. It’s a point of easing communication and allowing understanding between generations. But kids these days are culturally illiterate in this sense because the media landscape changes so drastically in a short amount of time. Even the digital world has been transformed, such that young digital natives today wouldn’t recognize the earliest generations of computers or know how they functioned.
There is more than one digital world in which to be native. GenXers, though, have bridged the gap of digital worlds more than any other cohort. Most GenXers, at least in industrialized countries, have a basic intuitive grasp of computers. I’m not particularly saavy when it comes technology, but I can get on most new tech devices and figure out how to operate them without needing to be shown how. But I must admit that I’m largely indifferent toward new tech. I was never one who needed every new thing that came out, not even when I was younger.
Kids these days might not have a choice. They have to keep up with the constant changes because we’ve become so dependent on technology. For GenXers, technology of our childhood and youth was simply a nice addition for enjoyment and making life a bit easier, but we just as easily could go without technology. I grew up reading physical books and, other than a watch, I didn’t constantly have tech devices on my body. Tech has now become a necessity and the younger generations are immersed in it in a way that has never been true before.
Still, the moral panic about media is nothing new. It’s amusing how the same fears are repeated not only across the generations but the centuries. The printing press, an argument could be made, more radically turned the world on its head than has so far has happened with computers. The early romance novels might’ve been more revolutionary than overtly revolutionary tracts. Novels altered how people thought. We forget what a powerful technology is a book and what it meant when it began to be mass produced.