The Emergence of the New – Curiosity and the Preference for the New

A young friend who works with the deaf described a telling difference in their languages.In the sign language of the Euro-American world, the sign that stands for the future points to the front, and probably everyone in Europe and America, deaf or not, would give this direction as the one in which we all think the future lies. Not so in Africa, where the gesture points backward. What lies in front of us, according to the African explanation, is the past because only it is already known. The future, by contrast, lies where we cannot see it – behind us or around us.

The future cannot be equated with the new, which can also be discovered in the past. The new differs from the old and yet must resemble it enough to make the difference recognizable. The difference thus created allows what is new to link with what already exists. New and old can exist beside each other, replace each other, or enter into connections in which what exists appears unfamiliarly new or what is new seems known. The new must be brought into the familiar world and enter into exchange with prior experiences. It must be given meaning and evaluated. The new must be different, but to be recognizable as the new, it requires observers to make a concentrated effort.

However we want to locate it spatially, the future lies temporally in front of us, embedded in the biological processes that follow the arrow of time from birth to death. All societies distinguish between segments of time categorized as past, present, and future. These temporal structurings are subject to historical changes and are components of cultural cosmologies. The temporal horizon separating the future from the present can appear as a hard-edged, abrupt line at the boundary between chaos and order or as a narrow gap through which it is possible to enter an eternity removed from change.

The future can be conceived as a smooth transition or as an “extended present” with the open future horizon that entered history with the European modern period. With it arose for the first time the feeling of acceleration that is connected with the extent of the changes and the increased appearance of the new. The future itself, however, cannot be reached any faster. It cannot be overtaken and is in fact, just as the Africans regard it, around us, in front of us, and behind us all at the same time. The future is. Its content, its shape, and its fullness the images we construct of in always have significance only in the here and now.

But where does the fascination of the new come from? Everyone wants to know the future, especially her own, to be safe from unwanted surprises and to be able to at least partly master the unknown, which is always also a potential threat. But the desire to control the future seeks to protect what one already has and what one has achieved. The fascination with the new, by contrast, is activated by curiosity and the desire to explore the unknown. This curiosity induces us to take the next step that leads beyond familiar terrain. However tentative, cautious, or inexperienced this step may be, it goes wherever longing and the discovery of one’s own latent wishes and desires may lead. The thin line separating the present from the future is irrevocably crossed. Curiosity aims to explore a space that must still be furnished for us. With questions and gestures more spontaneous than goal-oriented, curiosity explores what it does not yet know and what seems interesting and worth knowing, often for reasons it cannot name. It actively strives to hone itself on reality and to gain experience that gives reality a clearly perceptible form that can be interacted with. To gain this experience, curiosity uses all the senses and means available to human beings. It is insatiable in two ways: first, because the space of possibilities and reality that is to be explored still approaches inflnity; and second, because more and more means and instruments, mostly but not entirely scientiflc and technical in nature, are at our disposal to expand the space of our experience.

The experiences triggered by curiosity, which are often based on trial and error, are an important reservoir and cultural resource for individually and collectively imagining the future. In connection with the economic development of the third world, the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai sees the conventional deflnition of culture as a decisive hindrance limiting the scope people urgently need to shape their lives. Culture is usually set in relation to the past and serves to preserve our legacy and tradition. But economic growth and development are associated with the future with plans, hopes, and goals. In the anthropological understanding, the future usually has no place in models of culture. The science of the future is economics. It assumes that people have preferences and desires, and it models their expectations and their calculating behavior.

But the ability to imagine the future indeed, the desire for an imagined future is a cultural ability inherent in all people, including those who, because of their miserable economic circumstances, supposedly have no future. The capacity to aspire, as Appadurai calls it, cannot be reduced to individual preferences and the field of markets but grows out of cultural norms and values. While the affluent have a greater range of experiences at their disposal, know their own wishes and aspirations better, and know the means that can be used to achieve the latter, they are usually also in a more advantageous position to try out new experiences and to implement them purpose-fully. The capacity to aspire puts them in a better position to navigate an unknown future. This ability to claim the future for oneself is a cultural resource and should be made available also to those who currently do not have it, like the poor in the developing countries.

But it is also a cultural resource potentially available to all who currently feel overwhelmed by the plethora of innovations and the speed with which they are created and introduced. Fear of the future arises from the feeling of losing control over how one leads one’s life. It suppresses curiosity and narrows the scope of experience. It reduces one’s possibilities for trying out the new. Neither the deep insecurity that accompanies this nor the experience of being steamrollered by events and developments is historically new. The nineteenth century was convulsed by the effects of the industrial revolution and lived through a previously unknown wave of revolutions that “dis-solved everything solid into air,” as Marx put it. Psychiatrists diagnosed new syndromes like neurasthenia, which they traced to the failure of the human organism and especially of the nervous system to keep up with these changes.

Subtle literary testimony and astute observations still give us today a taste of the intensity of the emotions at that time for example, when electric lights, the telegraph, and the railroad enter the world of Marcel Proust’s literary characters, when Marcel makes his first telephone call, and when he experiences the arrival of his first automobile. He sees these as the great “compressions” of social life, as various communities begin interlocking and become more compact and as the isolation of small villages like Combray is overcome. Everyone is subjected more intensely to social pressure than they were before, which leads to greater conformity and greater anxiety about the authenticity of the self. It is as if this accelerating physical and communicative contact with others does not so much foster as suspend communicative closeness and the intimacy of daily life the feeling that others see one, the feeling of constant surveillance. Since there are indeed fewer places where one is not seen or can hide oneself, there are also fewer reasons to avoid contact. There are fewer occasions to be alone and to develop a self that is independent of society.

The dependencies that today obscure the view of an imaginary future bear the stamp of globalization, that inscrutable network of world domination and markets, the outsourcing of jobs, and the increase in worldwide competitive pressure. Behind these are structural shifts and fractures that accompany the advance of neoliberalism, on the one hand, but also the shift from classical industrial production to the conceptual and knowledge industries, on the other. Scientiflc and technological knowledge and the products and infrastructures they bring forth thus have central importance. They are regarded as the driving force for continued economic growth and as indispensable in achieving decisive competitive advantages.

The map available for navigating this sea of opportunities and dangers is confusing because, depending on position and experience, it offers different starting positions for realistically exploring the future. For some, the space of the future is filled with new technological visions and highly promising mini-utopias that hold the potential to make life easier, better, and more beautiful. For others, the horizon of the future is darkened with dystopias. At stake is the maintenance of one’s own identity, whether endangered by a cultural diversity that is seen as a threat or by a step-by-step loss, felt as a conflscation, of control over one’s own life through growing dependence on technology and scientiflcally generated innovations. The circumstances under which something new can be tried out, driven by and in playful association with curiosity, then dwindle. The possibility of having new experiences and of encountering a changing and emerging reality with practices that permit trial and error and the exploration of one’s own wishes and their implementation also dwindle. The capacity to aspire suffers under this.

These opposing processes make it more difficult for people today to conceive the future and to develop clear ideas about their own scope of influence. This explains the fateful oscillation between regression to the hubris of blind faith in progress that so calamitously characterized the twentieth century and the temptations of a fundamentalism that clutches at fragile and false securities to avoid encountering the future. Conceiving the future conceiving it differently demands that we escape the polarities of utopias and dystopias and replace them with other images that are neither taken directly from science fiction nor fueled by media-staged apocalyptic or superhuman fantasies. Conceiving the future demands knowledge and imagination, a shifting back and forth between seriousness and play, science and irony. Knowledge must be spanned widely and, like the convergent technologies much praised today, must strive for an integration that draws from all available sources the humani-ties as well as the natural and engineering sciences, the arts as well as technology and the experience of simple everyday life. Conceiving the future means examining the assumptions on which it supposedly rests. The inextricable and confusing bundle of forces and processes of institutions and power relations in which the insatiability of curiosity encounters the diverse possibilities of its realization and implementation in the framework of a globalized capitalism and the political disorder of the world must be seen as what we make of it culturally: a continuation of modernity.

Of course, modernity takes on new accents and fractures. In a situation characterized by loss and failure as well as by the striving to fill the emptiness of the future, to constrain it to a forming will, and to try out the freedoms that its possibilities promise, the historically socialized glance and the language of gestures are still forward-oriented. And yet new uncertainties are mixed in with the old, familiar language of gesture and its meanings. Uncertainties appear that result from the innovations with which science and technology open up a world that is different from everything previously thought, known, and seen. We are as able to see into the inside of our bodies using imaging techniques as we are to look through telescopes back millions of years to the primal history of the universe. Modern medicine extends the human life span, and yet worldwide epidemics still repeatedly break out and are still hard to stem. While some already dream of immortality, millions of people die for lack of basic medical care.

But the new that promises the future has a name. It suggests too much and too little at the same time and is as elusive and vague as it is demanding and determined. It is based on a fundamental societal consensus that is nevertheless brittle and must be constantly renegotiated. The name of the new is innovation. The word is often used in a deceptively simple form to mean a preference for the new. But what is worth striving for is not the new in general or innovations for their own sake or even the “mysterious banality” of fashion. As a typical phenomenon of modernity, innovation is contingent but not arbitrary. It replaces the unambiguous, traditional order with an unstable equilibrium in which the stability is the result of a demanding connection between various instabilities and is no longer their prerequisite. Fashion is an interplay between social contingency (everyone wants to be original and just like the rest) and temporal contingency (every present appears new and different due to the prerequisite of a past that permits it to be perceived in this way). Fashion plays with chance, which can be neither mastered nor foreseen, and is nonetheless able to operationa-lize it. It creates reference points and models that are to be deviated from to realize one’s own original variants. The model is used to construct an identity of one’s own by means of deidentiflcation.

Innovation creates instead the impression that it is the new, state-of-the-art navigation map that offers orientation on the uncertain journey into a fragile future. Driven by the capacity to aspire, it does not predetermine either content or goal. Instead, it promises to provide new experiences that must measure themselves against and hone themselves on an equally changing reality to lead to robust results. Innovation reminds us that the possibility of failure is always on board; it nonetheless encourages us to continue the journey. It plays with coincidence and the attempt to instrumentalize coincidence. It strives to increase the diversity of new forms because that is the only way the new can arise outside an already determined space of possibilities, the only way that, without wanting to predetermine the new, it can extend its effect beyond the process of arising by leading to further innovations. The new combination of already known or existing components, which Joseph Schumpeter said determines the process of innovation, points in the direction of a diversity with the potential to become ever greater. For the more innovations there are, the greater is the number of components from which new combinations can be produced in a rapidly growing process of combinatorics, without the contents being foreseeable and without categories for their description already existing. But the contexts of application must also multiply to offer the diversity of new forms the space of possibilities in which innovations not only arise but can also stabilize, solidify, and materialize. The “essential new” can be neither anticipated nor described, but it requires enough empty places where it can dock and a future that is empty enough to be open for the capacity to aspire but cannot be pinned down to its fulflllment. And yet such is the law of the new this future must be different than the present. There must be a clearly recognizable difference from what already exists.

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