The iPhone is new again, Apple.com
Ever changing, like a Joyless eye,
That finds no object worth its constancy?
“To the Moon,” Percy Bysshe Shelley
The turn of the moon has long fascinated our human desire for novelty. In our postmodern moment, we have a focus on the new as if unique to our time. We consider ourselves a progressive culture with insta-access to the latest of everything. We affirm our progress by continually adapting to the next best thing, updating, upgrading and taking on whatever is waxing hot before it wanes into the unconscious. We have made a postmodern tradition of the new, all while knowing that the new can only ever be now. The “now” contains both what continues and what is new, but the familiar things seem to recede, while the new takes priority and appears to promise us a future with improvements.
Technology and fashion are the prime arenas for the emerging new. The annual iPhone unveil and seasonal fashion weeks are showcases for innovation. Technology provides new forms to meet needs. It uses the new to eliminate the past, forcing a manual adaptation to the new form. Fashion goes beyond need and concentrates on material abundance and variety in new forms. The focus on new forms is also evident in postmodern thinking, which is continually revising yesterday’s truth again and again. This seems well and good as we find some facts are subject to revision, but it also creates a sense of unreliability. Not only do technology and fashion forms now seem instantly outdated, yesterday’s opinions also feel limited. Of course adaptability connects to the human nature of forgiveness and renewal, but it can also result in forgetfulness, fruitless repetition and a false sense of progress.
It is common wisdom that new is not always better. In ancient times, the new was considered suspect and held in comparison to established classics. A classic endures by its quality and connection to the human condition. A “classic” is “a picturesque dignity to take the place of its fashion,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Beautiful and Damned. Classics are best described as timeless in that they do not promise novelty but can outlast our whimsy. The classic delivers consistent quality each time it is approached. We return to it. It is quintessential, indispensible, and can be easily mixed with the new or old and thus it is not forgotten. The virtue in a classic is integrity, the lasting goodness that allows it to foreground whatever fails.
We are a mutable people, adaptable for survival yet with a constancy of needs. We have established the postmodern “need” to taste test the latest forms du jour and allow ourselves to be entertained by innovative propositions for a future that we outgrow before it happens. This is the postmodern condition – an ongoing sequence of variable opportunities that appear transformative but have not altered what endures. Perhaps what we really want is a postmodern classic, something new in the now of such great quality it is certain to endure and outlast our desire. We find that is the case with design elements that remain constant through renewal. One reason the iPhone has endured is because the original, well-crafted, minimal design of the first iPhone essentially continues. The same can be observed in fashion labels when design integrity endures the seasons.
Designer Dieter Rams, who has inspired Apple, explains “I believe designers should eliminate the unnecessary.” Necessary elements, in design or in values, survive novelty because they are essential to authentic living. The necessary does not need more, but can be improved, as Rams has also expressed, “less, but better.” So whether it is a question of living with style, or with integrity, the new could be an improvement, but we only know so if we already know the good. We have grown accustomed to a tradition of the new in which we privilege the new without much consideration of the good. In ancient Greece, when rigorous scribes were reviewing new texts and discovered a new, valuable point, they would mark in the margin the letters “chi rho,” meaning good. The same letters became a symbol for the early Christians who appeared to be living in a new way that was also considered good. There will always be a sense of newness in how humans express themselves and nature unveils itself. The skill is recognizing worth. In our instant, on demand era, we need thoughtful value recognition. It is not the new that is so exciting after all. It is the good in the new that improves the now and how worthwhile living endures.