2020: A World Renewed

Social Studies

Out with the Old

Introductory Questions

    • What makes something new?
    • Who decides when something new becomes old?
    • Do products age in the same way that people do? Do ideas?
    • When you were younger, did you have any hobbies or interests that you no longer have now? Why did you grow out of them?
    • Did you ever become interested in something only to hear your parents say, “it’s just a phase”? Was it just a phase?
    • How many times do you have to listen to a song you like before you get tired of it? What about for rereading a good book, or watching a favorite movie?
    • Can you think of something you used to say a lot that you don’t say anymore?
    • Can you think of a word or phrase that used to mean something other than what it means now?
    • Have you ever stopped (or started) doing something because everyone else stopped (or started) doing it too?
    • Do your parents like to listen to the same music as you do?
    • How often do you buy new clothes? How about a new phone?

Understanding Novelty-Seeking (and -Speaking)

    • Some people are drawn to new experiences—whether that means skydiving, visiting Krasnodar, or joining an academic competition with overstuffed outlines and understuffed alpacas. Consider recent research into the benefits (and sources) of novelty-seeking behavior. Discuss with your team: is our world today so full of novelties that it can be difficult for novelty-seekers to ever feel at peace—or is this a uniquely privileged time in human history that novelty-seekers should treasure?
    • When a person buys and starts to wear a new shirt, she might then start shopping for a matching scarf and a nice motorcycle to go with it. The Diderot Effect refers to this common pattern of behavior, in which one new purchase leads to a series of related purchases—or even into an obsessive interest in diving into something new, such as sneakers or smoothies. Discuss with your team: if you were a business, could you take advantage of this effect? In the long run, does it help people, or is it something that should be discouraged?
    • Suppose you noticed all the other scholars at your round drinking unsweetened Japanese green tea, so you bought some too. Your choice might be explained by the bandwagon effect—the theory that we are driven to do what we see others doing. Discuss with your team: does the bandwagon effect help create social harmony—or should people try to resist it?
    • In a 2014 working paper, Dr. Erkan Goren hypothesized that groups of people with a gene linked to novelty-seeking would tend to move around more—making them less likely to settle down and form strong states. His hypothesis is controversial, as research in “biogeography” is only a step away from sweeping generalizations about race and culture. Discuss with your team: if certain populations were more inclined to go looking for new things, would businesses want to market products differently (or to market different products) to them? And, if a gene controls some aspect of novelty-seeking behavior, should we find ways to reduce that gene’s impact—or to increase it?
    • When people first join a new community, for a while they are happy to learn all its special lingo—but research has shown that eventually they stop adopting new words, and the community evolves past them. Someone who first joined the World Scholar’s Cup in 2013 might have happily learned the word “pwaa” but might be reluctant to start using the term “lollipop”—which entered the lexicon in 2016—for not winning a debate. Because their study shows that people are open to new words for the first third of their time in a new community, the researchers imply that you could predict how long someone will stay in a community by measuring how soon they stop using new words. Discuss with your team: would it be helpful to know how long someone will be part of something—and, to keep them around, should groups make a special effort to keep them learning new words for longer?
    • In mid-2017, fidget spinners were suddenly everywhere; entire classrooms looked like they were trying to generate wind power. Then, just as suddenly, they disappeared, and the world went on to talk about other things. Similar spikes in popularity occurred with Pokémon Go in 2016, the Dress Debate in 2014, “Gangnam Style” dancing in 2013… the list goes on. Discuss with your team: are people aware when they are part of a fad, or do they only realize it afterwards? What causes fads to fade? Consider this list of fads from the 2010s and count how many of them you were part of, from flossing to the ice bucket challenge, as well as how many you weren’t aware existed.
    • How do you do, fellow kids? At a summer 2016 campaign rally, Hillary Clinton beseeched younger voters to “Pokémon Go to the polls”. Discuss with your team: why did so many people consider her call to action “cringey”—and did their reaction suggest that the Pokémon Go fad was past its peak? At what point does referencing a fad become cringey—or is it less about when it is used and more about who uses it? Is it cringey of us to reference memes in this outline?
    • The word on the street is that memes, like fads, are spreading and fading more quickly than in the past—in fact, an informal study in 2018 put the average lifespan of a meme at 4.017 months. Discuss with your team: if this trend is real, what do you think could be the causes of reduced meme longevity? Are there ways to keep memes alive for longer, and if so, should we pursue them?
    • “If this trend is real…”—take a moment to consider the differences between a trend, a fad, and a meme. What causes each of them to come to an end—and does something new always replace them?

There’s Accounting for Taste | Trends in Fashion

    • “Impossibly long hair has become the look for 2019,” claims one of a hundred websites that show the evolution of (mostly Western) hair styles over the years. Has it? Work with your team to research what causes hair styles to come and go. Were they more stable in the past, and are there regions of the world where they change less often? Do such lists—and the history that underpins them—inevitably demonstrate cultural bias?
    • Much like hairstyles (and fingernail styles), fashion trends and fads come and go—and sometimes people are glad to see them gone. Explore theories on why fashion trends tend to repeat over time. Discuss with your team: to what degree can the designers of clothing decide what people will want to buy? Is fashion a first-world problem—and is the term “first-world problem” itself a fad?
    • Fashion has arguably become more democratic in the age of social media. Where many people used to look toward the upper class for styling cues—the concept of haute couture—now so-called fashion bloggers and influencers have a much more direct connection to millions of followers. Discuss with your team: have platforms like Pinterest and Instagram made it harder or easier to be fashionable?
    • Consider the difference between the original release and the retro release of a sneaker model. Should retro releases of a mass-produced product be considered equivalent to the original product—and how might designers, collectors, and consumers answer this question differently?
    • Entire brands can phase in and out of popularity. Consider Champion and Fila: after years out of the limelight, they’re starting to make a comeback. What causes certain brands to come in and out of fashion? Is there a reason that their comeback is happening now instead of ten years ago or ten years in the future?
    • Popular in the 1990s and often referred to as “dad shoes”, sneakers that are chunky and outsized have recently seen a resurgence in popularity as part of the “ugly fashion” trend. This article suggests that one appeal of ugly fashion is that it offers consumers a break from keeping up with what “fashionable” is. Is ugly fashion a long-term antidote to an unsustainable problem in the fashion industry, or is it just another fad or trend?
    • “Out with the old” may sound good to those who do keep up with fashion, until you realize that the old is taking up a lot of space in landfills. Unsold clothing, which lives in a strange space between old and new, is sometimes even burned. On average, Americans throw away about 30 kg of their wardrobe per year. For a sense of what has made it possible for people to own more clothes and wear them less, read this eloquent prologue to the 2012 book Overdressed: the Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. In the almost decade since its publication, has online shopping changed how much clothing people buy, or how frequently? What are the “fast fashion” stores most popular in your community? Do you agree with the author’s claim that “fashion is obsolescence”?
    • More than ever, companies are trying to design sustainable clothing so that people don’t have to replace items as often. However, a recent study at the London College of Fashion suggests people don’t hold onto the clothes that last the longest—they hold onto those that mean the most to them. Discuss with your team: should companies invest in making more durable clothing, if consumers are likely to move on to new outfits anyway? Is the path toward more sustainable fashion encouraging people to have fewer clothes in their closet—perhaps in the form of so-called capsule wardrobes? Or should the focus be on more sustainable manufacturing practices?
    • Is rental clothing a way for people to experience novelty without overspending—or over-consuming? Discuss with your team: do you agree with its arguments for why fewer men than women rent clothing, or are there better explanations? How different is renting clothing from leasing a new phone for two years or borrowing a bicycle from a rideshare service for the afternoon?
    • “Out of sight” and “out of style” are often coupled with “out of mind”, but the past trends that influenced the clothing of today are indelibly woven into the fabrics in your closet; this clip from The Devil Wears Prada offers an interesting insight into the impact of those hidden histories. Is it worth understanding the trends behind an item of clothing before you buy it, or is it better to just shop more efficiently based on aesthetics alone? What were the trends that led to the clothes you are wearing right now?

Keep it New by Force | Planned Obsolescence

    • In Livermore, California, there is a light bulb that has been on for over a century (except for ten panicky hours in 2013). This so-called Centennial Bulb even has its own website. Someday, they will write songs about it. But they will also ask a question: if a lightbulb from 1901 could still be shining in 2020, why weren’t all 20th century lightbulbs built to last in the same way? Were lightbulb manufacturers conspiring to sell lightbulbs designed to burn out sooner? In fact, they were. Working with your team, investigate the Phoebus Cartel and the idea of planned obsolescence: products made to break down on purpose, to require people to buy new ones. Discuss with your team: do manufacturers have the right to make products that will allow them to sell more products later? After all, if every bulb could light up forever, the potential market for new light bulbs would shrink dramatically. Is it possible that consumers prefer to buy products that don’t last as long, if that means they cost less and can provide instant gratification more often?
    • Every January, the world gathers in Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES)—to see how the latest technologies that we don’t know we need will bring happiness to our lives. There are wall-sized LEDs and robots that make tea, and over in the corner someone probably has a foldable time machine. But while these experimental products earn a lot of the media coverage, there is also another time-honored tradition at CES: companies like Dell, Samsung, and LG show up with annual upgrades to their laptop lineup. No matter how minor those upgrades might be, they market them fiercely; any company that offered no new version would be left behind. The hope: not just to attract new buyers, but to persuade owners of existing laptops to buy new ones (2020). Discuss with your team: should companies be required to give consumers the chance to upgrade to the latest version of their products at minimal cost from year to year? If so, what should happen to the older but still functional products?
    • Apple has made an artform of advertising small upgrades as revolutionary; each iPhone model was more or less the same for two years, with the iPhone 4S a mildly souped-up iPhone 4, the iPhone 5S a mildly souped-up iPhone 5… the pattern has broken lately, but only somewhat. For many Apple fans, always having the newest model took on great importance, even if the changes from year to year were not vast. Other companies followed Apple’s lead (as they did in so many ways): OnePlus entered the same sort of cycle, just twice as often, and Samsung went at the same pace but never bothered with letters. Discuss with your team: should companies be required to publicize how little their products are changing from year to year?
    • Long before computers and phones, it was General Motors that first introduced annual model updates, for its cars in the 1920s. Even in the midst of the Great Depression, the idea was to excite consumers about buying a new car before their existing car broke down—and it worked. The approach soon spread to all car manufacturers and endures to this day. People take for granted that cars should have an updated design every so often or they risk looking old. “Age doesn’t automatically translate into awfulness,” notes one reviewer of the 2020 Nissan Rogue. That this needs to be said speaks to how much society has internalized planned obsolescence in the automobile industry. Discuss with your team: what other industries depend on a similar approach to maintain sales—and should manufacturers be required to keep their products looking the same unless there are major functional upgrades?
    • You are probably reading this outline on a phone you can’t open, at least not easily—even just to change the battery would require professional assistance. Many products, from toaster ovens to tractors, are now designed in a way such that their buyers can’t repair them. Sometimes even professionals struggle. Discuss with your team: do manufacturers have a responsibility to create products that everyday people can fix—or is it worth sacrificing that kind of accessibility for thinner and more elegant designs?
    • Apple has been found using software limiting the performance of its phones to prevent sporadic shutdowns as batteries weaken over time. Critics see this as Apple nudging users to purchase new batteries or even new phones; in France, Apple has been sued for the practice, as it (allegedly) violates the country’s law against planned obsolescence. Discuss with your team: would a company be justified in reducing the performance of your device to make it last longer—or should this kind of behavior be against the law?
    • France has also been looking to force companies to publish how long their products will last—a product durability index. The idea would be for consumers to have a reason to pick longer-lasting products—and thus generate less waste for the world and fewer expenses for themselves down the line. Discuss with your team: do you think this law would work as planned? Should products in other industries—such as clothing, cars, and pillows—also be required to advertise their expected durability?
    • In some cases, new products really are better than old ones. Phones might have larger screens and better cameras; cars might drive more safely or have more efficient engines. Discuss with your team: is it possible that what critics describe as planned obsolescence is just consumers preferring actual technological improvements? Is planned obsolescence more of an issue in less dynamic industries, such as refrigerators and toaster ovens, where technologies are not changing very much, but manufacturers still need to sell more products?

🤔📚 | Renovating the Dictionary

    • “Next time we’ll qualify less scholars.” A grammatical traditionalist would be irate at the use of the word “less” instead of “fewer”; their head might literally explode. Except it wouldn’t really explode: literally is a word which has lost its literal meaning and now mainly offers emphasis. The same traditionalist would be upset at the mention of “their” head—the phrasing should be “his or her”—but today many woke people favor “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun. As for “fewer” versus “less”—fewer should apply to quantities and less to amounts, but the terms are now used so interchangeably that fewer and less people care about it every year. And the word “woke” no longer means “someone made me stop sleeping”—at least, not literally.
    • Old words change. New words emerge. A thousand years ago, the English word “meat” referred not just to things like beef but also to fruits and vegetables; today, it only means food that used to be part of an animal (though with a few exceptions—one can still eat the meat of a coconut). If someone named Jim had led a failed revolt in 17th century London, we might be debating whether the term “you jims” is sexist—but, instead, the ringleader was a jim named Guy, and now we use the term “guys” to refer to people in general, or sometimes to Billie Eilish.
    • If enough people in a community start misusing (or repurposing) a word in the same way, eventually the dictionary catches up: the word develops a new accepted meaning. The same goes if enough people choose to consistently ignore a grammatical rule—such as the proscription against split infinitives. It’s okay now to boldly go where no guy has gone before. In these cases, language is said to be experiencing semantic change; its critics tend to call it semantic drift. Discuss with your team: does semantic drift do more to keep language fresh or to weaken our ability to communicate?
    • Consider the following words and phrases that have evolved over time. What do they mean today? What did they mean before? Discuss with your team: what words do you think are in the process of changing in our world today?
      • nonplussed | disinterested | aggravated | extra
      • could care less | basic | bald-faced | irregardless
      • plethora | awful | incredible | fortuitous | super

    • Words can also drift different directions in different communities. In Singapore, students study “maths” and the word “students” is composed of eight alphabets—in the United States, students wish “math” were a WSC subject and the word “alphabet” is composed of eight letters. As you investigate the following terms as they relate to semantic change, consider the social and cultural forces at play, and how they might vary from place to place.
      • etymology | metaphor | synecdoche | metonymy
      • generalization and specialization | analogy | hyperbole
      • pejoration | amelioration | word reappropriation

    • People might double-take nowadays when they hear someone pronounce “ask” as “aks”, but this was commonplace for hundreds of years. Investigate the Great Vowel Shift of the English language and consider: have there been any similar changes in other languages you know?
    • You’re using your phone when someone messages you that New Zealand just won the Quidditch World Cup! How to respond? On a laptop keyboard, you might bang out an excited keysmash: asdfafasffsa. But that would be much harder to do on a smartphone, where you’d have to tap out different letters with your thumbs—and then backspace to prevent them from being auto-corrected into something like “avocado”. This interview with linguist Gretchen McCulloch covers some of the ways in which how we use language might be evolving. Explore with your team: how have new methods of communication (such as Morse Code and touchscreens) changed the words or terms we use?
    • Old people have always criticized the habits of the younger generation, including how they behave and how they speak (and the youth have always said “OK” in return). This second Gretchen McCulloch podcast offers an interesting look at how certain trends that some people see as harmful to the English language are actually just, like, language doin’ its natural thang.
    • Legend has it a man in 1700s Dublin was once challenged to invent a new word that would enter into the public lexicon in less than two days. He decided to write that new word—“QUIZ”—on every door in the town overnight. Research has suggested that this story may be apocryphal, but it does warrant investigating the sources of new words. (Shakespeare is credited as having added 1,700 new words to the English language without writing them on doors.) Are there any words (or shibboleths) that are local to your friend groups or communities, and how did they come to be? Who makes new words official?
    • Learn about the backlash when the Associated Press announced a small rule change involving hyphens and chocolate chip cookies. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan is switching from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet, much as Turkey did from the Arabic alphabet in the 1920s. Textbooks will need to be changed, signage replaced, and passports reissued. Discuss with your team: do you think you would be able to adjust to a new alphabet in your country? Can you imagine your government making any other changes to the language?

Concluding Questions

    • Given how hard it is to predict how language will change in the future, it can be a tall order to write messages today that will still make sense thousands of years from now. This is the problem nuclear semioticians face as they try to communicate the danger of nuclear waste to people in the far future. What approach do you think they should take—or should we assume that, thanks to the Internet, today’s languages will endure intact into the future?
    • One informal study by a Spotify employee supposedly found that people stop listening to new music at age 33. The original blog post doesn’t draw that broad a conclusion, but it does offer interesting insights—for instance, men on Spotify seem to give up on new music sooner. Discuss with your team: what makes some individuals and groups more open to new music later in life? Do you think “taste freeze” in music would happen to a person around the same time as taste freeze in fashion and hairstyle? And in what ways (if any) would the population listening to music on Spotify not be representative of all music listeners?
    • Out with the old, in with the older. Sports teams sometimes wear (and sell) throwback uniforms; airlines paint some of their planes with retired livery. Would you be as excited to see something old back in action as you would be to see something new? Does the same kind of reasoning explain the hipster appeal of certain old technologies—such as record players?
    • Is it possible for a fad not to die out but instead become an enduring part of culture? Or is such a fad not a fad in the first place?
    • How often should a hotel renovate? How about schools?
    • How long does it take before something old needs to be out-ed? Instagram stories expire after 24 hours and Snapchat messages are a single tap away from being lost forever (unless, in either case, you use a save function that was added long after the initial feature was implemented in the app). How do we socialize differently in a world that is renewing more and more quickly? Is this kind of social transience something we should try to avoid or embrace?
    • The final scene of Mad Men is a testament to the seductive power of television advertising. Are there other products and services being marketed today in a similar way? Does it make you believe Coke can renew the world?
    • Are World Scholar’s Cup themes an example of forced obsolescence? Should they be used for more than one year?

Last Updated: January 16