I’m not really a nostalgic person. I don’t tend to look back at the things I’ve been through or the experiences I’ve had very positively. I’m a much happier person than I used to be. I have better friends now. I have the skills to take on what I want to now, or I’m rapidly developing them. I’ve taken my first stabs at proper digital art recently. I don’t have much reason to be properly nostalgic.
Of course, when you’re dealing in the kinds of things Somnolescent does–hand-built websites, vintage computers, 90’s period pieces–there comes with it the assumption that this is all based on nostalgia, or more often “false” nostalgia. It’s not hard to find 14-year-olds who fixate on cassettes, fixate on VHS tapes, or in its most artificial form, are in love with the “vaporwave” thing. Of course, they weren’t around to see those things when they were in vogue, and overall, it can be a bit of a joke.
False nostalgia is misguided, but I don’t think misplaced. Here’s a bit of a meditation on where nostalgia ends, wistfulness begins, why the young folks get swept up in it, and the more practical side of bringing the past with you.
Nostalgia vs. “false” nostalgia (wistfulness)
So some groundwork, some quick definitions and how I delineate nostalgia and wistfulness before we begin. Nostalgia is the deliberate exercise in the warm fuzzies for a previous era seen as better by those who lived it. Wistfulness is when people who didn’t live in that era exercise in those warm fuzzies.
People tend to lead lives with a summit and a decline. They’re unhealthy, they cling to regrets, or matter in their current existence simply aren’t satisfactory. This is usually when people retreat into the more familiar. If you’ve ever talked to a depressed Gen X-er, they can seem real crotchety in the present, and then tell you fond stories of their hangouts of choice in the 80’s, listening to Men at Work and Judas Priest and not worrying too much about it. It’s a comforting retreat into “better” times, because those people are in some way incapable or unwilling to make their current times better. Maybe their current calamity is all in their head. Whatever it is, things were fine once and now aren’t.
Wistfulness comes when that unsatisfactory feeling comes much earlier than it should. I think there’s a real feeling of missing out hanging over my generation. The 80’s have been mythologized as this time of great peace and prosperity, where technology was fascinating and developing at a rapid clip, and the 90’s even more so. The development of the internet excited people. It seemed like it would somehow radically overhaul society, information spreading in minutes rather than over days and weeks. Music was much different. Things seemed so much warmer, so much more personal. Humanity over computers, right?
Why young folks (like us) latch onto the past
At the moment, we’re living in the rotting decadence of those good times. The internet has revolutionized society–and become a royal pain in everyone’s ass, largely. We live online, anxious about how we look, who’s looking at us, and who we’re seen with at all times. We’re alienated, we’re concerned about our privacy, and yet we simply can’t pull ourselves away. Culture has stopped progressing. Hollywood blockbusters regularly depict the past rosily, featuring the music of cultural powerhouses like David Bowie, R.E.M., and Duran Duran, and artists regularly themselves pull from the glossy-yet-odd synth takeover of the 80’s or the raw, lo-fi guitar-driven introspection of the 90’s.
Technology has hit its relative endpoint of development. Every current development, from the Internet of Things to cryptocurrency to research and deployment of AI, are on some level purely theoretical. Consumer technology is bland, featureless, and characterless. TVs are flat rectangles. Phones are flat rectangles. They’re intentionally sculpted alien, stark, attention-grabbing. Every notification badge is an alarming red that you simply can’t ignore. Flat, textureless colors and unornamented, sans-serif fonts are universal in user interfaces. Everything scales perfectly, works everywhere, and has zero flaws.
Societally, things never quite feel prosperous. Education fails to produce skilled workers. Economies are pumped full of funny money to make growth appear monstrous. People are taught to own nothing (hence the rise of the perpetual renter and the streaming service) and to think global, not local. Something’s better elsewhere, and then someone from that elsewhere (more likely a giant corporation) comes in and buys all the properties. Every business, every bit of intellectual property, falls further into the hands of conglomerates, while people define themselves on their ideologies and disabilities rather than their assets, their communities, the places they live, the families they belong to, and what they build.
Is it any wonder that we now have the mythologization of the past by those who never lived it? When the young are too focused on escaping into the past rather than building the future, society starts to decay. We look at the people who built something imperfect but magical through plate glass while we stay passive, self-absorbed, on the defensive, degenerate, and lonely.
When what came before stays useful
That might’ve sounded incredibly blackpilled and demoralized, but it isn’t. I see it as a reality in flux, as it always is. Bad times never last, humans are never doomed, and we’re pretty well taken care of. People like to be scared and people like to feel righteous. Unhealthy behaviors and unhealthy people breed themselves out of existence–which is why millennials will likely not have too many children. That which is disposable will remain so, whether that’s clickbait headlines or cheap Chinese phones. Just take care of you and your own, and this too shall pass.
Where does that leave the past? With things looking bleak outside, of course we want to indulge in pleasant certainties. Question is, what’s an exercise in the past for the past’s sake and what’s genuinely useful to take with you?
Before I answer that, know that the past is not the answer to your own personal shortcomings. An empty person, someone who clings to past cultural refuse as a way to fill a sad current existence, someone who desperately buys albums, magazines, classic cameras, and the junk that doesn’t really define why those eras were so special, can’t tell the difference. For them, the past will always be a means to an end, and that’s escaping misery, not fixing misery. Eventually, you’ll have to go home, and it’ll kill you inside.
However, for someone who’s otherwise of sound mind who’s simply alienated by a world meant to alienate you, the past is a perfect way to patch the fractured present. For me, the past represents a cleaner, simpler, and usually far more charming way of accomplishing the exact things I seek to do now. Age doesn’t factor into it. I don’t see a reason why using an older computer as it works for me, or keeping a collection of boxsets and albums and physical media I hold dear to me and properly own, is somehow obsolete.
Bibliophiles get this. They often speak of how e-books simply can’t replace physical books, not in the tactile sense, not in the collectable, tangible sense, and certainly not in the experience sense. A book doesn’t try to grab your attention with notifications, an obnoxious, glowing screen, or buttons to press. I simply apply that mindset to other forms of media whose proponents consider older ideas outdated much quicker. Someone who keeps up with technology is likely to look at an Intel Core Duo machine as stone age technology, but as I explained in my love letter to the eMachines Box, if it can still check my email, play my music, and let me talk to people, how obsolete is it really?
I don’t use social media (unless you count Status–hint hint). I don’t read the news. Every time the (as of writing this) currently-ongoing Olympic games are mentioned around me, my first thought is “oh yeah, that’s going on, isn’t it?”. I know, I’m so holy, but I don’t say that to brag. I say that because the thing the past can bring us the most, out of all the talk of old video games and web 1.0 and iPods, is the sense of periodic detachment and peace that we’ve thrown out over the past decade or so. As every YouTube comment on an old live video enviously points out–no cellphones. Fortunately for them, you can shut your phone off and get the exact same effect right now.
Old tech’s biggest benefit isn’t necessarily that it can do what I need it to like any new machine, it’s that it can do it with far less distraction. My head hurts from constantly clicking around Discord, checking even when nothing’s going on. Caby’s complained of the same thing. We’re wired to want to be up on things. The eMachines Box can’t do Discord, and thus, it forces me to focus elsewhere. Perhaps even just wasting time elsewhere! But I’m not wasting time on people who aren’t worth it, hearing about things that suck to hear, and that’s the important bit. I’m not alone in seeing this benefit to using old tech like that.
The artificial, staid past as commodity
I think the far more damaging side of wistfulness comes when people are sold that as a commodity. Because the past comes with these extremely evocative visual markers (pop quiz, disco, bell bottoms, earthy tones, shag carpet, fake wood trim, name that decade), if someone being a good little capitalist wants to sell you on a product, they can appeal to its recognizability and your appreciation of the past to do it. (This is doubly true if they’re marketing to the empty looking to escape into the past as I described earlier.)
Obviously, as a good little capitalist myself, I don’t have an issue with any of that that, but I think you as a consumer should be up on what you’re getting yourself into so no one feels cheated chasing something that was never real to begin with.
When I think of selling the past, I think of vaporwave. To be clear, vaporwave is not authentic. Its singular appeal, a sort of retro-futurism, never existed. Neon grids and Windows 95 never coexisted. It’s the single most garbage mixture of 80’s synth fetishism and 90’s semi-mechanical technology I’ve ever seen–and there’s a ton of record labels, artists, and YouTube channels ready to step up and sell you cassettes and vinyl filled with it.
Again, do I necessarily have a problem if someone wants to indulge in that? Not especially, but I also don’t want them to yearn for some better time that never existed through it, because it was never the fuzzy synth music and chunky video games that made those eras what they were–those are just symbols standing in for those time periods. It was the prosperity, the peace, and the community built through those things that you’re yearning for, and we can rebuild those. They’re not gone, nor are they obsolete.
The past is a powerful thing to manipulate you with. Know what’s real and what isn’t, and use the real, powerful, tangible, warm, and human aspects of that past to build your ideal future, one just as much 2021 as it is 1981. And of course, not to be a total stick in the mud–yeah, we like old computers because XP is hot and mix CDs because they’re a neat, creative, tactile endeavor too. Not everything’s so practical, I admit, but if there’s one thing using the eMachines Box does, it’s put me at ease. Fuck the rest of the world. All that exists at that point is my MSN Messenger friends list and a bunch of MP3s.
And you’d be surprised at how little else you need sometimes.