Musings on Tech Nostalgia
A friend of mine owns a “smart” mirror. The thing tells you the time and weather and lives in their bathroom. I think you can speak to it too, but I didn’t ask this friend about it, and I didn’t say hello to the mirror.
It’s funny that this mirror comes to mind as I sit down to write this piece about tech nostalgia. I don’t wish to judge this friend’s purchasing decisions (I guess I’m doing just that, but they’ll forgive me, I think), but I do wonder what went through their mind when they forked over several hundred quid to get one of these. Does it bring value to their life? Or does it exist for its own sake as a kind of showpiece? It’s worth mentioning this friend has smart lights, too, but they still use the switches on their walls to turn them on and off.
Perhaps I’m behind the times, and everyone has Bluetooth-enabled bathroom mirrors now? I’m only to know as much as nature dictates upon visiting relatives and friends. Since I’m a bit of an introvert, I’m probably not the best person for a wider investigation. I did see some copy on a website that told me I need one if I want my house to be “future-proof.” So I can only assume the droid police will be round to have a word if I don’t act now.
Is the idea of this mirror somehow symbolic to me? All I know is that I think about this mirror and worry that my aversion to certain technologies is a sign that I’m increasingly becoming stuck in my ways (it gives pause for reflection, get it?). Some might accuse me of being a bit of a Luddite. I’d hasten to remind these hypothetical individuals that the Luddites didn’t have a problem with technology, only with those who controlled it. Still, that doesn’t mean I’m not wary of the label:
Some commentators have recently drawn parallels between 19th-century textile workers and the modern ‘creative’ worker. In my freelance work, I’ve been bombarded with far too many requests to fix AI copy (for reduced rates, of course) to believe that parallel quite works just yet. For the record, these requests are always declined.
There is, however, once again a growing sense that technology, driven by the invisible hand of the markets and steered by tech billionaires, is increasingly developing in a manner that only benefits the few and not the many. For all those GitHub accounts offering open-source innovation, we have no real control over who and what emerging tech is made for and who it benefits.
Of course, I can easily say no to buying a smart mirror. However, it’s much harder to say no to smartphones. It’s harder still to get anyone to even hear your “no” when data centers turn up in your backyard, and Musk’s satellites fill up the skies and hide the stars:
My point? It’s still not about the tech.
I’m fascinated by AI, but I do wonder if using a city’s worth of electricity and water is a good exchange for an internet full of spammy drivel. Likewise, smart cars are interesting (I guess), but I don’t think I fancy my vehicle spying on me:
New VR headsets? The child in me practically screams in excitement. But as I look out the window to watch drones forming ads in the sky over the city where I live, my mind turns to “fully immersive” ads and marketers frothing at the mouth at all the “content” they’re going to surround us with. The cynic in me takes over, and I think of the boring dystopia ahead of us:
Amongst this growing digital landscape of largely useless or poorly utilized digital products, a desire emerges to retreat to the safety of even more useless but more interesting analog and retro-digital tech and aesthetics. The result is a state of affairs that nostalgia expert and psychology professor Krystine Batcho notes is paradoxical:
“Our culture has always been obsessed with progress; we have always been forward-looking. Technology was never meant for nostalgia … it was never meant to be about the past, always about the present and the future.”
It’s no longer news to remind you that vinyl is back, 16-bit is in, and pop culture can’t stop rewinding old trends. If the decades of the 20th century were like a neat stack of pencils, each with its own distinct “color,” the 21st century is the resulting child’s drawing stuck on your fridge - a scribbled merge of retro aesthetics and micro-trends. If you’ve been following my blog for any amount of time, you’ll know that I’m just as much of a scribbler:
Still, the old is always showing up anew. Not too long ago, an American video game and software company launched a successful game console where the primary features were its 1-bit display and mechanical crank. Meanwhile, polaroid filters are a popular choice on Instagram, single-function devices like mp3 players and “dumbphones” are the hipper-than-hip (depending on who you ask) accessories, and horror media has become obsessed with the VHS. Even our depictions of the future are largely drawn from the past aesthetics of cyberpunk dystopias and Y2K futurism. And don’t get me started on all the love out there that remains for Windows XP:
Recently, I found myself down another rabbit hole of nostalgia in the form of “Frutiger Aero,” an aesthetic that exemplifies the glossy, friendly interfaces of 2000s tech (think of the interfaces of the Nintendo Wii, Vista, and early Android phones, or corporate advertising featuring bubbles, cityscapes and tropical fish). Looking through the online communities surrounding this concept, what I found was that people weren’t just looking back at this stuff - they were reimagining and attempting to reclaim the green, calm future it once promised. You can find similar tech-focused reimaginings in the communities dedicated to liminal spaces, dream core, and vaporwave:
So is this obsession with nostalgic tech really just a case of “retreating” into the comforts of the past, or something more?
Culture theorist Mark Fisher once lamented that we are haunted by futures that never came to be, namely the one promised by modernism. Perhaps now, we are equally haunted by visions of a lost tech utopia - of an era where technology frees us of the proverbial chains of poverty, climate crisis, and the working week. A strange specter indeed, considering that, by token of the rebound effect and the beating sound of our march towards “growth,” we are now left only with more things to consume. Perhaps, as Batcho notes, “what we are craving in old tech is just reminders of what might be slipping away from us.”
Moving away from the realm of culture theorists, we might find simpler answers. Perhaps the reason some of us retain an obsession with old technology is simply the result of now having several decades’ worth of technology to be nostalgic about. What’s more, that tech is still fun. After all, the television didn’t kill the book, the board game, or the football, so why should the smartphone kill the handheld or the streaming service kill the vinyl? And in today’s world of everything-flat-design, everything-connected technology, what’s more fun than switching off with all things bright, gaudy, and outdated? Even if perhaps they are themselves, just more things to consume.
Or maybe, once you’ve asked who the fairest one of all is, the novelty of something like a talking mirror wears off all too quickly. But at least such a thing will always be Luddite-proof on the threat of more bad luck if broken.