Ron Herron, Archigram (1970)

This essay was written as part of a project for developing a critical understanding of the key contemporary discourse of nostalgia, as it manifests in culture and can be turned into trends/foresight strategies.

Nostalgia. Homer takes the first written account of this state of feelings when his tragic hero Odysseus was painfully awaiting his return (gr. ’nostos’) home from the Trojan War, causing him to suffer (gr. ’algos’) during the ten year long journey.

Nostalgia, suffering through the longing to return to a place of your past. In the 17th century it was described as a curable disease diagnosed among displaced people, such as soldiers serving abroad, a notion that persisted into the 19th century. By the beginning of the 20th century nostalgia was being described as a psychiatric disorder and later as a variant of depression, closely linked to homesickness, not necessarily referring to one’s place of origins but to various places, objects or people.

A contemporary definition of nostalgia does not exist. There is no unique feature that distinguishes it from other emotions and memories. However, the lay conception of nostalgia describes it as a bittersweet emotional and cognitive state which is closer to Odysseus’ feeling than to the negative, unhealthy connotations attached to it from the 17th century until few decades ago.

Nostalgia is the longing for another time, the slower rhythm of our childhood, a utopian past we create in our mind. The fascination of it’s object is illusory and rose-tinted. Nostalgic stories mostly feature positive experiences or milestone events of oneself, often accompanied by important others. Feeling nostalgic has a range of positive psychological functions. It reinforces self-esteem, serves as an archive for social connectedness, generates positive affect and provides a sense of meaning in life. It is a mechanism that helps us retain our identities and cope with discontinuities caused by major life changes. As our lives are changing at ever increasing pace, anxieties about uncertain futures are rising and a stronger longing for cohesion and tradition reveals.

Today’s nostalgia is not only retrospective, but also prospective, blending the fantasies of our past together with the needs in the present that create our future. It can be used as a tool to creatively revive lost but cherished experiences in the present and encourage to critically reflect on digital lifestyles. Consumer technology, the accelerator of modern day nostalgia, can at the same time function to tackle our yearning for the past by either recreating products from the past, creating new products that deliver us the values from the past or recycling old products that cater to our modern needs.

For music, digitization means easier and faster access, with the internet potentially introducing the listener to a wide variety of genres and artists. While broadening the possibilities, the choice can be overwhelming. Vinyl records are an example for restorative nostalgia. A vinyl is an original or authentically reproduced product and the only audio recording format with a positive sales trend. Not only people who grew up with records buy them, but more and more younger people use this old medium, feeling nostalgic for something they never had lost. Crucial to vinyl’s successes is that both old and new releases are issued on this format. Records are not only limited to reproduce sound in this time of a mainly intangible, digital music experience, records also satisfy sight, touch and smell, which are immediate triggers for nostalgia and its positive effect on us.

The online sales platform Etsy is an example for a reflectively nostalgic service. With the help of modern technology it revives a time-honored experience in a new context. Etsy brings the handicraft market online and allows customers to acquire truly unique things, just like they would at a traditional crafts fair. On the other hand it motivates craftsmanship. By creating things yourself and then selling them online you gain respect from a community, and in contrast to the traditional forms of selling arts and crafts, Etsy has a low entry barrier. The craftsman does not have to set up their own business, they feel professional from the first sale on. These intrinsic rewards, together with extrinsic rewards of engagement with the world, and money from the sales, make Etsy a tool that features values from the past to fit our modern presence.

The third example for technology catering to our nostalgic needs is the Narrative Clip, a small clip-on camera which enables its users to document their whole life and digitally archive it. The device can be described as an external storage for your photographic memory. It gives the opportunity to realistically recall every moment of your life in seconds and travel back to the places you desire. The device emerged from the contemporary obsession with nostalgia to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety.

Managing our nostalgia through the use of technological devices can help us to utilise it as a tool to enhance our lives. It helps us to collect memories, either digitally or physically, which we can revert to when we feel unsatisfied in the present. It is a paradox that technology helps us to cure our nostalgic desires whilst it produces these needs at the same time by accelerating the speed of change. Designers and marketers are taking inspiration from nostalgia by creating technological products to fulfil manifested needs which arise just through the technological takeover and are no longer automatically fulfilled from the cultural and social environment we live in.

This paradox chances to be the final "cure" for nostalgia. The illusion of the utopian past might get destroyed by technology, if at one point it will be possible to realistically relive the past by improved life like experiences of time travel. Or perhaps, as technology itself is evoking nostalgia in us, an anti-trend towards technology will become conceivable. Instead of using technology as a cure for our nostalgia, people might refrain from using consumer technologies at all, going back to the basics, relying on restorative nostalgia to rebuild their ideal present. This idea sounds idyllic, but it tempts us to dismiss critical thinking for emotional bonding. Nostalgia is trans ideological conservative and has been abused by right as well as left politics before to rebuild social structures in the way as they seemed to be better in the past.


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