Forward to the Past - the Hazards of Nostalgia

by Samuel Marlow. Published 23rd October 2013

Maybe I'm being hypocritical here, given the project I'm currently working on deals with modern, electronic technology being taken off-line by a coronal mass ejection, but I've been giving a lot of thought to the current trend for nostalgia at the moment and it's got me worried.

What is more worrying, is that it's people my generation who seem to be driving and perpetrating the fad.

First, as seen in this wonderful scene from the final episode in the first series of Mad Men, "The Wheel" the word has its roots in Greek. Though my own digging around in its etymology gives the definition as "a pain resulting from a desire to return home" (actually coined by a Swiss physician to describe homesickness), the link between the warm feelings and pain is clearly spelled out.

Of course there is comfort in the familiar, and a sense of safety from the homely, but I start to worry when it becomes cultural. Institutionalised. More concerning is what it says about us as people and a society.

It was a trend I first started to notice about five years ago. The first time I spotted it was the design of a Marks & Spencer radio. Though it was a DAB digital radio, the housing had been designed to mimic the wood and chunky twist knobs of a 1950s radio. I remember remarking at the time that whenever things got scary, we would regress.

Whatever you think about the design styles and fashions of the early 2000s, they were, at least, progressive. I remember the first time I saw an iPod - white plastic and shiny metal, square corners - there was nothing remotely nostalgic about it.

Before we go much further, maybe a confession and qualifying statement are in order. As you may have noticed, I very much like the Art Deco movement. Its DNA all over my personal design work. However, I like it for its proportions, colours and material choice. I have liked it since I was old enough to have an opinion on style. Similarly, I have know people who have had similar feelings about other design periods. These are personal preference, rather then nostalgia. Speaking for myself, I have no yearning to return to the 1930s, nor live a 1930s lifestyle. I just like flashes of the design of that era.

The Great Gatsby

The dangerous nostalgia I am talking about is the increasing tendency among people to invoke a decade wholesale. Not just flashes of carefully selected design elements, but entire wardrobes, accessories, music and film choices and references. I am talking about the appearance of essentially cosplaying a whole different time.

Most alarmingly, this seems to be creeping into new pop culture, as well. Increasingly we seem to feel threatened by anything new, and I worry what this says about our cultural state of mind.

A quote by Douglas Adams was recently brought to my attention. The gist of it is that there is the technology that was created before we were born - the wheel, telephones, the lightbulb - that we don't even think of as technology it is so ubiquitous. Then there is the technology that is created between our birth and 30s, which is amazing and going to revolutionise the world and the way we live in it - for me that is the internet, digital video, iPads, 3D printers, etc. Then there is the tech created after that - I expect this will be things like Google Glass for me - that are just baffling and enraging that we can see no practical use for.

As I culture, I feel we are now in the third phase. Why have anything new, when there is perfectly good old stuff? This also seems to be what happens to the elderly - they go from excited and engaged to reminiscing about "the good old days", finding anything new scary and unnecessary.

The reason for this is that they feel they are being left behind. That the world no longer belongs to them, they have been overtaken by a new generation.

Culturally, I think this is what we are feeling at the moment. The challenge to Western superiority in the 2001 attacks on mainland America, a decade of wars we have lost and a punishing economic depression, all as China and India are growing more confident has left us feeling past it. As much as I like the current style of "folk Rock", even that is rooted in the past.

Family Guy Star Wars

Our own pop culture now invokes happier, simpler (at least in our heads) times. Suddenly, having been ridiculed a few years ago, all things 80s are back in fashion. No doubt in part because it is people like JJ Abrams, Seth MacFarlane and their contemporaries who grew up in the 80s and absorbed its popular culture who are now creating our current films and TV shows.

It is no secret that shows like The Simpsons and film series like Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Back To The Future invoked an earlier era or style of story-telling, but they updated it, saw what was humorous about it and gave us a modern interpretation of it.

Abrams Super8 by contrast may as well have been made in 1985. Yes, it was a charming reminder of that warm, fuzzy feeling we got from Spielberg's earlier films (before he went all no-more-comedy-Nazis on us), but it offered nothing new.

JJ Abrams' Super8

We seem to have lost our ability to be discerning about the past. Yes, there was a breathless sense of economic and cultural prosperity in the 80s, the West seemed to be "on top", but there were also a great many problems with it, too. Poverty, rampant greed, Western imperialism, the Cold War, three-day weeks, rolling black-outs, and so on...

With the rebooted Star Trek, James Bond, Superman, remake after reboot after reimagining after spin-off after prequel after sequel of films and series that were big 15 to 30 years ago and new instalments of Star Wars on the way, it's like we're trapped in the past. Even The Simpsons has taken to trying to rip off its own early episodes.

Yet, while they succeed in tugging at our heart strings and giving us that pang of nostalgia, they miss what was great in the originals - that sense of confidence and vision, that looking to the future that was so inspirational. Without it the imitations end up feeling somehow hollow.

I'm not saying there is anything wrong with drawing on the past for inspiration and to learn from what has come before. That is, after all, how we progress, but let's discriminate about what was good and what was bad, what is worth bringing with us, and what is worth discarding.

If we are to borrow from these later decades of the previous century, let's borrow that sense of optimism and energy. Not because it is easy, but because it is hard.

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