Nostalgia of the young? Or something else?

Re-posted from The Fifth Floor

Projects like the Sabbath Manifesto, which encourages people to dedicate an evening per week without technological tethers, have been interpreted by some as fetishizing unmediated experiences and as false nostalgia for a time that never was. Instead of decying them as unhelpful, I think these expressions of nostalgia are interesting; furthermore it’s even more fascinating that these feelings are shared, in part, with people who may have no personal recollection of a time when their lives weren’t pervaded with digital media technologies…teens! Sherry Turkle, in her recent book Alone Together, recounts interviews with several young people who wax nostalgic about a time (before their own) in which people communicated more directly and had space to think. Turkle calls this, “the nostalgia of the young.” This turn of phrase got me thinking, not about whether or not these kids are right, but about the experience of longing for a time that they may have never personally experienced.  

As a kid growing up in the early 1990s, the computer was present in our home, not as a source of information, but for silly entertainment.  I may have been required to do online research for a school project, but this was accomplished in a school computer lab under the surveillance of an adult. I received a cell phone at age 16, which, along with my learner’s permit, was a symbol of my emerging maturity, and was also for communication with my parents only. Now, as someone interested in the diversity of experiences people have with their personal technologies, I’ve found myself coming across lots of voices (both academic and not) that explain this diversity away with “generational differences.” If “kids these days” just experience reality differently than adults, who can remember a time without digital info and communications tech, then Turkle wouldn’t have found sentiments like Brad’s – a teenager who worries that “digital life cheats people out of learning how to read a person’s face” and that “online life inhibits authenticity”. While Turkle makes no claims about Brad’s concerns being representative of a larger population of nostalgic teens, the existence of sentiments like these amongst these “digital natives” is reason for pause. 

Fred Davis, Yearning for Yesterday (1979) questions whether one can feel nostalgia for something they’ve never experienced. Instead of nostalgia, he calls this, “the antiquarian mood,” referring to those, like the main characters of Midnight in Paris, who say they’d rather live in what they see as a more authentic and romantic period before their own.  Davis says that this mood “grants greater existential license to the imagination and permits more pure self-fantasy than does the memory of events and places from our own lives. However profligate our constructions of the latter may be, in the end the memory of them is constrained by, at minimum, some nagging unspoken sense of the way things ‘actually were then’”(9). This would suggest that, because they’re untethered to actual memories of the past, the teen’s feelings about a lack of authenticity in online life may be only fantasy. Do adults then express more reasonable concerns when it comes to the “anxiety” that supposedly pervades our digital age? 

I would argue that nostalgia isn’t the best way to think about these expressions of longing for a time less saturated with personal technologies like cell phones, laptops, and the social networks they support. Instead of trying to lump all of the diverse ways these longings are expressed into one category, we would do better to think about the cultural resources at work in their expression. As Marshall Sahlins says, ”no object, no thing, has being or movement in human society except the significance men can give it” by way of illustration, he asks why Americans don’t eat dogs and horses, when they’re commonly eaten in other parts of the world. I think that the visceral revulsion toward the idea of eating dog meat that I experience as an American is comparable to the expressions of longing for an earlier, simpler, slower time in our communication with others…stay with me here…

Sahlins points out that even during times of economic hardship, when horse and dog meat were cheaper sources of protein than beef and pork, a cultural uneasiness still discouraged (in the case of horse) and forbid (in the case of dogs) their consumption. Sahlins concludes that this is because these animals participate in American society in the capacity of subjects; meaning that they’re given names, and we even speak to them! Edibility is inversely related to how close to humans we understand these animals to be. Thus, even under new conditions – like economic hardship – these cultural assumptions are somewhat rigid and “the object stands as a human concept outside itself, as man speaking to man through the medium of things” (287). In the same way, our ideas about intimate communication include things like an environment rich with social cues, embodied presence, and rapt attention without distractions. Even when conditions change – like the introduction of new, efficient means of communicating, and more mobile lifestyles that take us away from loved ones - our ideas about what communication with family and friends should look like remain relatively rigid. So, the “nostalgia of the young” (and of older people too) that Turkle found could be interpreted as the tension between mismatched cultural categories and new practices under new social conditions. 

Where are some other places, besides intimate kinds of communication (e.g., breaking off a romantic relationship, telling someone bad news, expressing love/affection) that we might be able to see this same kind of tension between what we think something SHOULD be and how it’s changed under new social conditions? MOOCs? Test-tube created organs? Robot care-givers? I’d love to hear what you all think!


kid with cell phone

kid with cell phone