On Nostalgia

by on December 28, 2011 · 6 comments

Just last week I was discussing the terrifically interesting work of Michael Sacasas who pens The Frailest Thing, a poetic blog about technology and culture[see: "Information Revolutions & Cultural / Economic Tradeoffs"] I highly recommend you follow his blog even if you struggle to keep up with his brilliance, as I often do.  He posted another great essay today entitled, “Nostalgia: The Third Wave,” in which he discusses the work of the late social critic Christopher Lasch and his work on memory and nostalgia. Go read the entire thing since I cannot possible do it justice here. Anyway, I posted a short comment over there that I thought I would just republish here in case others are interested. I find the issue of nostalgia to be quite interesting.

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Michael… I’m currently finishing up a paper looking at the causes of various “techno-panics” over time. I try to group together a variety of theories and possible explanations, one of which is labeled “Hyper-Nostalgia, Pessimistic Bias & Soft Ludditism.” I don’t go into anywhere near the detail you do here, but I did unearth a number of interesting things while conducting research.

Have you ever come across the book On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, by the poet Susan Stewart? She notes that what is ironic about nostalgia is that it is rooted in something typically unknown by the proponent.  Consequently, she argues that nostalgia represents “a sadness without an object, a sadness which creates a longing that of necessity is inauthentic because it does not take part in lived experience. Rather, it remains behind and before that experience.”  Too often, Stewart observes, “nostalgia wears a distinctly utopian face” and thus becomes a “social disease.”

That’s probably a bit extreme, but it does help explain why some intellectuals, social critics, and policymakers occasionally demonize new mediums, technologies, or forms of culture. If one if suffering from a rather extreme version of what Michael Shermer refers to this as “rosy retrospection bias,” (The Believing Brain, 2011) or “the tendency to remember past events as being more positive than they actually were,” then it would hardly be surprising that they would adopt attitudes and policies that disfavor the new and different.   

Indeed, many critics fear how technological evolution challenges the old order, traditional values, settled norms, traditional business models, and existing institutions. Stated differently, by its nature, technology disrupts settled matters and, therefore, “the shock of the new often brings out critics eager to warn us away,” notes Dennis Baron, author of A Better Pencil.  Occasionally, this marriage of distaste for the new and a longing for the past (often referred to as a “simpler time” or “the good old days”) yields the sort of a moral panics or technopanics I discuss in my paper. In particular, cultural critics and advocacy groups benefit from the use of nostalgia by playing into, or whipping up, fears that there was a better time we’ve lost and then suggesting “steps should be taken” to help us return to that time.

I regard that as dangerous because it implies someone knows how to set society back on that supposedly better course even though they haven’t likely taken into account the full costs of even attempting to do so. Those costs could be speech-related (censorship), social (unnecessary changes in how we educate children) or economic (disruption of new technologies or business methods). That would be the downside of hyper-nostalgia if given the effect of law.

I guess it all comes back to what the Scottish philosopher and economist David Hume observed in a 1777 essay: “The humour of blaming the present, and admiring the past, is strongly rooted in human nature, and has an influence even on persons endued with the profoundest judgment and extensive learning.” The problem is, when we act on those well-ingrained instincts, it has consequences and those consequences could be profound.  Thus, I would argue we should establish a fairly high bar when it comes to nostalgic assertions about “a better time” to which some would have us return. Because in my eyes, those “good ‘ol days” — whenever those were — were rarely as great as some claim.

Of course, others might claim that I am, once again, just being too much of a Pollyanna!

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