Nostalgic for Tomorrow: Construction of the Self through Immediate and Interactive Storytelling in the Online World
Image “From Selfie to Self-Expression” Exhibition, Saatchi Gallery, London. (Taken by author)
In today’s technology-saturated culture, nostalgia is an experience of immediate memory production and self-reflection. It is a feeling that not only rests on the past, but also takes the learning from the immediate history to define and shape the future. People’s practice of memory archiving and storytelling are radically changing online as the past is measured in a second increment while social media sites feed the users their long-forgotten past. In the future, nostalgia and technology may fuse, one inseparable from the other, allowing users to freely interact with their memories. Once the technology reaches that level, the idea of linear timeline may go extinct. If this is the case, can one be nostalgic for tomorrow?
Originally a medical terminology, the word “nostalgia” was founded by a Swiss student, Johannes Hofer in 1688 to describe the severe homesickness displayed by the Swiss mercenaries serving abroad1. Stemming from the Greek language nóstos, “return home” and álgos, “pain” the original meaning connoted an extremely negative feeling. As Andreea Deciu Ritivoi states, the discourse of nostalgia in the early days was of “escapism and retreatism”2.
Currently, the discourse of nostalgia is shifting towards immediacy and interaction of storytelling. Perception of time on social media sites are shrinking as moments are instantly captured and easily shared. People’s practice of the discourse on the platform shows immediacy working both as an emotional trigger and storytelling. Take for instance, “Stories”, the Instagram feature. As an instant ephemeral app, it disciplines users to interchange with their traditional posts as a filler for the backstage story that remains untold. More precisely, people are governed to broadcast instantly. Memories shared on Stories are a representation of the past not too far from the present. Nostalgia then, is no longer about going back to the past, as much as it is about the bringing the past into present–or as Ritivoi describes, “‘presenting’ of the past”.
Theodule Ribot stated that “the identity of the self rests entirely on memory”. Through immediate storytelling, users are able to close the gap between each moment in history, constructing their identity that’s rich and three-dimensional. Above all, more users are engaging with the “now” of other users virtually. Holistically, the Internet is a space where all of one’s online persona exists in fragments. In other words, users’ online memory is stored in multiple locations in the virtual space, like epistemes, broken and discontinued. What would happen then, if these fragments proliferate, coming so close together? And what would happen to people’s understanding of nostalgia, if the concept of time were to shrink even further?
Boym wrote in 2001 “nostalgia, like progress, is dependent on the modern conception of unrepeatable and irreversible time”3. This may prove otherwise in this future scenario. In ten years time, technology and nostalgia may become increasingly co-dependent. Users may be able to capture and relive their memories instantly through new institutions such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality. Advance in technology may allow users to engage with all five senses, creating an even more dynamic interaction of memories. Drawing from the past memories, technology may also be able to project one’s future scenarios. Thus, future memories, however envisioned, may also become part of one’s identity. Ultimately, the future discourse of nostalgia may no longer be about defining the self on a linear timeline. Rather, the self may be constructed through collections of infinite dots, the compressed moment made up of all past, present and future memories.
There is a feasibility with this proposition. The recent invention of Snapchat’s “Spectacles”, sunglasses that snap the moment, emphasises the potentiality of immediate documentation of the present4. Google VR allows one to play interactive games, paint in 3D space and explore corners of the world virtually, further enhancing the likelihood of technology and personal experience5. Once nostalgia becomes an interactive experience, more liable future opportunities may be projected. Fused power of nostalgia and technology will allow individuals and organisations to connect the infinite dots together to increase empathy and spark new innovative ideas for the future.
Today’s students from kindergarten through university are the first generations to grow up surrounded by new technology6. They are the “Digital Natives”, the dominant demographic of the future. By the time they become the dominant population, nostalgia will be remembered as something that co-existed with technology. Technological advancement cannot be stopped. However, human beings can consider how to operate within the system without killing their values of nostalgic memories. After all, memories construct one’s life-long story; and technology is an aid that transforms that experience.
Megumi is a MA Innovation Management student at Central Saint Martins currently working on her dissertation exploring the role of design in IoT in delivering experiences that empower people to create better everyday lives. Please feel free to find out more about Megumi here!