An Escape to the Past? Reviving Nostalgic Technology

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Words: Jasmine Niblett (she/her)

Instagram is littered with photographs taken on disposable cameras, Taylor Swift is releasing edition after edition of her re-releases on vinyl, and headphones are increasingly connected to our phones with wires again. The nostalgic revival of seemingly outdated technologies is tangible. The market research company GWI found that Generation Z, born between 1997 and 2012, is more likely to take part in nostalgic trends than any other generation. And despite the increase in microtrends and shortening of the trend cycle, nostalgia is seemingly a trend here to stay. In essence, this is not extraordinary; the 20-year trend cycle has long existed; media and fashion have always referenced and paid tribute to previous work. However, Gen Z’s return to genuinely old technology, rather than modernised imitations is remarkable. Moreover, GWI found that GenZ increasingly prefers to think about the past rather than the future, a truly unique symptom of our times. 

Part of the interest in second-hand items and vintage clothing is the current focus on sustainability and conscious consumption. However, the return to old tech can often have an adverse effect. The production of new vinyl records and disposable cameras hardly decreases our carbon footprint. What happens when the novelty wears off? Tech companies’ production of gimmicky nostalgic products, such as Samsung’s Flip phone, contributes to the mass accumulation of electronic waste. Even reusing old devices may not always be great for the environment since forward-thinking corporations are focusing on making products’ production and operation more sustainable amid our current climate crisis, leaving vintage-style products behind. Indeed, a recent study has revealed that nostalgia decreases consumers’ likelihood of changing their consumer behaviour to more green consumption patterns. 

Since sustainability evidently isn’t fueling the nostalgia trend among tech consumers, I’d suggest it’s rooted in our present social climate and its lack of a positive future vision. In the last century, every decade had a distinct vision of what the future was going to look like, influenced by contemporary preoccupations. In the 1920s and ‘30s, skyscrapers and aeroplanes populated people’s visions of modernity, following the first international commercial flight in 1919. However, after WW2’s airborne Blitzkrieg and the 1950s’ all-encompassing atomic fear, this vision was displaced by the 60s’ peace-loving future. However, amidst the last decade’s uncertainty of 9/11, the resulting “war on terror,” natural disasters, and the global Covid pandemic, our ability to envision a consistent future has seized. GenZ has witnessed technological advancement at a rate unprecedented among previous generations. Their life experience has demonstrated that nothing is permanent or secure and it appears this uncertainty will remain. Especially those who are not extraordinarily tech-savvy are doubtful whether the future has a place for them alongside the fast-paced realms of NFTs, Artificial Intelligence, and Augmented Reality. Though AI and AR are fun to experiment with, a recent D2L study has found that 52% of GenZ workers are worried about AI’s impact on their future employment. As a GenZ humanities student trying to enter the workforce, the impression I get from older generations is that I will never be able to afford the same standard of living they did. Thus, by emulating previous generations’ lifestyles, we as GenZ seek comfort in the purported constancy of the past. 

This is also true in a more practical way; the world is currently entering a new digital dark age. The term, coined by Terry Kuny, describes ‘an era where much of what we know today, much of what is coded and written electronically, will be lost forever’. We don’t own most of what we pay for online, our music is streamed and even when we “buy” a film online, we don’t have anything physical to show for it. This makes us wonder whether our pictures, music and videos are safe on the cloud or whether more traditional practices of printed photographs, vinyls, and DVDs might not be better for preserving our data. Subconsciously, it feels more comfortable to trust the technology we understand. 

So, what does this mean for our future? How long can we escape into the past and dismiss the innovations that will change our lifestyle irreversibly? Though some may be binning their smartphones for the classic Nokia brick, this is not the way forward. Ultimately, technological progress is both inevitable and important. In my immediate environment, I can detect an undeniable pushback against the excessive use of AI and AR. While this will by no means halt innovation, GenZ has successfully rejected gadgets due to privacy concerns, such as Google’s AR glasses, demonstrating that this socially conscious generation encourages the ethical use of new technology. Hopefully, while we look to the past, we can also learn from its mistakes; try to preserve our data from a looming digital dark age and embrace new tech in a socially conscious way.

Kuny, T. (1997) “A Digital Dark Ages? Challenges in the Preservation of Electronic Information,” ​​63RD IFLA Council and General Conference, pp. 1-12.

Wang, X. & Chao, C. (2020) “Nostalgia decreases green consumption: The mediating role of past orientation,” Business research quarterly, vol. 23, no. 4, pp. 270-284.


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