The Problem with Future Nostalgia
The Internet has improved in many ways, but its also lost some of its magic.
“Vaporwave really rekindled my love for music, to the point where I enjoy it as much as I did when I was a teenager. Before it, I spent a lot of 2013 listening to spacey drum & bass mixes while watching Hong Kong and Tokyo night driving videos on YouTube and drinking beer, just because the combination of it all created such a weird feeling I have never experienced before. Then I found vaporwave, and it was like it was already doing all that for me, without having to sync the music up to the videos or drink the alcohol.”
I probably mourn the Internet of the 90s at least once a week. I grew up with the Internet, and to my child-self rabbit-holing through the messy spiderweb links of Angelfire websites and GameFaqs message boards. I longed for the days when my Dad would take us to his work — he was a software engineer who worked at Paradigm owned by the now-defunct THQ — and I’d scroll through a board called UnsolvedMysteries and read stories about ouija boards, ghosts, and demonic possession submitted by users and commented on by people hunting for clues and solutions. Which now that I think about, was probably one of the origins of creepypasta. I’d hunt the Internet for mods for my Creatures games, feed my Neopets, and go to sleep with my eyes swirling with images of dancing Sims.
I’m a bit of a non-linear thinker (surprise) and I learned to type up to 120 wpm. It made my fingers faster than my brain sometimes, and as a writer, the keyboard became a good way to follow those spiderwebbing trails of thoughts because I was no longer constrained by the ordinary space of paper or keyboard. The keyboard didn’t feel like “the loss of the intimacy of the pen”, or whatever it is people say. It meant freedom to me.
(Which is also why there’s a sentence frag in every fucking newsletter I write. I’m sorry. No matter how much I reread it seems to sneak in there.)
Now, the Internet seems to be bought and paid for. Self-expression with anonymous avatars, pseudonyms, handles & HTML gone wild has been shrunk down to make room for neat, clean lines. Facebook normalized using your real name and information, and corporations have moved in to sweep up the real estate. Even Internet sensations that “came from nowhere” these days often have suspiciously high-quality production value and a huge marketing campaign behind them.
Many of us millennials seem to be mourning not just the loss of the past, but the loss of an alternate future. There’s a feeling that maybe we had a bright hope but seemed to have taken a wrong turn at some point. That’s what things like vaporwave, futurefunk, and high-resolution pixel art seem to be conveying — not just looking toward the past, but toward the future we could have, by creating something of an alternative past. An alternate world where maybe we could have moved toward the collective dream we shared.
We’ve gained a lot with the Internet of today. We have the entire digital archive of human history in our pockets, nearly every book we could want to read just a button-click away.
But we’ve also lost something tangible: The feeling of discovery. Of physicality. Of wondering the aisles of a record shop or a bookstore, running our fingers alongside the crisp spines and taking in the smell of roasted coffee beans and the peripheral noise of people wandering around. Or going to Best Buy with its big open space and bright lines. Getting my copy of The Sims, or Diablo 2, and reading and rereading the manual and box over and over again until I could finally get home and download it. Getting that rush when we discover something we might like like we’ve acquired a treasure only for us.
And it made me spend more time playing the game, or giving attention to the book because I had to make an effort to acquire it. Now I own a Kindle and a Steam library with stacks of things I’ve never even glanced at.
Maybe I miss it so much because we’re designed to desire treasure. Special things. Because part of the enjoyment of a piece of media is also its possession. I think our minds often equate owning a book to owning its magic. This is also probably the reason why a “new” book holds more appeal, even if we have an older one we haven’t even read yet. Just the mere act of owning the physical object seems to bring us power and prestige.
Yes, I own hundreds of books on my Kindle. I prefer it that way. But I can’t see them laid out on a bookshelf. In a way, it seems they don’t exist. And because of Amazon rights, they certainly aren’t mine in the way a physical copy is.
Bookstores still exist, but it’s not quite the same. It feels like role-playing being in a bookstore now, a throwback to a world no longer required. And I know if I acquire something I could’ve saved a lot of time and money probably just downloading it on the Internet.
To come across something truly strange and unique feels rare. Everything seems a bit manufactured. Even the songs by indie artists often feel like pumped-out carbon copies.
Even my recommended list on Youtube seems to have gotten worst. They play it safe, never introducing me to anything new or fresh, expanding my vision or genre preferences, but instead putting videos I’ve played over and over again into my “Up Next” queue. A safe way to get clicks.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of great things that have happened since the 90s. I have access to things I’d never have thought possible, and opportunities that never existed before. Most days I am genuinely thrilled to be alive in this world, at this moment, because the alternatives in parallel universes aren’t all rosy.
But maybe that kind of future nostalgia is also why I decided to start writing these articles. Imagine you and me, curled up in a pillow fort with fairy lights strung around us, wearing our pajamas and eating popsicles we snuck from downstairs. We have this song playing on a CD player, kept to a low level so we don’t wake anyone, but also so that nobody can hear me when I lean in and whisper a story.
The story is going to be messy, with lots of laughs and stutters in between. It’s going to take unexpected twists and lead to dead ends, and go off on random tangents. Sometimes you’ll even be a little bored — and you’ll almost fall asleep with the popsicle stick pressed against your thigh and the sound of the song stopping and starting again.
But other times you’ll feel excited because you feel like you’re about to learn something no one else knows. You’ll leave not just feeling more connected to me, but to you, to the world. And when the blanket and pillows are put away and you go off into the morning light, you’ll feel more open to the idea of new opportunities. Not because of the story I told you, but the story you told yourself.
We can’t recreate a feeling that no longer exists. The days of NeoPets and a new Internet will never come again. But there are always new feelings to create.