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nostalgia bait: how artifacts of the past are infiltrating the present

Who doesn't have a vinyl collection? Perhaps some CDs? How many times has a montage of digital camera pictures shown up on your Instagram feed, the nostalgic and the algorithmic, the vintage and the present temporally colliding? It seems that the ghosts of media past have been rising all around us, worming their way into our algorithmically defined tastes for years—and they're not going anywhere. From the Instax Polaroid phase of 2017 to the digital camera era of today, we are quite literally viewing our present through the past. So, what should we make of this paradox?

Most college-aged people today were raised in a rapidly shifting digital landscape, from hazy memories of flip phones in the early aughts to smartphones being nearly ubiquitous by the time we were in middle school. It seems we were the last generation of the Western world to have eked out at least parts of our childhood in a pre-iPhone reality, a world of dusty VHS tapes and CD books, fat TVs and answering machines. We're what some pundit somewhere called "Digital Natives," people who grew up with the Internet and everything else that it entails. But are we really? Just because we happened to be born at such a liminal point in time doesn't mean we've assimilated into a digital world, happily bounced along from Snapchat to TikTok to the Metaverse. We're not native to anything; we're nomads left adrift in a confusing pool of 1s and 0s, so overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of data beamed into our eyes daily for years that we'll grasp hold of anything to anchor us. Enter: the digital camera.

Over the last year, the digital camera has been on the rise, a staple of any party or pregame, the perfect accessory for whatever microaesthetic I'm donning today. We curate our lives towards the camera; only the most view-worthy moments get captured, and the intrepid digicam user is subsequently hounded by all featured to share the coveted pictures (to be shared once more on social media). The algorithm exerts its subtle (and not so subtle) pressures, until we each have a disposable film camera in hand; paradoxically differentiating ourselves from modern technology and joining the mass trends. So why do it? Why retreat to the past? If it were just the Polaroid and the vinyls, it might be easier to explain. Under it all, we're still animals. Maybe we crave that physical sensation, the weight of feeling something in our hand that tells our monkey brain yes this is mine. To be able to decorate a space with the things that we enjoy, to signal to others that we're part of something. When everything in our lives is slowly being reduced to pixels on a screen, a sense of ownership and identity is lost. It's all more pictures, it's all more lights. Something sacred gets imbued in the physical object: if I could have this in an instantly more convenient way, but I choose not to, there is now some reverence, some special association with that object. But unlike a record player, digital cameras are, in fact, digital. There is of course something different about taking a picture with your phone as opposed to the digital camera; the subtle grain, the tactile click of the button, the simple fact that this is a camera, unto itself, rather than a phone that incidentally also has a camera. In the end however, the picture is still made of pixels. Is there something else, something beyond just tactility that is driving our collective fascination with these artifacts of a bygone era?

Looking to the past, we flee the present, and by appropriating these objects that many of us have only ever engaged with in the context of nostalgic reproduction, we glorify this past. Why else would digital cameras be en vogue concurrently with "indie sleaze," the glamorization of the early 2000s aesthetic? It's not just the object but the life that we are looking for. Viewed through enough lenses, anything could seem better than where we are today, and perhaps by looking through that same lens, we can recreate that "better" past right now. We are in a constant state of bereavement for something we have lost, and the record player equipped with Bluetooth (to take but one example) is our attempt to mitigate that loss. But nothing can fill this hole. Of course, we can never return to the past, and the past that we collectively romanticize never even existed in the first place. If we continue this trend, we'll end up like an ouroboros, a snake eating its own tail, glorifying and aestheticizing ever closer and closer "eras," until we're mourning the last second, without ever looking towards tomorrow. 

Is there a solution? Is this even a problem that needs to be solved? There is no denying that the present can feel like a steaming pile of shit. So what if I'm cheekily posing with a Nokia flip phone? It's not like it's hurting anyone. Who can deny a bit of escapism now and again? But the issue is that we have become subsumed with escapism, subsumed with this nostalgia, and we are neglecting the opportunities of the now. We are neglecting the chance of creation, of wonder, of the discomfort of whatever fresh hell we're living in, but the beauty as well. For how can we have a past to look back on if there was never any present to begin with?


Ariana Hameed is a sophomore in the College, studying American Studies and Computer Science, Ethics, and Society and minoring in Unnecessary Long Names.


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