Skip to content
Michelle’s commentary on books, digital publishing and intersections between fiction & reality

Nostalgia and its unnerving connection to technology

January 10, 2022

Nostalgia is a bittersweet emotion. Discovering a candle that smells exactly like the perfume your mother wore to your eight-year-old birthday party can be an intense, powerful moment. All of the sudden you’re a kid again eating chocolate cake and running barefoot through the grass. A specific scent or sound or taste can seemingly transport you back in time and allow you relive a small glimpse of that moment.

But what happens when you can find that candle whenever you want and it’s no longer such an unexpected, rare, surreal event?

There’s always this dystopian aura around advancements in technology—whether that’s always totally fair or not is another topic—but the one that regards our superior technology and our ability to feel nostalgic is one I think is worth the criticism, or at least a discussion.

Nostalgia and the pandemic

I first came across this article in The Guardian talking mostly about the heightened longing for nostalgia amid the pandemic. In the article, it’s said that there are two main triggers for nostalgia:

The second are psychological triggers, such as loneliness, sadness, anxiety or a lack of meaning in life. ‘When you’re feeling sad, that makes you more inclined to reflect nostalgically on the past because nostalgia helps you cope with those states,’ Routledge says…’when people feel disconnected in some important way, alienated or they’re just uncertain about the future, they tend to become more nostalgic.’

This makes total sense. I kind of even wrote about this in fall 2020 when I noticed a pattern in my media habits. In some way, it was a nostalgia for the last time life felt normal.

So after reading this article and picking up on the ways more advanced tech can trigger nostalgia more frequently—and even seeks to—I did a bit more digging.

The change in perception of nostalgia over the years

I’ve always thought of nostalgia as a positive thing—it never crossed my mind that it could ever really be thought of as a negative. It’s just this warm, comforting, indescribable feeling that makes me feel safe.

That’s why I was really surprised to read it used to be considered a really negative, even unhealthy feeling.

Up until the 19th century, a preoccupation with nostalgia was a psychological disorder, treated similarly to paranoia or hysteria. Even as recently as the 1980s, looking back on the past was considered ill-advised. In 1985, the psychotherapist Roderick Peters concluded that nostalgia ‘persists and profoundly interferes with the individual’s attempts to cope with his present circumstances.’

I could see where that thought process comes from—nostalgia is a longing for the past, so I could see how it would be unhealthy to get stuck there and not think about the future.

But in 2013 a report concluded that nostalgia was indeed a positive thing:

After almost a decade of research on nostalgia, Sedikides and his team concluded that the emotion had a profoundly positive impact on the mental health of the participants he studied. Inducing the emotion made people feel less lonely and more optimistic about the future.

So, nostalgia is good, confirmed—what more is there to say?

A lot.

Is there such thing as too much nostalgia?

Never before have we been able to access our fondest memories so tangibly before. Now, cameras capture every moment of our lives, social apps have built-in features to say, “Hey, look what you were saying/doing exactly five years ago!”

It’s a cool feature, but now that I realize how much big companies have geared towards this notion and the effects it could maybe have, I start to get more worried.

While these apps and websites let us glimpse the past, other technologies could place us more squarely inside it. But although psychologists believe nostalgia is crucial for finding meaning in life and for combatting loneliness, we don’t yet know whether too much of it will have negative, even dystopian, effects. As technology gives us unprecedented access to our memories, might we yearn for the good old days when we forgot things?

Taking advantage of nostalgia has been a cop-out in multiple sectors. Why make a new movie with a new plot when you can just make a reboot or continued series of an older one you know fans love? And don’t even get me started on the nostalgic-driven “Make America Great Again” slogan.

The article also mentions how receiving such access to nostalgia from our phones will make us even more tied to them.

Clay Routledge, a psychology professor at North Dakota State University who wrote the leading textbook on nostalgia, says the emotion is typically healthy; in moderation, it can even lead you to seek out new experiences. But he cautions that ‘too much time focusing on the past could jeopardize your ability to engage in other opportunities that will form the basis for future nostalgic memories.’
In other words, nostalgia really won’t be what it once was if, in the future, you have nothing to remember but the time you spent swiping through your phone, remembering.

The last sentence is a little silly, because even if we’re tapping into nostalgia more I highly doubt anyone is only living life on their phone…but I could unfortunately be wrong.

Living for the moment…or living for nostalgia

About a year ago I had a really interesting realization about myself. It’s hard for me to “live in the moment.” Instead, I almost feel as if I’m doing things because I can’t wait to remember them. It’s weird to say, but I’ve come to love nostalgia so much that I almost do things so that in the future I can look back on them and experience that warm and fuzzy feeling.

I don’t think that’s bad per se, only because it is leading me to “seek out new experiences” as Routledge says—it’s definitely not jeopardizing my ability to engage in other opportunities.

I take photos so that I can reminisce on them later, and since I’m consciously aware of that I don’t think it’s detracting from my ability to live in the present. It’s just easier to appreciate the past than the current day. Especially when you can reflect on the good stuff of the past and forget about anything bad that was simultaneously going on.

One last thing—the piece that worries me a bit—is the thought that nostalgia might be like a drug in some ways. That each time you get a hit, you’re going to need more and more to get that high feeling.

There was a video game I played much of my childhood. I hadn’t touched it for maybe a decade and the first time I booted it back up I was slammed with nostalgia. Hearing the familiar music, being bombarded with hidden memories and emotions, it was probably the most nostalgia I could feel.

Now, I frequent that game more often. And each time I do, it’s a little less nostalgic because I’m creating fresh memories on top of those old, fonder ones.

With technology, if we’re able to relive any moment whenever we want, won’t that feeling get less intense?

And won’t we crave nostalgia even more to satisfy that urge—consequently tying us even more to our technology?

Posted in: