With the industry driven by innovation and in constant acceleration mode, it seems fitting that there would be such a thing as digital nostalgia. It must be a direct result of update fatigue. Academics, media theorists and pop theory in journalism and keynote speeches, have collectively so relished an overwhelming nostalgia for the dial-up tone of 1990s Internet connections that it is a popular culture cliché at this point. But yes, it is proper digital nostalgia in sound bite.
Some examples of digital nostalgia work on all of us – for instance, the long-forgotten stylistics of the first pages on GeoCities, the predominant website platform for the masses in the days when most of us first got connected and started to explore the online world. From that time, and even a little earlier, we remember the digital-neon-like vaporwave aesthetic, which bled into the retro GIF revival that has been going strong for more than 15 years now, built upon the 1990s limitations of very basic, tiny, loadable digital animations. There are many such examples, and it is interesting to realise that the simplicity of the screensavers and old PC games that causes us to smile as we remember the time when they were part of our lives is in fact merely due to the technological limitations of the long-outdated systems they were obliged to run on. What now seems quaintly lo-fi was then not only top-notch and high-tech but also carefully constructed to visually do as much as possibly could be done with very limited frame rates and reload functionality and simple graphics cards.
In short, the pre-millennial generations share a love of outdated digital graphics. There are likely two reasons for this love. It’s a fact that we were younger when we saw these images on a daily basis, and that’s the first clear signal for nostalgia: the simple passage of time. When we see a screensaver from 1996, we also imagine the living room setup, with the family PC that ran it every day. The second reason is likely apprehension around the constant updating of technology, which is now happening so swiftly (with changes made almost daily) that we no longer understand the technological steps involved: they have become invisible and can be identified only in hindsight. And this speed of change is, if not unsettling, at least a clear sign that you are not as in control as you were back in the days when updates came in the mail or from the store, on installation CDs.
As dramatic an emotion as nostalgia is, the digital type is obviously met with pop-culture cheers. The grandeur of emotion in the digital realm, that is so often claimed to have no room for anything beyond clinical functionality! Digital nostalgia needs digital artefacts, like any mature anthropological field. The logical function of such a recent kind of artefact in such a young cultural field seems to be, firstly, to serve as a reminder of a safer version of the present, picturesquely evoking a less complicated time. Feeling nostalgic from time to time is one thing, but institutionalising nostalgia as a part of the collective cultural heritage is tricky. An old Sega or Nintendo game console is quite a different thing in a museum display than it would have been in its original environment, in a ’90s adolescent’s musty bedroom, at peak industry relevance.