Digital Nostalgia

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remember the time when they were part of our lives is in fact merely due to the technological limitations of the long-outdated systems they were obliged to run on.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In short, the pre-millennial generations share a love of outdated digital graphics.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.

Image: Camerons World
Cameron’s World, a project by the Berlin-based designer Cameron Askin, is a self-described love letter to the Internet of old. He has sourced what must be hundreds or thousands of images, GIF animations, PNGs, fonts and style setups from old GeoCities pages. The platform, which ran from 1994 until 2009, offered the first public space for personal websites. The stylistic possibilities of the time – and the technological limitations that now seem endearing – made GeoCities into a virtual mosaic slums of (digital generations of) ideas of web spaces as personal space. The platform provided what seemed at the time to be endless possibilities for customisation, and its users clearly took that as a challenge: the most extreme GeoCities pages feel like glitter bomb explosions, moving and swirling every which way, with endless GIF animations endlessly refreshing, ultimately rather muddying the communicative point of the websites. Some of the pages revived by Askin feel like dark goth grottos, others like ethereal hippie domains. The GeoCities space that seemed so free then seems perfectly, charmingly dated today.

Image: Screensavers
The screensavers of the 1990s had a clear purpose: to save monitors from screen burn through the neglect of being left on. There was a whole industry around screensavers: they were sold on CD-ROMs and came with the latest Microsoft software. Choosing a personal screensaver was a demonstration of individuality; imagine an office environment where the corporate logo is on everybody’s screensaver. Yikes! The graphics were kept basic to minimise memory use, making optimum use of moving as few pixels as possible while still using the entire screen. The designers of the most common screensavers were hardly designers by trade; rather, they were coders, using whatever creativity they could claim to make a highly functional tool fun and visually challenging. Now, decades later, the nostalgic and artistic quality of 1990s screensavers is finally getting some traction and cultural acknowledgement: museums are taking an interest in the material, and exhibitions on screensavers as a digital design subject have recently begun to appear.