Three letters ago, we mentioned the notion of “traveling concepts”, which encourages us to explore the meanings of words as sources of knowledge about cultural transformations.
Let’s apply that exercise to a word that, in the 19th century, had more to do with Spiritism than the telegraph: medium. Although we’ve grown accustomed to treating media as a form of interpersonal communication and an intermediary that keeps us in touch with others, media also help us communicate with our own past. While seemingly modern — or downright futuristic — Culture 2.0 can often be described in terms associated with time and memory.
The strength of the bond between media and the past is best demonstrated by the fact that the past is essentially a product of media. They have given memory a collective dimension, transforming it into history. Plato couldn’t have been more wrong when he predicted the demise of memory at the hands of writing — quite the opposite is true.
The perception of media as a threat to the past and the familiar, as a force that is unconducive to reflecting on history, has been with humanity for over two thousand years. But if you stop to consider it, feelings of nostalgia are largely evoked by sounds and images. There are other stimuli, of course, but it’s hard to shake the impression that it’s old pictures and recordings, rather than the taste of a madeleine cake, that jog our memory.
These media records of the past were once largely hidden in dusty boxes, shoved under creaky beds, and stowed in suitcases, cupboards, and storage units. They have now become visible and ubiquitous, sucked up to the surface of culture by the pull of the internet. Meanwhile, contemporary content — the past of future generations — records itself. Whatever we do online leaves a trace, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to walk down the street without passing under the watchful eye of a camera.
The ubiquity of the past is slowly growing commonplace — or perhaps it is we who are losing the capability to appreciate its availability. As William Gibson notices, when we “hear Elvis singing Heartbreak Hotel, we are seldom struck by the peculiarity of our situation: that a dead man sings.”
The creation of a new medium resets the boundaries of what can be conceived, said, and imagined. Thus is it always a significant cultural event, as the new medium disrupts the existing order. Not only does it introduce new forms of communication — or to put it in more general terms: new ways of life — it irreversibly changes the way we think about the old forms.
The issue grows even more complex in an era when media are converging into a single, common digital platform, as we lose the ability to think about the material character of the medium. It used to be that the radio was one thing, a tape was another, and an LP was yet another. Their contemporary counterparts are streams of data that cannot be told apart. Obviously, media have always influenced each other, but now they meet: on computer screens, on hard drives, all in one digital soup.
Nostalgia thus acquires a new dimension. It’s no longer just about a yearning for the past, it’s a way to record the past and to express past events. It’s not the past that takes up our time so much as the media on which it is recorded. Many of us still recall photo prints, audio cassettes, and movies recorded on clunky VHS tapes; all of these are dead media*, the list of which grows longer at an astounding rate. For this reason, physical media themselves are becoming an object of nostalgia, as portrayed in such films as Be Kind, Rewind, which illustrate nostalgia for how we watched movies in the 80s, as much as for the films themselves. After all, VHS tapes were a technology that turned a fleeting experience (a trip to the cinema) into an object to be placed on a shelf. An object that involved another legendary experience: a visit to the video rental store. It was also an object that later evolved into other physical media, which we also miss today, now that we are beginning to experience the opposite process: films are disappearing from our shelves, replaced by intangible files.
Memory and a longing for the past are what gives us a feeling of individuality and uniqueness. It was not without reason that when Deckard hunts replicants in Bladerunner, he asks them about their memories. Our unique “self” is dependent upon our memories. And as Cory Doctorow notices, computer storage media are increasingly becoming our “external memories”. We thus externalize our memories, making them part of our collective memory, a memory that also pays attention to the physical medium. The writers of another robot story, Wall-E, had the character watch movies on a salvaged videocassette play in order to portray him as a sensitive machine.
Nostalgia makes us conscious of the passing time and reminds us of our transient nature. New technologies have shifted our time horizons. Thomas Hylland Eriksen famously said that to wait for something for two seconds today is just as unacceptable as waiting ten seconds for the same thing a year ago. Does this also mean that our time is passing five times quicker than it was last year? If, as William Gibson writes, the future is already here, then is the present not automatically degraded to being the past? Perhaps that is why we focus on remembering instead of experiencing when we take pictures every day. Perhaps that is also why Poles post millions of pictures on Nasza Klasa [social network service – ed.] every day, hoping to catch time before it slips away irreversibly.
If we liberate ourselves for just a minute from the glittering visions of the future of media hyped by high-tech marketing departments, it turns out that the world of media is filled with nostalgia. Even if (or perhaps precisely because) we feel disappointed when we now experience the object of our nostalgia, such as 8-bit computer games, music on cassette tape, and movies on VHS.
translated by Arthur Barys