Essay: Digital Nostalgia
On 90s tech aesthetics
Hi! I got a lot of new readers from my last mailing, “The Digital Death of Collecting.” If you’re new here, I’m Kyle Chayka, right now I’m a columnist at The New Yorker and working on a book on algorithmic culture. I wrote a book on minimalism. This newsletter has links to my recent work and then a short essay.
America as an Internet Aesthetic (New Yorker): On the Americacore TikTok meme and cultural appropriation.
Raya and the Promise of Private Social Media (New Yorker): On the “celebrity dating app” trying to make online interaction better and safer.
We Already Live in Facebook’s Metaverse (New Yorker): On Mark Zuckerberg’s virtual-reality ambitions.
Pokemon and the First Wave of Digital Nostalgia (New Yorker): On the revival of early internet and video-game aesthetics.
The Year in Vibes (New Yorker): On the many moods of 2021.
Time Well Spent (The Believer): Artworks and devices that engage our attention.
On digital nostalgia
When I was in elementary school in the late ‘90s, I had a mobile technological device that I carried around with me everywhere. I couldn’t use it to tweet, but I could play games. It was not connected to the internet, but it did measure my steps. The only social networking it allowed was showing it to my friends, most of whom were not interested. The device was the Pocket Pikachu, which Nintendo released in 1998. Essentially a knockoff Tamagotchi featuring the yellow Pokemon instead of an anonymous blob, the Pocket Pikachu was my first encounter with passively present technology. I was always thinking about what the tiny pixelated Pikachu on the LCD screen was doing and what I might need to do to keep it alive — feeding, cleaning, accruing in-game points — the way I now think about the iPhone in my pocket.
I recently rescued the device from my parents’ house. The plastic housing is a little scuffed but it’s still bright yellow. The body is clearly assembled from plastic panels, a contrast to Apple’s vacuum-sealed designs. I need to buy an eyeglass screwdriver to take it apart and replace the battery, then we’ll see if it still works. Even turned off, it’s irresistible, like tangible evidence of a future that never happened.
The Pocket Pikachu is as futuristic as any device that has debuted in more recent years. It’s so appealing, I think, because it recalls a time when “the internet” and “technology” weren’t solely about vast, inhuman online platforms like Facebook and Instagram. In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, on-screen experiences — whether playing video games or logging in to AOL Instant Messenger — felt novel and radical, something like figuring out a different way of living. Now, they generally feel banal and repetitive. You don’t “log on” because you’re never off. New bits of content have no incremental value when there are thousands of them every day. We know what it’s like to live on the internet now — it mostly sucks, or it primarily sucks, with intermittent bright spots.
In my New Yorker column, I labeled this feeling digital nostalgia, a desire to return to a simpler, messier, and more human digital lifestyle. (You should read that first; here I want to dwell on the idea a little more.) Digital nostalgia colors our fondness for things like Geocities, where users made their own sloppy HTML pages festooned with GIFs and clashing colors. It also recalls the messy aesthetics of that era’s technology, before everything was optimized and smoothed. It was a time of glitching polygons and pixel art. We got excited when video games went from 32 bits to 64. That simplicity wasn’t the slick minimalism of today’s digital platforms; it was just the limit of what could the consoles could support. A lot of people, myself included, are feeling drawn back to those tactile, flawed graphics — for the column, I interviewed artists, designers, and trend forecasters who were all adopting them once more.
The tactility and creativity that existed in spaces like Neopets or Geocities or an Oekaki BBS have been lost in favor of civilization-scale social networks, which tend to trade diversity for scale and speed. On Instagram, users are allowed to express themselves by posting their own photos but also, increasingly, sharing images that already exist — fashion or architecture shoots, symbols of aspirational lifestyles instead of actual reality. On Twitter, we can post whatever we want (within reason) but it ultimately has to conform to what we call “The Discourse,” the ever-changing set of opinions and arguments that defines discussion on the platform. TikTok is more oriented toward consumption than creation. Passively watching the For You page, you don’t even have to choose who to follow. This all leaves very little room for actual self-expression, actual creativity. The flourishing of user-generated content in the early 2010s has ended up with people consuming content from the same old major brands — record labels, TV networks, Hollywood celebrities — just through new channels. Is it any wonder that all social media now feels boring and rote?
Thinking back to the early 2000s, what I took most pleasure in doing in digital spaces was creating a different version of myself, one that often felt more true for being disconnected from my IRL surroundings. Pokemon offered an adventure story in which you selected your favorite monsters and charted a path through the world on your own. I made my own avatars and elaborate banners to participate in online forums, where the imagery signaled your fandom of a particular game, character, or anime. I sought out items in online games because they felt like reflections of my tastes and a form of progress, which accruing social-media followers or likes no longer does (there’s too much algorithmic mediation and little logic as to what or who becomes popular). I created my own versions of digital content, downloading pixel sprite sheets and remixing them in pirated Photoshop. The DIY web was more graspable and less alienating; today’s online experiences are more like following the rules, or gaming them.
Nostalgia can easily be misplaced: Social media is open to far more people and is far easier and more powerful than tools in the early 2000s. Anyone can make a website on Squarespace and use whatever colors they like. For better or worse, digital spaces have overtaken our lives. But what I miss most of all about the earlier internet is the sense that I was connecting to a coherent community, a group of people who, even if I didn’t know them IRL, I knew. The pixel art and polygons are a shared frame of reference from that time.
Another conversation I’ve been having lately is about how we don’t know who we’re talking to anymore online. Since social networks are so public, and distribution is so automated, any post could end up being seen by anyone at any time. Your inside joke of a tweet could go too viral and incite a wave of attacks. You don’t know that your Instagram post will actually be seen by your friends, since the algorithmic feed only shows it to a small fraction of your followers. The lack of stable context removes the possibility for stable meaning. When you don’t know who you’re talking to, it’s hard to connect with anyone. In the vastness of the current online landscape, that is what’s missing.
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