Critics of modern society’s obsession with the Internet have commented on people’s inability to experience real life in real time because we are so fixated on documentation; we end up seeing current moments through a screen (an evaluation asserted originally in 1976 by philosopher Jean Baudrillard). This enthrallment comes from the hope that we can one day look back at the footage and allow ourselves, Millennials specifically, to indulge in the number one trending contemporary emotion: nostalgia.
Millennials have grown up in one of the fastest evolving decades of technology in human history. Our formative years grew parallel to the rise of Internet and all of the technology that developed along with it. Somewhere in the ability to document every aspect of our lives in this World Wide Archive became an intrigue in reminiscing the very moments that we captured. The Internet is an emotional double-edged sword (among other things). It allows us to never forget. It also forces us to never forget; to remain nostalgic.
The word “nostalgia” roots from the Greek language. “Nostos” refers to a common theme in Greek literature, an epic hero returning home (The Odyssey in its most simple definition). It refers to heroism and greatness. “Algos” in Greek is a literal translation to the word “pain.” The root of the word nostalgia combines the heroic act of returning home with hurt: the inability to go back to one’s roots and the ache that this longing causes. Nostalgia craves something long gone and this yearning comes as a rosy, idealized memory. We don’t recall a past we actually experienced; we elicit moments how we imagine them now, significantly more dazzling than the instant as we lived it in real time.
The fuzzy glow of memory lane is not specific to Millennials, but a trend that has become notably more common among this era than with other generations. Millennials curated #throwback everything, from music, television, fashion, and even technology. The fierce grasp on the past comes from childhoods that advanced more rapidly than any other generation in history. Millennials are the last generation to remember a childhood without technology and watched as technologies that had recently come out as new become obsolete after a short period of time. Memories without these technological advancements seem much further in the past than they actually are, which leads to 20-somethings to dwell on the rhetorical question “Feel old yet?” Baby Boomers grew up with no technology and Centennials are growing up completely immersed in technology. This distinction makes Millennials come off as a nostalgic, tech-savvy, and bitter cult; a generation that remains unsure of which technological era they actually prefer.
This vacillation in a preferred era is how we have been labeled as the indecisive generation, the generation that wants the newest technology only to use it to engage in vintage content. We pay for Spotify to listen to throwback playlists, but we still prefer vinyl. We take pictures with some of the most innovative camera lenses that are built right into our phones, but we filter the picture to look faded, timeworn, and blurred. Video games have developed astonishing graphics and incredible virtual reality systems, but we still play our Super Nintendos at home and arcade games at bars. Headphones have become wireless pods that can look like hearing aids, almost completely unnoticeable, but giant over-the-ear headphones are favored. Vintage stores up-value 80s and 90s used clothing, and the newest clothing lines try to make their clothes look distressed, ripped, and recycled. How many hours have we spent, collectively, scrolling through old pictures in our adult life thanks to TimeHop, an archive application that delivers daily notifications about things that happened on this day x years ago?
Businesses and brands have benefited from this adoration for the past. From a marketing perspective, it’s significantly easier to bring back an old-school logo than it is to deliver new content. Brands from all industries are trialing with positive cultural memories because seeing a product in the condition we experienced as children triggers an emotional attachment, and therefore a higher possibility that we will act upon a purchase. Coca-Cola has brought back glass bottles; Tootsie Roll Pops have redistributed their original cartoon commercial, asking the venerable question “how many licks does it take to the get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?”; Nickelodeon has designed a programming block called “The Splat,” where the channel airs 90’s shows such as “All That,” “Hey Arnold!,” “Clarissa Explains it All,” “Doug,” and “Rugrats,” among others. Companies and advertisers have discovered how easy it is to exploit sentimental emotion for profit and data, and it’s working like a charm.
Why is it that the most technologically savvy, cosmopolitan, connected, and modern generation prefers to look at life through a rearview mirror?
For some, it’s the emotional attachment to childhood ignorance and the bliss that came with it. Growing up and “becoming an adult in the real world” can feel disappointing in comparison to the optimism that we felt as children at the cusp of a new millennium with some of the most advanced technology embedding in front of our eyes. Nostalgia allows for a form of emotional escapism. Millennials grew up buoyant only to face the reality of inherited economic devastation and an America that is slowly diminishing in its status in the international community. Why engage with the present that needs fixing when the bliss of times past are pinging our screens on an hourly basis? Eventually, Millennials may reach a saturation point where we can no longer afford to dwell in the fantasy of our childhood dreams. Until then, we relish in the fact that every day is a brand new opportunity to relive the past.