A Point of View: Nostalgia - it's not like it used to be

Instagram photos, from left: Venice statue, two people in red, white and blue stetsons, and boarding a plane

The ease with which we can now assemble a digital archive of our lives and times means younger people are far more nostalgic about their loves, losses and travels, says Will Self.

Into my sixth decade now, I find that the present interests me less and less. Of course, the future continues to preoccupy me as a reliable source of hopes, fears and anxieties, but increasingly the present seems to have no outstanding qualities of its own, being merely a way-station through which events travel to the vast shadow lands of the past.

I get up in the morning, and as I shave I listen to the radio.

The news is often bad - people are suffering, here, there and everywhere - and as I soap and scrape I feel immediate compassion. Then I dress and go downstairs. While the kettle boils I hear the exact same news repeated, and my attention begins to waver.

There's a temptation to think that this is simply a function of the - relatively speaking - calm life I live, that having stepped aside from the march of time, I can no longer hear the tramp of its boots.

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Will Self
  • A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 GMT and repeated Sundays, 08:50 GMT
  • Will Self is a novelist and journalist

However, it wasn't always like this. Like everyone else, I suppose, there was a period in my life when now was of paramount importance - if we take "now" to be a wobbly phenomenon, something like a raindrop, encompassing the moment as well as immersing consciousness, and reflecting each to the other as it plummets into the future.

Inside the now all was scintillatingly significant, hip and happening, while the un-become future was void of everything except for one or two events I was looking forward to, or away from. As for the past, well, it was black and white, jerky, frumpy and lifeless - gelid, certainly, but altogether uncool. Unless, it was coloured by my own vivid memories.

I think I now understand why it is that the young are so very nostalgic. They have so little by way of personal history that they polish it up and make it shine like a treasured heirloom. For those of us who have months, years and even entire decades mouldering in the attics of our memories, nostalgia seems a curiously boastful kind of hoarding. So you had a love affair, or moved abroad, you got ill, or had a parent die - well, so did I, so did I - and more than once.

No, it's not nostalgia I feel for the past, but a continuous engagement with it. I walk the streets and the crowds streaming past me seem to move at increasing speed, their overheard voices have the high pitch and squeaky intonation of helium breathers.

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And their clothing is time-tailored. As I watch, trouser legs flare, pleat and turn up, hair spikes up, waves and then wilts, patterns simmer into being before fading to grey.

It's not, I stress, that I feel no involvement with the present, or compassion for its inhabitants. It's just that it's become a slightly foreign country to me. They do things differently there, for sure, but while I may study the phrasebook and buy a few local handicrafts, I don't invest too much in the place, because unlike the natives I'm aware that we will all, without exception, soon be moving on. It would seem that I, who never could make much sense of physics when I was at school, have now gained a strong sense of Einsteinian space-time. I am free of the nimbyism of now, and feel a strong kinship with both the dead and the unborn.

I've characterised the middle-aged as free from the nostalgia of youth, but I suspect that this, paradoxically, is an aspect of the zeitgeist. Certainly, for time out of mind an obsessive dwelling on happier former days has been synonymous with getting older, while it was the juvenescent who rushed with open arms to embrace the future.

Instagram photo of the Olympics Are your memories filtered via smartphone apps?

I wonder if my own generation - the baby-boomers born between 1945 and 1961 - haven't both changed and been changed by the new digital means of the past's production.

Before the late 19th Century, the manufacture of memory was a laborious business, requiring cumbersome mechanical processes and even craft. Offset printing, followed by the mass dissemination of photographic images allowed the generality of people - who heretofore had been denied a record of the times - to line their shelves with them.

Throughout the 20th Century, the preservation of individuals' memories became cheaper and so more ubiquitous, but it wasn't until the last decade that the seamless interconnection of mobile recording devices with the world wide web allowed for the retention of the past almost in its entirety.

It is well over a decade now since the philosopher Jean Baudrillard began arguing that reality itself had been fundamentally altered by a highly mediatised world - indeed, that there was no objective reality anymore, only a reproducible simulacrum, the nature of which is determined by large-scale corporations and their allied governments.

But the world of photo-messaging and Facebook, of YouTube and Google, is not one defined by the manipulation of the masses alone - rather, it is conjured up by the digitations of the great mass of individuals.

Jean Baudrillard, 1929-2007

Jean Baudrillard
  • French sociologist and philosopher
  • Best known for his concept of hyper-reality
  • He argued that spectacle is crucial in creating our view of events - things do not happen if they are not seen
  • Author of The Gulf War Did Not Take Place
  • In 2001, he described the 9/11 terror attacks as a "dark fantasy"

Perhaps the reason I feel quite so liberated from the present while more and more attached, not to individually-recalled "good old days", but to a collectively attested and ever-present past, is because the hard drive of my computer is overloaded with digital images of the places I've been and the people I've met, all of them time-coded to a 10th of a second. There are also audio files of conversations I've had, and an email trail leading back to 1996 comprised of many, many thousands of ephemeral traces.

In this brave old world, I can employ a few keystrokes and so correlate my personal recollection of what was happening on that day, at that very hour, with public events in Birmingham, Bratislava or Beijing.

Because of this, it seems to me that in the past decade or so, the half-life of our memories has become artificially extended. Instead of curling photographs and yellowing newspapers, we are possessed of a shiny and permanent now, one we flit-click about and so delude ourselves as to our own eternal youth - until, that is, we look down at the wrinkled and liver-spotted hands that rest on the keyboard.

How perverse, therefore, that the contemporary news media keeps to an entirely different beat, an ever-accelerating tempo. The news cycle has been 24-hour since the early 1980s, but the number of updates within each of those hours has steadily grown. Now the letters of the threads that run continuously beneath the live reporting look to me like the cogs of a virtual flywheel, one that spins ever faster as it tries to provide our inertial present with motive force. More events, more comments on those events, still more events provoked by those comments, and in turn, comments on those comment-induced events. The actual is sliced, diced and winched forward, only to tumble off time's assembly-line into the great slag-heap of now.

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Like slow food and slow travel, what our society also requires is some kind of slow news”

End Quote

In recent years we've seen a slow food movement emerge - its aim, the portioning-off of what we eat from the remorseless chomping away at the environment by big food producers and retailers.

And we've also witnessed the rebirth of slow travel, as people take to their feet and rediscover their own locales, rather than being whipped airborne and girdling the Earth.

It may well be that what our society also requires is some kind of slow news, a manner of reporting present events that will at once acknowledge the novel situation, and also redress the balance between the ancient history before the web and a monstrous - and babyish - present.

Such a slow news might bear witness, even as events occur, to the fact of there being recurrences. It might properly contextualise our institutional scandals and individual humiliations within a longer view.

In the current enduring now, great tragedies and TV talent shows have a tendency to be breathlessly equated, but a slow news might take a long and deep breath before pronouncing with Solomon-like gravity on matters that, soon enough, will be exposed as utterly inconsequent.

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Below is a selection of your comments

I don't know if you have "been changed by the new digital means of the past's production" but I reckon you have been influenced by the tidal wave of American media washing over the 'whole entire' world. 'Back in the day' you would have said that when you went downstairs you heard 'exactly the same' news, not 'the exact same', wouldn't you?

Paul Cave, Leicester, Leicestershire

I saw a Kickstarter project recently by music reviewers to do only long-form (3000+ word) articles. So I think slow news may be coming; but at the same time, they were talking about doing nostalgia reviews of older albums, not just the new stuff. So there's some correlation. However, the trend for social media is definitely faster and faster; as we spend a greater amount of time editing and narrating our own lives, we're somewhat more self-absorbed and prefer a twitter bite to a long letter. Even for letter-writers like myself, who has time for letters? My best friend is someone I met for a week two years ago. Our relationship is entirely Skype-chat, and probably always will be. That's cool that technology lets you do that. At the same time, it allows you to relive the past in unhealthy ways and maintain contact with a lot of people that otherwise would've fallen by the wayside a long time ago. It makes life a lot more complicated. I think it's definitely changed our mental DNA or at least our methods of emotional life-mapping; and I'm someone who remembers our family's first computer. Kids 10 years younger than me, they have a completely different way of processing the world, and whereas Tumblr layouts, text and Twitter are tastes I have to work to acquire and may never, it's the air they breathe.

Jim Mettle, Bishkek

Good Heavens! W Self has just recognised how it feels to be alive and middle-aged in this frantic, digitalised world.

Alan Hotchkiss, Salisbury, Wiltshire

Of an age with Mr Self, my experience is completely different. A geek by both trade and hobby, my hard drive is devoid of personal memories but jam-packed with information; whilst my personal past is enshrined between my ears where my near-eidetic memory can 'replay the tape' of whatever event I wish to recall. Still, the information on the computer is more fascinating, being about my passions of medals, role-playing and computing itself, so I'll now go lose myself there...

Megan, Cheshire, UK

This article reminds me somewhat of Ben Elton's Blind Faith. We need to take a step backwards and gain some perspective. I am only 22 but things have changed massively since I was a kid; I'm convinced life was far slower even 15 years ago.

Tom Pettinger, London

We embrace technology for its ability to accelerate our lives. Just as air travel shrunk the world, digital communications bring a view of the world to our fingertips... and at light speed. But this also leads from broadcasting to narrowcasting as the media fragments its offerings. Allowing us all to choose which version of the world we want to accept. Will Self is spot on in that with the short attention span of rolling news, the context and often complex histories of current events is often skimmed over. We could harness a lot more from the science of hindsight. While the rose-tinted glasses are not helpful when looking back, a pair of slow motion specs when looking at today might be useful. Just because the digital media hurtles megabytes of data a second at us, we don't have to try and suck it all up at a similar rate. The question is can we find a way to slow down the present when we, the citizenry, can't reach the brake pedal?

Will Davis, Welwyn Garden City, England

I wholeheartedly agree with the "slow news" idea, it would be a fantastic perspective and needed balance to the whirling international news.

Stuart Young, Cheviot, North Canterbury, New Zealand

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