Where tech aligns

Memory Space

Nostalgia in the age of the digital archive.

Those who saw Stephen Frears’s 2000 film High Fidelity likely remember the scene where John Cusack, in order to cope with the recent collapse of a long-term relationship, sets out to rearrange his extensive record library “autobiographically” – an attempt to impose order on the chaotic narrative of his life through a cinematic framework that might soothe the otherwise mundane ache of personal and professional failure. This scene captures the emotional spiral of the protagonist, but less appreciated is the way in which it depicts the labor-intensiveness that a full-scale deep-dive into nostalgia necessitates. 

Nostalgia is a natural inclination in all of us; it has many triggers and takes many forms. But a complete rearranging of one’s collections à la High Fidelity was one that was once done sparingly precisely because of the spatial and archival skills required to manipulate tangible objects and arrange them strategically, in a way that might flatter our desire to see our lives form some semblance of a structured arc.

Fast forward twenty-two years, when the digitization of our personal archives – streaming music and film, automated photo and video rolls – has relieved us of the burden of much of that labor. One might argue that new technology has given us greater freedom to sink into past feelings and experiences, no matter how far from our present priorities or interests, for as long and as deeply as we see fit. While this may seem like a net positive, the seasoned collector might wonder whether we lose something in bypassing the traditional forms and processes associated with the physical archive. What ramifications are likely to result from the increased access to our past lives that digitization affords? How do we reorient our relationship to nostalgia in light of the fact that the barriers to our past selves have been lifted, and we can commune with distant memory more easily?

On one hand, it seems clear that the digitization of nostalgia undermines the poetic resonance of the phenomenon, which must necessarily be triggered by an immediate sensory experience. Consider Marcel Proust’s distinction between voluntary and involuntary memory in Remembrance of Things Past. In the famous madeleine episode – in which the narrator bites into a small cake that his aunt would dip in tea and feed him as a child – an onrush of involuntary memory moves him to reflect on his task as an artist and writer. This type of memory is more authentic because it is retrieved not through the deliberate cognitive process of intelligence but through a sensory experience that is all the more profound because it is extemporaneous; it is not the sight of the madeleine but its taste that fires Proust’s narrator’s memory. 

If you are an unapologetic aesthete like Proust, you might be inclined to agree that undermining that poetic resonance – by presenting him with a digital madeleine for example – leads to an impoverished experience of things past. Such memories connect us with the true essence of our former selves. If memory is something involuntary, extemporaneous – a sudden salience on the surface of the psyche – then digitization in its relentlessly logical mainframe can never hope to replicate it.

Proust’s iteration of the sensory experience might be extended beyond the realm of food, to the forms of media that we all consume daily. Consider that people report an optimal listening experience when playing music on vinyl, perhaps because it replicates the immediacy of a live performance. Much vinyl – or the vinyl worth collecting – was recorded in a live room, in one take, before the advent of digital tools allowed for the isolation and recombining of different tracks. It is both its live, extemporaneous quality as well as the vibrations offset by the record player that offer an intimate sensory experience to the listener. When the needle hits the grooves in the record, it produces vibrations that literally touch us, that we might imagine we experience sensorily in the same way as a taste or smell. Similarly, to appreciate the world of difference between physical photos and digital ones, one must only hold a physical photo in one’s hand. To feel one’s fingers on the corruptible surface of celluloid, to bend a photograph and know its fragility, is to acknowledge the ephemerality of a moment suspended in time.

In another sense, there is a spatial if not geographical aspect to nostalgia, one that must anchor it in a space beyond the digital medium. What is nostalgia if not an amorphous sense of alienation from one’s surroundings? Consider Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1983 film Nostalghia, in which the protagonist, a Russian visitor to Italy, believes that he must wade through a mineral pool with a lighted candle in order to redeem the sins of man. The film with its long, plodding, dream-like sequences in submerged churches and partially abandoned landscapes defies any straightforward psychologizing. What seems certain however is that the film is a meditation on a particularly Russian form of displacement, and one that becomes heightened within the frame of the Tuscan countryside and its aesthetic profundity. 

Nostalgia, as we have established, thrives on poetic resonance and yet there is something unmistakably corporeal about the way it is often triggered. According to Tarkovsky, nostalgia might be compared to a disease, “an illness that drains away the strength of the soul,” but also, “a profound compassion that binds us … with the suffering of others, a passionate empathy.” It is the twofold nature of nostalgia – as both a disease and as a link to our neighbors’ suffering – that anchors the phenomenon in the visceral space of the body surrounded by its particular geographic context.

To elaborate the question of geography, nostalgia is a more powerful experience when it is indulged not on the hard drive or the cloud of one particular user, but within the collective psyche of a community. Consider the phenomenon of Ostalghie, a portmanteau of the German words for “east” and “nostalgia,” which expresses a deep longing for the cultural and social aspects of civic life in pre-unified Germany by former residents of the GDR. Ostalghie flourished in post-unified Germany as citizens grappled to adjust to life under capitalism.

Without wading too far into controversy, it would seem to me that nostalgia for the oppression of a failed social and political experiment could only be facilitated not by a collective consciousness or collective memory of the past but by a collective delusion. Nostalgia then would serve to function as a form not of collective memory but of collective forgetting. If we digitize our memories, we may threaten the conditions of untruth and irreality in which collective forms of nostalgia thrive.

Indeed, most forms of nostalgia are illusory, a product of our own myopic inability to view history – and particularly our own histories – with sufficient dispassion. When we indulge nostalgia, we no longer have to perform the same volume of intellectual labor to challenge our inborn assumption that things are bad now and they were better before, and we can take the More Recent Past to task for separating us from and driving an ever-widening wedge between us and the Edenic Past. Digitization of our personal archives may weaken the illusion that nostalgia relies on, but it will also undeniably weaken our relationship with ourselves and our histories as we wish to interpret them.

I do not wish to argue that digitization has irrevocably flattened the human experience. The human mind is resilient, and people will always find new ways to languish in self-pity as the relentless march of time ravages the most treasured aspects of our identities and divides us ever further from the innocence of our first youths. As our memories are increasingly digitized, our nostalgia compounds, becomes inward-facing, metaphysical even. Consider the growing nostalgia for lost forms of digitization – Napster, Limewire, Angelfire – among those of us who are old enough to have experienced that early form of the archive. We must wonder if this is nostalgia for lost forms of digitization themselves, or if it might be explained rather as a nostalgia for a time when digitization had not yet been coopted by the prerogatives of surveillance capitalism. 

It was nearly a century ago when Walter Benjamin argued that mechanical reproduction devalues the uniqueness of an objet d’art and damages its ineffable quality, which he chose to call its aura. At the risk of sounding like a latter-day Benjamin, it would seem that digitization furthers the devaluation process of the artistic aura that mechanization began. Nostalgia, if we wish to preserve its ineffable, spiritual, and redemptive qualities, must be loosed from the grip of digitization. The act of creating a narrative that flatters our notion of our own histories must be quite literally taken into our own hands.