Tech Nostalgia & Why We Love It

Image by Jean-Marc Côté/Wikimedia Commons.

There’s those meme’s that float around with old technologies in them, or an example of how we dealt with an old technology. Often funny, and for those who lived through them, evoking of a certain nostalgia. We love to look back at how artists and designers decades ago, portrayed how a technology would work in the future.

They’re almost always wrong. Which perhaps, is why we like them now. Things never quite turn out as predicted or portrayed. So why are we fascinated by them? If you’ve been reading my articles for a while, you can expect the word I’m going to use here.; culture.

The image below imagines how we might look at a newspaper from a 1950’s perspective. Obviously it didn’t turn out that way. Who could have imagined the idea of misinformation and how news media as a whole would change?

All future predictions of a technology are framed by what we might call Cultural Affordances. An affordance is a term used in design to represent boundaries, constraints due to screen size or shape for example.

Cultural affordances are the boundaries and restrictions we construct such as norms, social behaviours and traditions. Whether consciously or not, an artist or designer creating a visual of a future technology, is impacted by these affordances and to a certain degree, social cognitive biases.

In the newspaper image above the newspaper is understood as a cultural artefact that wouldn’t change. So pervasive were newspapers at the time, so relied upon and trusted by society, that even the artists couldn’t imagine they’d go away.

The television was becoming a more broadly adopted technology and so it is sort of logical in the artists mind that the TV set would merge with the newspaper.

If you’re thinking at this point that well, now we have Generative AI (GAI) to really create cool new ideas of the future, this isn’t the case. GAI tools, from text to images, can only remix what we already know. They do not have any form of cognitive capacity to predict the future or provide an image that isn’t bounded by the data it was trained on.

If an artist or designer were to portray future technologies that took out cultural elements such as current fashions, hairstyles and social reference points, we would struggle to to place them into context and seem them as highly unlikely. Perhaps uncomfortable.

Biases and cultural norms are incredibly powerful as part of the stories we tell to help us feel more comfortable and consider the future ahead. Even though sociocultural change is inevitable, we really don’t like too much change, too fast.

When we are in that actual future, looking back decades or a century, we find them funny because fashions, hairstyles, family units and economic conditions have changed so radically from that time. It helps us feel better, or sometimes worse, about the changes that happened.

Print newspapers still exist, but are outnumbered by digital newspapers and media. Family units have changed too. Same sex couples, who also have children, are much more a cultural norm today and increasingly socially accepted. Images of the future made today, would include such new sociocultural norms.

Nostalgia is a powerful tool we use to find comfort. We often perceive, through nostalgia, that “those times were simpler, better and easier” despite the fact they were not. I think most of us would rather miss our smartphones if they were suddenly gone. They benefit us more than hurt us in our current society.

Looking at historical takes on how our future would evolve are fun. And they play a role in how entrepreneurs, inventors and others, see and imagine possible futures from today’s perspective.

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | I'm in WIRED, Forbes, National Geographic etc. | I help companies create & launch human-centric technology products.