The age of instant nostalgia

Nostalgia is an emotion that should be felt sparingly. At least for someone like me, it’s very easy to get lost in rabbit holes of nostalgia. On days when I’m feeling sentimental, I can spend hours browsing old photo albums and reflecting on past events that I’m powerless to change.

But nostalgia can go much deeper than that. With today’s technology, we can have experiences of nostalgia that were unheard of in previous generations. Remember those candies you loved as a child that were only available in the town where you grew up? Now you can buy them on Amazon and have them shipped in two days. Remember your trip to Stonehenge twenty years ago? Now you can see it in VR any time you like. Remember the games you used to play on your old Atari console? Now you can play them on your mobile phone while waiting for the train. Remember your old friends from elementary school with whom you haven’t connected in years? Now you can find them with a few clicks and talk to them instantly.

We’re living in an age when you can evoke feelings of nostalgia at a moment’s notice, and on demand. This fact is well-known to Hollywood, which capitalizes on nostalgia with abominations like Pixels which do nothing but literally tell the audience, “Remember Q*bert?” “Remember Pac-Man?” “Remember Galaga?”, or its endless obsession with sequels and prequels and reboots — anything to jog your memory of an old movie you used to love.  It’s also known in the literary world, with the success of novels like Ready Player One, where any semblance of a plot is merely an afterthought, and most of the book’s real purpose is to barrage the reader with a rapid-fire of pop culture references from the 1980s.

The problem with nostalgia is that it’s not a productive emotion, in the sense that it romanticizes the past, locks your thinking into it, as if your past experiences were somehow better than the present or future. This kind of thinking is counterproductive whether or not your past was in fact better than your present:  If your past really was better than the present, then you should be actively working to improve your present life instead of dwelling on past events. And if, instead, your life is better today than yesterday, then romanticizing the past cheapens the goodness of your life in the present day, and takes away time you could be spending enjoying the present and planning an even better future.

Nostalgia should be treated like a sweet, rich dessert — great in small quantities, but bad for you if you indulge in it too much.

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