Human Memory, Connected Storage, and Digital Nostalgia

I caught up on Lefsetz’s blogs from the past two weeks yesterday. A few stuck out, like always. In particular, he wrote something about his history of Springsteen concerts, which you can read here. His recounting touches on all sorts of nostalgia triggered by following The Boss over the decades, and while I’m not a huge fan of Springsteen, I hold him in high respect — I once saw him perform, without breaks, to a crowd in California for almost 3.5 hours. No stops. It was one of the most authentic musical experiences I’d ever seen. Maybe I’m more of a Springsteen-the-person fan than a fan of his music.

Re-reading Lefsetz’s journal entry, I remembered I had myself written about the concept of nostalgia intersecting with technology. I don’t know why I write about nostalgia, or why I’ve got a few tabs open for an unplanned afternoon of where I should be stack-ranking investment opportunities and focusing on work. It may be that nostalgia, for me, is even more powerful force that interrupts my ability to (attempt to) think rationally.

Back in 2012, I wrote on my blog here about Timehop, a fun app which sends you back in time based on photos and check-ins. The first time writing about Timehop, I mentioned:

“…while you can scroll down your Facebook Timeline and travel back in time, a service like Timehop could present older pictures to users in a way that strikes upon a deep emotional chord. It is this element of nostalgia that interests me. It is a product I’d want. I can imagine Timehop simply running in the background on my iPhone, sending me a gentle notification…”

Later in 2012, it occurred to me sharing photos to the right people at the right time can, in fact, trigger nostalgia. In the next post, I invoked the now famous scene from Mad Men, “Carousel,” where Don Draper, tasked with coming up with a pitch for a slide carousel, paints a picture of moving back and forth through time by pictures. This nostalgia, he says, has the power to create a close bond with the consumer. While Timehop can’t compete with Facebook, and while what Timehop pioneered might become a feature of how we all use Facebook in the future, it is fun to look back on how it presents us with nostalgia:

“…it simply gives people what they want in a new form — the place where you can keep your memories. The carousel of old slides, the cigar box of warped pictures, and the Instagrams you’ve taken, now in your pocket, delivered to you in just the right way.”

Nostalgia even led me to join a startup company, Swell. A few years ago, as someone who grew up as a radio and audio junkie, I got swept up by the old memories of listening to transistor radios and studied how radio and radio imagery influenced the brands, lyrics, and sounds of some of my favorite musicians. In writing about Swell’s product:

Radio fills the dead time in my life, when I am free to be more at ease, more relaxed, and as a result, my brain seems to expand a bit more to let in more information. Yes, we are visual and textual creatures, and images are central to how we process information, but audio is equally important for me, and when it comes to knowledge, the ambient awareness provided by radio is perhaps the most powerful.

And, so, all of this brings me to the original Lefsetz post about Springsteen. Check out this passage, edited for length:

And all of this went through my mind watching the Boss at the Sports Arena. My life slid by. People my age are thinking of retirement… But once upon a time we were the youth, we were the cutting edge, there were no social networks, cell phones were a “Star Trek” fantasy, we had to leave the house to connect, to feel alive, and where I felt the most comfortable was at the show… It was completely different. No one stood, except for maybe the encores. There were seats. You didn’t go to be seen, you went to communicate with the music, bond with the gods. And it was like that Thursday night. And it won’t ever be that way again. It can’t be. Mystery is history. You can see it all online. And scarcity is a thing of the past.

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To connect, to feel alive, and places where we feel most comfortable — I’ve been thinking about that passage in particular. Today, Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets are shipping. eSports, where fans worldwide watch other people play video games. Legions of EDM or Taylor Swift concert-goers are recording their experiences through Snapchat Stories. The web and mobile devices are empowering people who may have once felt lonely now connect with likeminded people across social classes, political borders, and beyond.

And now that everything is recorded and documented in real-time, accessible by search, searchable on billions of devices worldwide, it is both empowering and unsettling from the point of view of nostalgia. Growing up in the 80s, most of my memories are locked in a few videos, many still photographs (that haven’t been put online), and in my mind — but what about my daughter, who is almost three years old, who is the adoring subject of thousands of photos? She will be able to see so much of her younger self in digital form, but where will her nostalgia reside? In digital form? In the corners of her mind?

I’m not sure I have a great conclusion here. Perhaps there isn’t one. I’ll end with one of Andy Weissman‘s old posts, back from 2013, where he writes this passage about the idea of putting old videos from his youth on YouTube:

When I tell people this story, they mostly have the same reaction. “You need to put the shows on Youtube!” The video tapes – cartons of them – are spread out. Maybe in California. Maybe at my mom’s place. Some in Woodstock. Maybe they are gone. These requests usually set off a flurry of internal emails amongst ourselves: should we do this? Have you watched them? Which one should we digitize? This year we will really get around to it, yes this year we will, right And then when I think about it, I realize we probably shouldn’t, and most likely won’t, digitize them and put them on Youtube or Vimeo or wherever. It would ruin the memories.

Haystack is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2018 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus