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Posted by on Oct 20, 2010

Nostalgia as Digital Narrative: A Search for Legacy

Reading Bell’s “Community and Cyberculture” had me thinking quite a bit about the window of time once a community exists and when that community laments its own demise in favor of a utopian ideal, a Golden Age that may or may nor have existed. This provides a strong parallel to physical culture (indeed, most of digital culture seems to decidedly human) in that we have always glorified our past, perhaps at the expense of the present, and we have always lamented our future. I have been doing audio posts to Tumblr reflecting on some of this nostalgia, but wanted to expand a bit here.

Zork: a game I still play, a return to simpler times, an illusion of a Golden Age.

Now I would argue that the historical reach of digital culture is slight enough to truncate this process of reaching back into history for a model in which to face an uncertain present and future, but it still exists. And in the classic case of an information gapfill, we borrow liberally from our traditional history in our physical worlds to model behavior digitally when no precedent exists online (becoming less and less of a case).

I should let Bell talk:

“The ideal of community enshrined in Gemeinschaft has an enduring legacy in the popular imagination, then, always tinged with nostalgia. It might be argued, in fact, that community has become overwritten by nostalgia, in that the way it is talked about so often focuses on its perceived loss, or decline, or erosion, in party-political rhetoric, for example, community is seen as the stable bulwark of society, imagined in distinctly romantic, ways ” (94).

A perceived loss, decline, an overwrite of nostalgia? I suspect this is more of a case of using our present to reinterpret our past; that, in comparison, the digital past seems favorable to the stormy present. This, in my estimation, has more to do with ephemera and legacy than we are willing to let on, a desire to make an imprint in this (digital) world, to know that I, too, was significant. This is a process perceived as being undercut by a grand network, a thriving community of worker bees. What we lament losing (the past of tight knit communities) is indeed what we fear in the present (the expansion and transformation of these tight knit communities into larger ones, more decentralized ones). What we have here is a shifting focus from us to it.

To counteract this devaluation (perceived) of the individual, we erect towers of legacy in our physical and digital worlds. Statues, museums, the Internet Archive, a slideshow, a Lifestream (not as a learning artefact, but as a signal that we were here), a time capsule, the Twitter archive at the Library of Congress. None of these are negative things per se; they are beautiful in their own right. I just think these bleed from that same core of our collective being that will always favor the past over the future, the certain over the uncertain.

In digital cultures, we just have tended to have shorter memories, attention spans, historical breadth; that, however, is catching up. Our digital culture now has scope and with that will come legacy.

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