There are now 25-year-olds who have never known a time when the internet wasn’t a force in modern life. Imagine that. People who have graduated from uni and (potentially) working in universities, banks, real estate etc who cannot fathom not having the internet at your disposal.
Now I feel old.
But it’s also an example of just how much technology and the internet have become a necessary part of modern life. And it’s also interesting how, as the technology has moved forward (the functions of a desktop computer can now be found in an iPhone), we seemed to have entered a stage of retromania.
Of course, this is not new. But what is scary is just how much it has accelerated in the last 15 years.
Indeed, Simon Reynolds’ excellent 2011 tome Retromania was one of the first prominent books on the subject. As he wrote in the introduction:
Once upon a time, pop's metabolism buzzed with dynamic energy, creating the surging-into-the-future feel of periods like the psychedelic sixties, the post-punk seventies, the hip-hop eighties and the rave nineties. The 2000s felt different... Instead of being the threshold to the future, the first ten years of the twenty-first century turned out to be the 'Re' Decade. The 2000s were dominated by the 're-' prefix: revivals, reissues, remakes, re-enactments. Endless retrospection: every year brought a fresh spate of anniversaries, with their attendant glut of biographies, memoirs, rockumentaries, biopics and commemorative issues of magazines. Then there were the band reformations...
Arguably, it’s gotten worse in the last ten years. I stumbled across this comment and, although from 2012, still fits in the current climate:
I think our generation in general is very nostalgic because we are going through a rough time as a society. Childhood in the 80’s was awesome, why not try to relive it?
As someone who was a child in both the 80’s and 90’s, I would dispute that, but then I grew up on the Falls Road during the conflict so maybe my perspective is much more jaundiced. However, pop culture has certainly taken the above to heart, with endless reboots/’reimaginings’ of popular franchises as well as new franchises that thrive on nostalgia (Stranger Things). Fuck’s sake, there is even nostalgia for 90’s web designs.
Written and published before the onslaught of Covid-19, Grafton Tanner’s The Circle of the Snake aims to study a particular paradox: “…how could some of the most complex technologies ever invented induce nostalgia for the past…” while focusing on how:
…Big Tech’s promise of digital utopia, a world in which every human dilemma is solved by digital technology and everything is under control. Everything is perfect: you can live in whatever time period you want. You can be whatever you want to be. This world doesn’t exist, but Big Tech promises us that, if we give it absolute power, it will bring it into existence.
Wise words. Which makes it all the more frustrating at how the book grasps at ideas and concepts, only to observe them in a ham-fisted manner.
Firstly, there is little to no discussion about the popularity of YouTube channels for ‘The Angry Video Game Nerd’ or ‘The Nostalgia Critic’, both of which exploded into public consciousness at the height of the war in Iraq and the recession (2006 and 2008 respectively). Indeed, both share a similar premise: that nostalgia blinds you to the truth. Doug Walker (The Nostalgia Critic) even says that:
We need a critic of nostalgia because everybody already does it. When we look at movies and shows from our youth, they're rarely as good as we remember them, and oftentimes it's quite humorous to compare what you liked then to what you like now. That's basically what the Nostalgia Critic is about, looking back at just how much nostalgia cloaked our vision in heavenly bliss and how bizarre the reality is.
Surely the combination of pioneering web growth and nostalgia would have been a perfect discussion point especially considering this was in the early days of YouTube and also how it inadvertently pioneered a new type of celebrity: the YouTuber. This fits right into the book’s remit, and yet it barely warrants a mention.
The obligatory Trump bashing lacks real insight and can be summed up as ‘orange man bad.’ Trump certainly deserves criticism, not only for throwing the family of Otto Warmbier under the bus (one of the most disgusting actions I’ve seen from a supposed US President) but also for being under the impression that politics and business are exactly the same. While both need each other to function, the constant turnover of staff in the Trump administration made him look (at best) like a petulant child and (at worst) a dictator. As a result, US politics has now been seriously derailed.
Now where Tanner does do a good job is by discussing the significance of the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ and how politically romantic it is for a country disillusioned thanks to Big Tech and neoliberalism, thereby tying it with Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal. However, for all of Tanner’s potent criticisms, he neglects to mention how this affected the working class in the rustbelts of America (fucked over by Reaganomics in the 80’s, left behind by the technological advances in the 90’s, seeing jobs go overseas and a recession in the 00’s) and how this desire to hit back led to the rise of Trump. Surely, for all of Tanner’s criticisms of neoliberalism, he would join the dots. But apparently not.
His take on the rise of the alt-right is pretty much what you can read from other commentators. While no one can deny that the sights at Charlottesville (and Trump’s subsequent comments) were appalling, or that there is little doubt that racism lies at the very heart of the alt-right, few would concede that this is the norm in the United States. Ben Shapiro (who was named by the Anti-Defamation League as the number one target for anti-Semitic abuse in 2016) has dismissed the alt-right as a “…mash-up of nationalism without constitutionalism, vileness masquerading as political incorrectness, and frustration at the status quo misdirected to support a corrupt insider” (i.e., Trump). Although Shapiro would end up backing Trump, he does hit the nail on the head regarding the disorganised, incoherently racist and nihilistic alt-right, so to consider them such a threat that everyone from Star Wars fans to knitters can be accused of being alt-right gives them undue credit that is beyond them.
Finally, his take on incels follows the same formula as most other social commentators. Although there is undoubtedly truth in that misogyny and a nostalgia for a 1950’s style home arrangement runs deep within a section of incels, Tanner ignores William Costello’s fascinating and multi layered look at the subculture where it becomes difficult to not come to the conclusion that, in some ways, incels are actually victims of capitalism due to the corporatisation of dating via apps like Tinder and the disintegration of social norms (and life in the Covid era). Interestingly, for all of Tanner’s critiques of capitalism and Big Tech, he seems reluctant to acknowledge that.
Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly elements in here worth discussing and, when they come up, Tanner does a really good job of discussing them (such as nostalgia in music). However, there are so many glaring blind spots that they override the positive aspects of the book and, subsequently, it is hard to read without thinking of how they tar the rest of the book.
Grafton Tanner, 2020, The Circle of the Snake: Nostalgia and Utopia in the Age of Big Tech. Zer0 Books. ISBN-13: 978-1789040227
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.