Wandering online, I stumbled upon this list: Technostalgia, 20 Misty Memories of Personal Computing. Number 1 is the modem dial-up sound, that digital gear-crunch of scrape, bleep and plonk. Immediately, I was 15 again, at home with my dad in front of a brand new computer. He was explaining that there was this thing called the Internet, that we could access it with a telephone line, that soon everyone would be connected. He also set up an email address for every member of our family on the French postal service, laposte.fr. I didn’t really see the point.
There were a few games around: an old Atari at my grandparents on which we played Pacman on Wednesday afternoons, a hand-me-down Nintendo. A kid in provincial France, I was utterly unaware of the online communities that were being formed, heady with the intoxicating sense of potential that the Internet offered then. Artists were among them, rapidly seizing the web as a space that allowed for a new kind of creativity, freed from the art market and the whims of the art world intelligentsia. Many of us know the names now: Vuk Ćosić, Alexei Shulgin, Heath Bunting, JODI, Olia Lialina, UBERMORGEN, Eva & Franco Mattes, among others. (Very quickly too came the awareness of how fragile this online space was, a feeling epitomized by John Perry Barlow’s 1998 Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace. But that’s another story).
Like most early home computer users, I never learnt how to code. I wasn’t a gamer or a nerd – just one of the million people who slowly adopted digital technologies as they spread around us. And yet despite this seemingly passing involvement with computing, like many of us I have developed a real tenderness for anything with a whiff of these early days: the gifs, fonts and unabashedly DIY website designs of the 1990s, my teenage years.
The purpose of this anthology isn’t to go back to the first chapters in the history of digital art or net.art, but to investigate the longing for the aesthetic of that era. Technostalgia functions on two levels. On a personal level, it brings us back to memories of learning and play during a more innocent period of our lives. On a collective level, it reminds us of a more candid age – a time when the spread of domestic computers and the arrival of the Internet opened up immense fields of possibilities few knew exactly what to do with. Technostalgia takes us back to the peer-to-peer ideal of “sharing” and “connecting”, to the academic founders’ vision of the Internet as free and accessible to all. It takes us back to the days before data tracking became a corporate sport, to when a new, fairer society enabled by technological advances seemed within arm’s reach.
Yet like all forms of nostalgia (etymologically, the pain caused by the desire to return home), Technostalgia is also partial, fetishist, romantic, biased. A doomed-to-fail attempt to replicate or at least reconnect with something that is irretrievably lost, it champions an authenticity that perhaps never was. It’s also reassuring, as it appears to slow down the ever-more frenzied cycle of technological innovation, interrupting it with familiar elements which act like old friends in a foreign town. Technostalgia creates and strengthens links between people with shared sets of references, fostering communities, and with it, a sense of belonging.
Now that armies of trolls get madmen elected, blanket surveillance is a fait accompli and wars are broadcasted live on social media, technostalgia has grown exponentially. It doesn’t just affect computer enthusiasts, nor is it limited to the art community. Both hardware and software’s bygone idiosyncrasies, sometimes even their limitations, have become highly sought-after. And while it’s significant that iconic machines regularly sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction, technostalgia is first and foremost a grassroots phenomenon – one which has quickly been monetised by companies selling products as wide-ranging as Nintendo’s NES Classic Edition, Sonic the Hedgehog Christmas jumpers and Commodore BASIC neckties. It has become so widespread that it can be considered as fundamentally part of the fabric of our present. There perhaps, lies the key.
I would like to argue that technostalgia isn’t just a characteristic of the now, but also a potent creative motor towards the future. The conceptual and visual legacy it maintains and promotes sends treasure seekers digging for gems in the digital refuse. Technostalgia layers temporalities; it complexifies known histories, and unearths forgotten ones. In various ways, the artists gathered here exploit this rich seam.
Coline Milliard is a writer and associate director at Carroll / Fletcher gallery in London.
Image: Constant Dullaart, Jennifer_in_Paradise, 2013. Courtesy of artist and Carroll / Fletcher.