The Nostalgic Frame

Posted: March 31, 2011 in Culture, Ethics, History, Nomenclature, Philosophy, Technophilia

This is the first of two posts (the second is here) where I delayed blogging about an idea long enough that someone else wrote it first — and probably better than I could. I have no pretensions about being either a journalist or academic, nor do I spend my days writing for a living. Accordingly, what criticism I offer is of the armchair variety.

As I said in a recent comment, I sorta disclaim the nostalgic frame because I recognize it as a trap. The nostalgic frame is described by Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker in an article called “The Information: How the Internet Gets Inside Us.” His primary focus is how we interpret information delivered via electronic media:

The Never-Betters believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic, news will be made from the bottom up, love will reign, and cookies will bake themselves. The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t. The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others — that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment. One’s hopes rest with the Never-Betters; one’s head with the Ever-Wasers; and one’s heart? Well, twenty or so books in, one’s heart tends to move toward the Better-Nevers, and then bounce back toward someplace that looks more like home.

I usually fall into the middle one of Gopnik’s three categories, with the Better-Nevers. Yet I have long been aware of the seductive fallacy of a golden past that wasn’t (so golden). Memory can be selective that way. But projecting one’s hopes backward in time makes at least as much sense as projecting them forward once one gives up on the myth of progress.

Therein lies the problem, which Gopnik never quite identifies: whereas Never-Betters are Utopians (typically technophiles), Better-Nevers are conservators. If something good and decent and just develops in the affairs of men, maybe it’s worth preserving rather than watching it be swept away by the torrents of history and needless innovation. This is especially true (IMO) of social conditions, which are always a tricky balance. When the status quo is destabilized, assuming there is something worthwhile in an existing state of affairs, those whose experiences extend backward far enough feel an inescapable sense of loss, often keenly. Maybe it’s summers whiled away at a fishing hole instead of spent cooped up in a latchkey situation. Maybe it’s something as simple as respect and decorum as opposed to aggression and manipulation. It’s the time-honored old person’s lament, “kids these days ….” And yet it’s often true.

But then, it’s always been true, right? Why would kids uphold standards they have yet to learn to value? That’s what maturation is about: gaining experience, committing to something, and accepting responsibility. According to Gopnik, Ever-Wasers insist it’s always been like this even as the world changes around us, or restated, that there is nothing new in the rebellion of youth. As I’ve blogged before, explaining something away is never easier than when one adopts the rhetoric of the Ever-Waser, which even Gopnik expresses:

… Ever-Wasers smile condescendingly at the Better-Nevers and say, “Of course, some new machine is always ruining everything. We’ve all been here before.” But the Better-Nevers can say, in return, “What if the Internet is actually doing it?” The hypochondriac frets about this bump or that suspicious freckle and we laugh — but sooner or later one small bump, one jagged-edge freckle, will be the thing for certain. Worlds really do decline.

That final rejoinder is worth reinforcing: worlds really do decline. It’s a pessimistic view, perhaps, but anchored in reality rather than in dreams.

  1. If something good and decent and just develops in the affairs of men, maybe it’s worth preserving rather than watching it be swept away by the torrents of history and needless innovation. This is especially true (IMO) of social conditions, which are always a tricky balance.

    I’m in full agreement. This could be Edmund Burke talking at the time of the French Revolution.

    On the ‘worlds really do decline’ thing — it always reminds of me of the difference between our breakneck-progress culture and the Ancient Egyptian one, say. Breakneck-progress tends to outdo, doesn’t know how to be rooted, as they say in tai chi. Thus it is far to easy to sweep away… no bottom.

    I feel ‘worlds really do decline’ is simply equivalent to accepting death. Those steady-state cultures were much better at death than we are. Spiritual practice always involves acceptance of death, but when it comes from Egypt and China, also has a rejuvenating effect which leads to longer life. And those cultures did live longer than ours will…

    • Brutus says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. It’s difficult to argue effectively for a steady state, which has stability, continuity, and intelligibility, when our heads are so easily turned by glitzy, glamorous, blingy nonsense, such as in this YouTube video.

      • Wow, that was genuinely repulsive — although not as repulsive as the comment suggesting ‘instead of cynicism this should be met with awe’! (Perhaps a video reply featuring a tour of current inner-city Detroit is in order? ^_^) Esp. when you consider the only major hope for keeping any quality of life in the next 10-20 years is energy conservation.

        Away from consumerist garbage, I’ll tell you who’s a great arguer for such steady states, and that’s Elinor Ostrom. That book was written in 1990 and remains unsurpassed. Many great examples of human sustainability in managing common-pool resources, brilliantly analyzed, which completely redefine the argument away from ‘government vs. private’ where most people are still stuck. How to keep the same potentially-depletable farmland, irrigation system, et al. resources going for a thousand years by means of just those stable human social systems you prize in your post. (Worthy winner of a Nobel Prize.)

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