July 25, 2017
You are not a statistic, you are a human being, that’s first and foremost. Your memories are not a commodity or a brand – they are deeply personal and not something for sale. At least, that’s the ideal. Unfortunately, in our cutthroat and rabidly nihilistic present everything is for sale and nothing is sacred. We’ll plunder your damn brains if it means a stronger bottom line. That is what is happening with our nostalgia-dominated culture. Millennials, Gen Xers, and Baby Boomers all face an uncertain and existentially terrifying future. That’s not to excuse the casual racism or regressive behavior of some older people, but it is an understandable factor (that is, seeing the future and not understanding it and recoiling at the sight of it). For Millennials, we face some truly daunting prospects: college debt that may take decades to pay off, the possibility of never owning a home or being able to afford raising a family, or even achieving financial independence.
So, what does our bleak, probably cyberpunk future, have to do with nostalgia?
Some anthropologists theorize that nostalgia is an evolutionary survival trait. In trying times our ancestors fondly reminisced about the “good ol’ days” to not fall into a depressing death spiral, since that sort of thing usually resulted in starvation and not living long enough to have children (a key achievement 10,000 years ago).
We are living in our own trying times, and as a result we retreat to our fond memories usually in the form of an idealized past (be it the 1950s or the 1990s). This isn’t helpful, but it’s understandable. The problem comes when nostalgia becomes a way of life, and a way of dictating the future be it political or cultural. Trump rose to power on a fevered wave of nostalgia from predominantly older, white Americans that believe in some kind of idealized past from their childhood that completely disregards the racism and sexism and government-sanctioned oppression of political thought outside the norm (then again, that may have been a strong selling point, for some people). For Millennials, it’s the decay of culture. Not in some kind of neo-fascist, PJW-esque “postmodernism is the devil” decay, but in a lack of creating a distinct culture that belongs to us beyond the past. We are locked in a feedback loop of cultural nostalgia. Of course, culture exists on a timeline, but the problem isn’t just the loss of authentic culture, it’s more depraved than that.
What we are witnessing is the ultimate form of commodification. Politicians and entertainment magnates are all too ready to take the totems of our childhood and use it as a cheap power grab. Trump took a desperate and aging populace and used it to propel him to power. His vague and outlandish promises secured his regime, and in a way, Ready Player One is no different. The trailer opens showing a hellscape of stacked mobile homes in a dirty, industrial city and the protagonist retreats into a virtual reality orgy of nostalgia. The only thing missing is a healthy dose of an opiate. Trump and RTO are one in the same: things are shitty, but rather than look to the future let’s look to the past because it’s familiar and comforting, hell, let’s just pretend that things can be like they used to be.
That’s not to say we must discard the past entirely. I would love to see a return to Main Street USA and I would love to see the same kind of earnest, heartbreakingly honest culture of years past, but that doesn’t mean you just recycle the aesthetic; you draw from it and make something new that is independent of the past.
We are at a crossroads of dire proportions in human history, where forward thinking and acceptance of reality will be what saves us from extinction, not the quiet of backwards thinking and rejection of reality.
So watch The Iron Giant, and Hey Arnold!, but never forget that there are pressing matters to attend to, and eventually the present and imposing future will demand you take action – or else. And ultimately, take possession of your personal, private past. Those halcyon days are not something that should be bought and sold to the highest bidder. They belong to you, not corporations or politicians, and by giving those people power you lose a little bit of yourself. You allow yourself to become nothing more than a statistic in a larger demographic to be plundered and exploited.
Don’t allow it.