Back to the future – what the internet does for nostalgia

The hoverboard

Just lately, I seem to be writing about something I read or saw or listened to in the past and that I’ve returned to later. I blame the internet. I, like my contemporaries, have been able to revisit things we experienced in our past, our childhood, before the internet made information and resources easier to access. No I can learn more about those things that coloured our lives pre-internet but that won’t make it into encyclopaedias or even be the subject of talking-heads nostalgia shows.

There’s not a day goes past without some relic of the near-past being laughed about or the subject of gentle nostalgia. I imagine the impulse to understand our origins, our culture, our past is old: but the use of the internet to do so is new. In fact, much of what is happening, like so much in the revolution of the internet, is happening for the first time. Sometimes it is simply the recording of some document that we thought lost.

Take this, a scan of an Argos shopping catalogue from the 1976 (for those that do not recognise the name, Argos is one of the UK’s largest general-purpose stores). It’s seemingly innocuous but actually it’s highly charged with memories for many of us. We might find toys we played with or stuff that was in our homes as a kid. it reminds us of a different time, perhaps more innocent. (For me, there was a great deal of delight in finding ‘Super Flight Deck’ in the toys section. It never really worked at its one trick. But it could have been so great). The website in which it appears, Retronaut, is devoted to such nostalgia. Its banner reads: ‘The past is a foreign country. This is your passport.’

For most, the subject of such wistful reverie is the reappearance of toys or sweets or other childish pursuits. But people can return, too – namely, celebrities. Some are like a bad dinner; you get a chance to encounter them twice. If you thought that D-list celebrity you couldn’t abide was gone forever then there’s always reality tv to offer them a second bite of the cherry. Some are funny, like Ozzy Osbourne, who returned to our screens in one of the grandaddies of all reality tv, The Osbournes. Other are a little sadder, like Freddie Starr wheezing an exit on 2011’s I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!

The internet also gives us a chance to return to perhaps more highly valued culture, something a little more substantial than the ephemera of our childhood. I’ve listened to and loved Primal Scream’s Screamadelica album and especially the song ‘Come Together’. At the beginning it has a sample of what sounds like a speech, in which the speaker exclaims: ‘This is a beautiful day… it is a new day… We are together… we are unified and all for the cause…’

That cause, unknown to me in its precise context for so long in, was black empowerment and the speech is taken from Jesse Jackson’s opening address from the Wattstax music festival, held in Watts, California in 1972. I’ve have often idly sung that phrase ‘It is a beautiful day… it is a new day’ first thing in the morning when I’m feeling especially bright: now I know where it came from:

This lead me finding out a bit more about Wattstax and that period American history. For me, the vibrant era of civil rights and social justice in the United States is especially interesting and in the case of the Watts festival, was captured wonderfully in a full length documentary.

Revisiting our past life in this way, through reviewing new information on ephemera or other culture that’s personal to us, becomes like a step into a future of new possibilities rather than a retreat to the cul de sac of inward-looking nostalgia. We are going back to the future, hoverboards or not.

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