FEATURE7 February 2018

Rose-tinted tech

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Technology is allowing people to connect with the past in exciting ways, with a whole host of nostalgia experiences designed to rekindle memories and help us discover history, writes Katie McQuater.

Nostalgia - VR My House Sarah Rothberg_crop

Memory Place: My House’ by Sarah Rothberg.

Nostalgia has become a tool of engagement for tech platforms, brands and entertainment companies. If nostalgia is an ache for the past, technology is reminding us of that ache – and, in some cases, administering a psychological salve. One need only look to the success of Stranger Things, the Netflix original show set in the 1980s and filled to the brim with references to the decade, as evidence of our modern-day fascination with looking back. The second season averaged 15.8m viewers, in possibly the most mainstream manifestation of the nostalgia trend.

Our smartphones are peppered with the past, with features such as Facebook’s ‘On This Day’ and the iPhone’s Memories reminding us of historical events – whether we like it or not. As more and more of our lives are played out online, so too are they committed to digital memory, to reappear in two, five, 10 years’ time.

The trend has also extended to remakes of old gadgets, such as the Nokia 3310 and the Polaroid, the latter enjoying a sales uplift on eBay of 74% from August to October 2017. Nintendo, meanwhile, sold 2m of its SNES Classic in the first month after the game console’s relaunch.

Tailored playlists

In music, Spotify has launched Time Capsule, a feature that allows people to access a personalised playlist based on their listening history, in response to users searching for music that reminds them of their youth. The streaming company worked with Dr Tim Wildschut, associate professor of psychology at the University of Southampton, to understand more about how nostalgia works. According to Wildschut, there are two types: nomothetic, which applies to a cohort – for example, things that a certain generation would find nostalgic; and idiosyncratic, which applies to individuals. The Spotify Time Capsule combines both, so users get a playlist not just tailored to their age, but also to their individual tastes and listening behaviour.

Nostalgia has gained increased attention in recent years, as academics attempt to understand its impact on our psychology and behaviour. Rather than a wistful wander down memory lane, it is, according to Wildschut, a powerful motivator that has the capacity to ease feelings of loneliness and uncertainty. “The caricature of nostalgia is that it’s stuffy, it’s for old people and it’s ossifying – that it freezes you and you don’t want to do anything new,” he says. “But nostalgia has a very strong motivational component. It makes you want to go out and do things.”

These actions may resemble the ones you experienced in the past, but, in Wildschut’s view, memories offer a blueprint for how people would like the future to look. For this reason alone, it’s a powerful phenomenon for brands and tech platforms. 

He refers to a scene in TV’s Mad Men in which the lead character, Don Draper, defends the product name ‘Carousel’ during an advertising pitch for Kodak. “This device isn’t a spaceship,” says Draper, “it’s a time machine. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It lets us travel the way a child travels – around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.”

That feeling of connectedness can have a brand impact, says Wildschut. “If you can trigger nostalgia and link it to your product, you’re in business, because it’s very powerful.”

But why does the trend resonate so much today? Is a sense of disillusionment prompting us to seek comfort in the memory of simpler times? Perhaps. Feelings of uncertainty are a driver, according to Dr Ben Ho, associate professor of behavioural economics at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York. “People seek more nostalgic entertainment in uncertain times. We can see this in the movies people watch during a recession, and in studies of the content of advertisements. Nostalgia also appears to be cyclical, adds Dr Ho. “In times of uncertainty or low consumer confidence, nostalgia will be on the rise.”

Studies are conflicted about whether loneliness and social isolation are problems particular to today’s society, compared with previous eras. There’s no evidence that loneliness is making more people feel nostalgic now, but researchers have discovered it gives them the psychological reserve to feel less lonely – a kind of immune-system response, argues Wildschut. “Loneliness is associated with nostalgia and loneliness increases nostalgia – it’s not the other way around,” he says. “It’s almost like a homeostatic model or an immune system, where loneliness triggers nostalgia, and nostalgia acts to reduce loneliness and make you feel more connected.”

shadow experience

The link between emotion and memories has potency for brands and tech companies, according to Shazia Ginai, head of business development at Neuro-Insight. “Messages or events encoded in our long-term memory are more likely to influence future behaviour, such as purchase decisions,” she says. “Invoking a specific time is to invoke a host of memories and associations that go with it – some very positive, some perhaps less so, but powerful nonetheless. This is because of the effects of mirror neurons in our brains, which create a ‘shadow of an experience’; when the memory of a past event surfaces, the same parts of the brain that were activated by the initial stimuli are reactivated to bring it back to life.”

However, personalised features that draw on previous online experiences to bring memories ‘back to life’ face one obvious risk: there are some things of which people would rather not be reminded. For example, Facebook drew criticism in 2014 after a father, whose young daughter had died, was served a ‘Year in Review’ summary that included a picture of her face. What was created as an ostensibly fun, light-hearted feature has the potential to remind people of very difficult times when they least expect it. The implication is that, while algorithms can tie together groups of images, they can’t assign meaning in the way a human could. They can’t yet understand that memories can bring us pain, as well as joy.

So what’s the future for the nostalgia trend? In recent years, there have been developments in evoking memories via visual or auditory media, but this could be taken further in a virtual reality (VR) context. VR can be used to build empathy by allowing users to experience the world in someone else’s shoes – simulating the sense of living with autism, for instance. Could it be used in a similarly immersive way to build connections with others? 

Immersive experiences evoking past environments, both real and imagined, have already been created. Sarah Rothberg, artist and adjunct faculty at New York University’s interactive telecommunications programme, recreated her childhood home in ‘Memory Place: My House’, an example of how the medium could be personalised to feature our own individual memories in future (pictured above).

“Nostalgia is a desire to return to a place and a time – usually, a sort of airbrushed version of the past,” says Rothberg. “It is inextricably linked with our sense of self. Well-done VR delivers a feeling of presence, as if you are really in a place.” However, she describes the social impact of VR in tandem with memory content – being led by companies such as Facebook – as “unforeseeable”. “I can publish 360 photos on Facebook, and those could show up as a memory that Facebook ‘cares’ about. While 360 photos aren’t true VR, because of their limited interactivity, they point to a future where the media of memories could be virtual spaces you can inhabit.”

If the trend seems like just another means of escapism from modern society, Ho is clear on the distinction. “Insofar as escapism has a negative connotation, the two are not the same. Nostalgia provides positive psychological benefits. One study even showed that the increase in social connectedness makes people more altruistic.”

Far from removing us from our surroundings, nostalgia encourages connection. “It affords you some sense of closeness towards others – it’s a way of assimilating proximity,” says Wildschut. “When you do that, you feel closer and supported.”