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Thoughts on technological nostalgia

Reflecting on the technological predictions of the past, such as those artistic impressions of “the computer of tomorrow” and various science fiction wheezes featuring of an improbable and unrealistic nature, it’s interesting to note how the technology of our day can bracket our collective imagination.

Flitting from the digital wristwatch with interchangeable floppy discs featured on the 1981 cover of Byte magazine, to the multicoloured mini data cartridges used onboard the USS Enterprise during her original 1966-69 run, the problem of data storage is a good example of where we sometimes get boxed in by the breakthroughs of our time. Much of this, or so I suspect, is underpinned by the assumption that the technological zenith has now been reached, and any variation beyond this point will almost certainly be in terms of modest refinements. How else can you explain the preponderance of reel-to-reel super computers in 1950s science fiction film and TV, where humanity has apparently mastered interstellar travel, although missions often flirted with tragedy by the need to meticulously respool a tangled length of tape with an emergency No.2 pencil.

I vividly remember boxing away my pathetically small audio cassette collection due to the arrival of the Compact Disc, a medium that were told at the time was practically indestructible, a marketing tactic clearly targeted at those poor unfortunates who had lost a treasured mixtape to the dashboard stereo of their father’s knacked Vauxhall Astra. Where CDs appeared in popular science fiction they were miniaturised, so often a shorthand for technological advancement and civilisation’s ceaseless march towards greater sophistication. No sooner had I upgraded my lamentable selection of albums to a CD format, amongst them such shameful entries as “Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers” and about a dozen of those ESSO “best of UK pop shite” collections given away as a promotional gimmick at petrol stations, than the minidisc arrived, ushering in the age of MP3.

Almost overnight the need for a physical representation of your music collection evaporated, replaced with long chains of manilla desktop folders and, if you could afford one, an iPod. It’s been much the same story with VHS, DVDs and now streaming services, and despite the easy convenience that this affords the casual consumer, there is still part of me that likes to “have” rather than simply “own” a favourite album or box set. One strange side effect is that charity shops have become a kind of lavender scented archive, although even they won’t take DVDs anymore.

Speaking at one of those generic, soul sucking Silicone Valley conventions about the next generation of laptops, the late Steve Jobs announced that one of the unexpected developments of the past twenty years has been the demand for greater and greater storage capacities. The urge to miniaturise personal tech has been supplanted by the need to squeeze the totality of our digital existence onto a nesting set of devices capable of quick change routines that allow us to watch films, shift through untold numbers of apps and trackers, adjust the thermostat at home and order a weekly shop, all on one device. It’s amazing, really, and yet somehow not satisfying nor as elegant as a shelf of family VHS tapes thoughtfully sleeved and stood to attention in a bespoke, faux leather plastic jacket dressed up to look like an antique tome but convincing precisely nobody except your sweetly naïve father.

With all this nostalgia swilling about I felt compelled to re-watch the 1995 film Hackers during the most recent lockdown. It’s an objectively bad film, overspilling with the fads of the day, a list which includes such luminaries as Day-Glo reflective shell suits, bum bags, rollerblades and the obligatory frosted tips highlights, although it was amusing to visit again with these hopelessly naïve visions of the future as viewed from the mid-1990s. That’s not to suggest that the 90s got it all wrong, far from it, for in the very same year that cinemagoers where chocking down Hackers, the more discerning amongst us were watching Manga, specifically masterpieces like Ghost in the Shell that remains as eerily prophetic now as it did back then. I saw it for the first time at my friend Matt’s house, whose older brother had an impressive and slightly creepy collection of imported Japanese Manga, including Urotsukidōji: Legend of the Overfiend (1989), which is credited as being one of the first hentai films to make the leap into the Western marketplace, and a surprise introduction to tentacle porn. The brother’s room hummed with the smell of stale cannabis and body odour, which perhaps added to the sinister ambience, plus he insisted on laughing hysterically through the more graphic scenes, which we both found rather unsettling. I believe he teaches geography now.

Prior to this, the most “adult” cartoon on my personal radar were some of the more violent episodes of Thundercat’s, so you can well imagine my surprise and immediate delight in discovering that there was this entire, untapped library of uber violent, adult themed animated Japanese films. Even so, Ghost in the Shell was something we watch over and over again. Other than the obvious physical enhancements that would appeal to a teenage boy, I also considering what other cybernetic augments I might introduce into my body during the long walk back to my house. Enhanced vision seemed like a good starting point, as did invisibility armour, but the best option was a replacement arm that could instantly transform itself into a gun with which I could instantly shred any bullies. Back in the real world, the best I could hope for was a Transformer’s watch, which I did eventually acquire and then immediately lose as part of swap. Best of all would have been an intelligence chip, that would have enabled me to upload a maths programme and thereby completely negate any requirement to ever open a math’s textbook again.

Skipping past the latest pathetic Netflix offerings and that pitiful Scarlett Johansson live action travesty, the Ghost in the Shell oeuvre remains one of my favourite franchises in any format. I can’t think of another science fiction franchise from my youth that has retained or even increased its relevance over time. It’s visionary in the truest sense of the word, its influence massive and universal, so much so that it’s difficult to say how much of the look and feel of today’s burgeoning online architecture is a response to those early predictions or a direct consequence of it. It’s that important.

Beyond genre defining anime masterpieces the quality of technological future gazing drops considerably. Another ridiculous example is of course 1996’s Independence Day, in which a weatherman and fighter pilot somehow manage to bring down a vastly superior alien invasion force by infecting the mother ship with a computer virus stored on Apple PowerBook. Hard to believe that for the want a MacAfee Total Protection subscription, the aliens’ relentless colonialization of Earth would have had a very different and possibly less nauseating conclusion.

One frankly horrifying prediction is that in the near future we will have new tech stitched directly into our bodies like Tetsuo, the Iron Man. We will no longer need to carry a device, since the latest edition of whatever must-have Apple product will be socketed directly into our cerebellum, with wealthier citizens paying to remove pop-up ads. Masamune Shirow certainly got that much right. The fob that automatically unlocks my car will presumably be grafted onto my crotch, enabling me to pelvic thrush my way into the car while overburdened with heavy shopping. Perhaps this is why I find a nostalgic sort of comfort in the cyberpunk films of the past, even the bad ones, and why I continue to see a mixture of intriguing fetish and panicked warning in works like Ghost in the Shell. It doesn’t feel like modernity, more a regressive form of wilful nostalgia that I have been quick to dismiss in others.



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