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The Rise Of Nostalgia Tech

We’re being forever driven forward by advances in Silicon Valley. But what if some technology could help keep us rooted in a more human-centered past?

The Rise Of Nostalgia Tech
[Image: Michael G Mckinne via Shutterstock]

Just three months ago, I moved to Silicon Valley from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I don’t believe in moving to big towns for enlightenment. I think wisdom is found in silence, where you can hear your thoughts; where the rush of man-made noise doesn’t drown your soul out.

I came out to California because I wanted to be near the creators. I wanted to be around the people who are making the things that clutter the world–the iPhones, the social networks, and video games. The things that are changing how we interact, that are creating different conditions of community.

There is a lot of hype here. People are pushing products, platforms, and apps with evangelical gospel. And so I started asking questions. Trying to figure things out. As someone born into the Amish community, someone with a healthy degree of techno-skepticism, I wanted to understand if there were creators out there, entrepreneurs, and startup founders, who had concerns like me.

And I stumbled upon a few.

Before I came out here, I met Mathias Vestergaard in New York. He doesn’t like to talk on the phone or email. He tries to meet in person whenever possible. When I met him he greeted me like any other person, even though I was in my Amish bonnet and dress. Perhaps because Vestergaard himself wears all black and carries around a silver briefcase, he is not spooked by unusual dress.

In one of our conversations Vestergaard told me, “When I use digital tech for extended periods of time, I don’t like what it does to me. My mind becomes unfocused and scattered.” These days he writes a handwritten newsletter to folks called Think Clearly. The notes have an old-timey and intimate feel while the newsletter (which runs through MailChimp) can reach the scale that digital allows for.

Innovations like Mathias’s are half-blends: digital infusions with nostalgia for an earlier time. Similarly, another startup I discovered called Bond, allows users to send handwritten notes to friends. Then there is Offtime, an app that allows users to take control and “unplug in a hyper-connected world.” Not to be confused with SelfControl, a free Mac app, which blocks you from using time-wasting websites. I’m using it right now as I write this article.

But do these kinds of innovations have staying power? Do they signal a new relationship with technology–where humans are no longer enslaved to devices? Or are they merely symptomatic of our defeat, a last grip on the analogue days?

Technology has this way of disrupting, of displacing things like handwritten notes, leisure time, and even community. But then “nostalgia entrepreneurs” emerge to bring those practices back. We destroy community in pursuit of a liberal economic dream only to have a deep longing that seeks to bring back the past. We seek out sharing-economy-style innovations like Couchsurfing, Kickstarter, and community time banking that attempt to make up for the loss.

Or more simply, because email destroys letter writing, we develop platforms and apps for handwriting. Because overwhelming digital exposure destroys our sense of peace, leisure, and concentration we develop apps that literally give us self-control and space for stillness.

Nostalgia tech runs deep. Nostalgia entrepreneurs find markets in our longing, yearning, and desire for a different time, a simpler time. But the paradox of nostalgia is there is no possibility of return. We are forever marching foreward. Human evolution is tied to technology’s forward race.

Being brought up in the Amish community and raised with a belief in the power of opting out and taking a stand against the destructive forces of modern life–I know this desire to hideout and retreat. But at the same time there is a part of me that wants to desperately be of service, to shape the machines that are coming to control us.

It’s about nurturing a different relationship with technology; one where we don’t mysteriously wake up to find our cell phones intermixed with our bed covers, where the first thing we do in the morning isn’t rushing to check email. Nostalgia tech may not be the answer, but it is a powerful pit stop on our road to the future.

The Amish Futurist is a believer in the power of buttermilk. She is a Silicon Valley transplant via Lancaster, Pennsylvania. You can follow her on twitter @AmishFuturist.

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