The bitter pill of nostalgia

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

I love watching movies from the 1990s. There’s something nostalgic and warm about that decade right before we all became consumed by the internet, smartphones and social media. It feels like coming home.

My generation — occupying some fuzzy space between Generation X and the Millennials — is often viewed as the last generation that remembers the world before technology changed everything.

We grew up in a quaint world where people still wrote letters and dropped by without calling in advance. You made plans to meet up with your friends and everyone just showed up at the right time and place — no text messaging needed. We rented VHS tapes from video stores, made mix cassette tapes from the radio and scraped together our spare change to buy candy from the corner store. We read magazines that we bought from the newstands, discovered new music from watching VH1 and MTV, and somehow managed to learn and survive without having Google always at our fingertips to answer any question that popped into our heads.

We spent hours roaming around outside — catching frogs in a creek behind the house or riding bikes with friends on adventures seemingly without purpose. When we were older, we’d cruise around town in our first cars, park window-to-window at the City Beach to catch up with friends and see where the party was later.

We were raised without the constant intrusion of smartphones dictating our every desire, and I think we were better off for it. Walk through an airport today and you’ll see thousands of people with their heads bent down, thumbs tapping on their devices, filling the void by searching the internet, swiping left or right on some dating app or watching the latest 30-second viral sensation on TikTok. It’s almost as if we’re unable to spend a single moment without visual stimulation.

I often wonder how things like urban legends and childhood games were spread to one another before the internet captured us all in its viral embrace. I remember playing the old “Bloody Mary” game, in which you’d stand in a dark bathroom with a candle burning and chant “Blood Mary” three times while staring into the mirror. The reflection would suddenly transform into a ghastly, ghostly face and we’d run screaming from the bathroom.

I’ve talked with other people my age from different geographic areas, and they confirmed they played similar games when they were younger.

Were they spread by word of mouth? Was it the collective unconscious? Or were big brothers and sisters the sole vehicle for teaching their younger siblings these things?

Today, we’re oversaturated with information bombarding us every moment of every day. All the information of the world is at our fingertips, and somehow it has lost a bit of its gravitas. I long for the days when I don’t have the ability to answer any question instantaneously with a few taps of my fingers.

I remember sitting around arguing with friends in high school and later in college. We’d talk about what a star is, and everyone would have a different set of facts and anecdotes to add to the conversation. Today, it would just take someone Googling “what is a star?” and all the answers would be there; but, back in the day, we had to rely on the things we learned in Mr. Collins’ science class or from watching Cosmos with Carl Sagan on PBS.

I remember our family’s hardcover set of Encyclopedia Britannica on the bookshelf. I’d pore over them volume by volume, starting with aardvarks and finishing by learning about zymurgy in the final book. The year 1990 was Encyclopedia Britannica’s heyday, when 120,000 sets were sold worldwide. Just 10 short years later, the antiquated books were all but replaced by CD-ROMs and, a little later, websites like Wikipedia. By 2012, well into the digital age, the books went out of print completely. Sure, it’s more convenient to have all the encyclopedic information digitally stored, but there’s also something a bit soulless about it, too.

Nostalgia is a dangerous potion that can bring such joy, but can also leave a bitter taste in your mouth when realizing we might’ve been better off without all the abilities in the world at our fingertips.

We hear people talk about freedom a lot around these parts. I think real freedom was the ability to live in the present, each and every day, and not be beholden to our chirping devices always waiting to divert our attention.

There is no going back at this point. You can’t unring the digital bell. But we can still escape into the warm embrace of a ’90s movie now and again, before we all became so connected and grew so very far apart.

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