Be Kind, Don’t Rewind

Nostalgia for the 1990s is overrated. Take it from a Gen Xer.

The price we pay as a species for being able to imagine a better future is the capacity to imagine a better past.

Nostalgia is the yang to the yin of vision. The human imagination allows us to conjure future accomplishments, which allows us to plan and work in that direction. Dolphins, perhaps our most intelligent fellow mammals, may be able to communicate and work cooperatively—even to get high on blowfish—but they can’t shape the world around them to reach an imagined goal. But then again, neither do they float around spouting their blowholes about how big the mackerel schools were when they were calves.

Because of our ability to imagine and to describe those imaginings to others, our blowholes get plenty of exercise. An ignorance of history combined with selective, slanted recollections means humans generally tend to believe things used to be better. Nothing could be more human than the sensation that one was born too late. And right now, we are living through a doozy of a nostalgia trip. As baby boomers swim toward that last great mackerel roundup in the sky imagining the heroics of the past, their millennial children yearn for their barely remembered past when the last vestiges of pre-digital life were still intact. The period of overlap between these two largest generational cohorts is the 1990s when today’s 30-somethings were kids and the Boomers were 30-somethings themselves. 

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For many of us who came of age in the 1990s, this phenomenon has been most puzzling. We may now see the era as the beginning of revolutionary changes to how we work, play, live, and love. At the time, though, it felt very much like, well, the lamest possible moment in human history: homogenized, corporate, and painfully politically correct. Our nostalgia was for the 1950s and 1960s of our parents’ generation when we imagined things were both simpler and, always key for nostalgia, more authentic. Who would ever want to relive the era of dial-up Internet, ‘depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is” and 4 Non Blondes? Lots of people, as it turns out.

And it’s getting to be a big part of our politics. Consider this video from the Gravel Institute, a think tank supporting direct democracy and the redistribution of wealth that was founded with the remains of former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel’s 2020 presidential fundraising. The video stars comedian David Cross and is titled: “Why America Sucks at Everything.” Aside from cherry-picked or irrelevant data sets—e.g. “America has fewer hospital beds per capita than Turkey and Brunei”; “fewer miles of high-speed rail than Uzbekistan”; etc.—and lots of snark, the video also features 1990s-style graphics on a heavy nostalgia trip. The categorical attack—“across every single metric no people accept a worse deal than Americans today”—suggests things once were better.

But if you looked at key measurements on the issues Cross is addressing—like health insurance, poverty, real household income, and crime—things are demonstrably better than they were when the kitschy star-wipe graphics in the video were considered cutting edge. The nostalgic message is that America is getting worse, but if the circumstances of the era the video evoked were restored, human misery would increase massively. Whatever your politics, there’s no reason to pine for the conditions of 30 years ago.

Delivering a pile driver of ‘90s nostalgia these days is The Last Blockbuster, the most popular movie on Netflix last week. The documentary tells the story of the last Blockbuster Video store still in business. The location in Bend, Oregon, is the last one out of more than 8,000 locations that once wrapped the nation in a big cobalt-blue and maize-yellow hug. It is a Niagara Falls of nostalgia—a thundering wall of imaginings of a sweeter, simpler past. While it might seem on the surface risky or brave for Netflix to distribute a movie about the downside of streaming video, the filmmakers carefully absolve Netflix of any blame for Blockbuster’s demise (it’s really Wall Street’s fault, dontcha know). The tragedy of Blockbuster’s collapse, we are told, was brought about by big corporations looking to make easy money. If it hadn’t been for that, why we’d all still be buying bags of butter-flavored Orville Redenbacher and renting Speed.

The store in Bend indeed seems like a lovely place. It is a family business run by a general manager who sounds like a great boss and the kind of person any of us would be lucky to work with. It’s impossible not to root for her and the store as the drama of whether or not Dish Network, the corporate entity that ended up holding the hot potato when Blockbuster eventually died a decade ago, would renew their license for another year. Truly they’re lovely people as depicted in the movie. What is confusing, though, is the nostalgia expressed for Blockbuster and renting physical movies at all. The theme repeated over and over throughout the film is how the act of renting movies produced a greater sense of community than streaming ever could.

Anyone who worked in a movie theater prior to the turn of the century would no doubt be perplexed by this argument. Videotapes in the span of two decades destroyed one of the mainstays of American community life: the movie theater. Blockbuster’s rise correlated exactly with the demise of in-town theaters—especially the family-owned cinemas with just a few screens. To compete in the Blockbuster world, one needed an experience—reclining seats, sushi, and Dolby surround sound. But given the choice, people chose convenience. And, lo and behold, new rituals sprang up around the new technology—so much so that its demise can be cast as a loss of a communitarian vibe. It’s almost as if human behavior adapts to technology. 

Most frustrating, though, is how The Last Blockbuster pretends to be oblivious to the benefits of the new media landscape. Fathers and sons still watch movies, but now they can watch more of them. Time spent driving to go exchange money for a hunk of plastic can now be spent on other things. And while the documentary points to the Oregon store’s success in adapting to the coronavirus pandemic, imagine how differently America would have handled the past year if we were waiting for the one copy of Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo to be returned instead of enjoying whatever we wanted whenever we wanted to.

Nostalgia is not new, nor are its corrosive effects on politics. We have been limiting the future based on a yearning for the misremembered past since long before anybody heard of a VHS tape. But there is no rewind button on history as much as we try to make one. Indeed, this present time lamented by all as a giant garbage fire of misery will one day be called the good old days.

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