Podcast / Tech Won’t Save Us / Feb 22, 2024

How Foreverism Degrades Our Culture, With Grafton Tanner

On this episode of Tech Won’t Save Us, a discussion about the dangers of companies’ co-opting nostalgia.

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.

How Foreverism Degrades Our Culture with Grafton Tanner | Tech Won't Save Us
byThe Nation Magazine

On this episode of Tech Won't Save Us, Paris Marx is joined by Grafton Tanner to discuss the dangers and consequences of companies and politicians leveraging nostalgia for their own purposes.

Grafton Tanner is the author of Foreverism. He also teaches at the University of Georgia.

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Network cables in a server room in New York City, 2014.

Network cables in a server room in New York City, 2014.

(Photo by Michael Bocchieri / Getty Images)

On this episode of Tech Won’t Save Us, Paris Marx is joined by Grafton Tanner to discuss the dangers and consequences of companies’ and politicians’ leveraging nostalgia for their own purposes.

Grafton Tanner is the author of Foreverism. He teaches at the University of Georgia.

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.

Kara Swisher Shows Tech Journalism’s Flaws w/ Edward Ongweso Jr. | Tech Won't Save Us
byThe Nation Magazine

Paris Marx is joined by Edward Ongweso Jr. to discuss Kara Swisher’s attempt to rebrand herself as the most feared journalist in Silicon Valley, how she spent her career forwarding the industry’s narratives, and the larger problems with access journalism.

Edward Ongweso Jr. is finance editor at Logics Magazine and co-host of This Machine Kills.

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Paris Marx: Grafton, welcome back to Tech Won’t Save Us.

Grafton Tanner: Hey, thanks so much for having me again.

Paris Marx: In the past, we talked about nostalgia, its relationship to technology, to politics, all these other important questions that we’re dealing with today. I’m sure listeners of the show will be very familiar with hearing these discourses around nostalgia infecting our society, being everywhere. I wonder, what you set out to do in this book, compared to, or built on what you were doing in those previous books, when you were digging into these topics and concepts around nostalgia?

Grafton Tanner: The last book that I wrote was called “The Hours Have Lost Their Clock” and it was a book length exploration of the history of nostalgia, how the emotion is used in politics and in culture, and my attempt at an intervention into the study of nostalgia. In that book, I made the argument that we live in a relatively nostalgic society. There’s plenty of reasons why human beings would experience nostalgia in our world today. And we may have a problem with it. There’s lots of problematic aspects of the way this emotion has been used, just something like anger, which is very similar. So, we may have a lot of issues with it, but we ought to take it a little seriously because it’s something that might not just go away, especially in a world in which there’s problems at the economic level, problems in terms major world-shaking events, like the COVID-19 pandemic. 

And people are feeling generally unstable across the world and nostalgia is this emotional reaction to instability,. Therefore, plenty of people likely are going to continue feeling this emotion, so we shouldn’t take it seriously. I made that argument in the last book. And so in this latest book, I decided to take that argument and turn it upside down and shake it and just see what fell out. Well, what if it’s the opposite, in fact? What if instead of a society in which nostalgia is relatively evenly distributed, because it’s human emotion, maybe it’s the opposite? Maybe it’s that nostalgia is this thing that’s targeted in an attempt to eradicate it? If so, then what does that look like, when we really think about it? It’s an experiment of a book in that way, in that I could be wrong. But it’s a different approach to something that I and a lot of other people maybe have taken for granted when it comes to the study of nostalgia.

Paris Marx: That’s really fair. I would say, going into it, I was a bit skeptical. I was like: Wait, so we’re not talking about nostalgia now? Like, what are we getting into? And we can discuss the larger concept that you ended up laying out in the book, and of course, we’ll dig into that further. But I was hoping that before we did that, that you could take us into that history a little bit. Because in the book, and in the past book, you talked about this history of nostalgia. But in particular, I was interested in this moment in the 20th century, where we start to see this reframing of nostalgia from this more medicalized term or idea. Just something that is really commercialized and taken by capitalism, taken into marketing companies and redeployed as something to try to sell products to people, basically. Can you talk about that moment in that shift?

Grafton Tanner: Definitely. So, the typical history of nostalgia is that it shows up as a word in the in the late 1600s. It’s created in a medical context; it’s conceived as a disease. For several hundreds years, it’s framed as as a disease — as something that needs to be cured out of people. Of course, it’s not just a disease, but it’s also a way to channel old prejudices. So during the 1700s-1800s, even into the early 1900s, nostalgia is a disease that only some folks are predisposed to, typically women, people of color, immigrants, soldiers, who were considered weak in the eyes of the military, who yearn for home and weren’t just ready to go to battle at a moment’s notice. It functions like that for a long time, and for a long time, it’s this thing that the white male technocratic society is trying to eliminate for a long time. And according to the usual history of nostalgia at some point in, maybe, the 20th century, it could be a little bit before that. It’s somewhere between the end of the 19th century into the first half of the 20th century. So, there is this shift in which nostalgia is no longer considered a disease. 

It becomes de-medicalized, and then picked up by the world of marketing and consumer capitalism, as this nifty new tool that can be used to market products that appeal to people’s sense of the past. There you start to see movies that are set in a vaguely defined past era, and products that appeal to older sensibilities, in terms of older fonts that are used on cereal boxes, and older styles of music that reappear in new ways. But it’s still obviously a little bit old, and that’s the world that we live in now. When I teach my students about nostalgia everybody in the class is nodding along because I guess they all understand the chokehold, if you will, that the emotion has on consumer capitalism. What I wanted to think about in this book “Foreverism” is to go: What if that shift is not the shift that we think it is? It goes from this medical concern that needs to be gotten rid of, to instead, something that suddenly becomes this commodity that we want people to indulge in, and purchase? 

So, when you go to watch an old either a reboot of a movie, or an older movie, you’re indulging in a little bit of nostalgia, and that’s maybe going to make you more nostalgic. And then therefore, the more nostalgic you are, the more you might purchase these old objects and products. I wanted to say: What if the way that the marketing world treats nostalgia today is actually the same way that the medical world treated nostalgia a really long time ago, which is this thing that needs to be gotten rid of? And if so, what would that look like? And to me, it would look like instead of Amazon, Hulu, Paramount, and Disney, trying to sell people nostalgia, maybe instead what they’re doing is just selling the past, so that people aren’t nostalgic for it any longer. They have access to it all the time. Why would they yearn for it if they have access to every rebooted Star Wars movie or something? And that’s where the book came from, was that thought experiment.

Paris Marx: So break that down for us a little bit more. As you say, the book is called “Foreverism,” and this is a concept that you lay out as opposed to, or in addition to nostalgia. So how does this work? And how is it distinct from the nostalgic practices that we’re used to associating with this term, or things that we’re used to calling nostalgia that maybe you would position in a different way?

Grafton Tanner: It starts by a basic definition of what nostalgia is, which for me is a human emotion that’s experienced when we encounter something that isn’t normally encountered in the present. It could just be in our minds, like a memory of something from the past, that is no longer in our world anymore. Or maybe it’s encountering something like an old car or something that’s been restored and we see it. It’s not normally seen in our day-to-day life, and so when we see it, we feel that tug toward the past. And I ask this question about the rebooting of the Star Wars franchise, and the endless sort of series and movies that are being made about Star Wars today. Although they haven’t been quite as many recently, but there was a lot for a few years. I had this thought where I was like: If every time there’s a new Star Wars reboot that’s released, there is a lot of discourse about the nostalgia of the series. Sometimes it was me joining in the discourse and saying: Oh, this is just a bunch of nostalgia, what is this? And sometimes it’s people praising the nostalgia, the feeling of watching the original again, now we get to relive it over and over again, in all of these reboots. 

I kind of asked this question: If nostalgia is a feeling associated with encountering something that isn’t normally present in our lives, how could someone be nostalgic for Star Wars, when there’s a new movie or series being released all the time? In some ways, it is a normalized product in our present, maybe even more so than it was 20 or 30 years ago, when Disney hadn’t bought it yet. And so in that way, I thought: Well, if so then what we’re consuming isn’t nostalgia, but perhaps maybe another tactic. And that’s where the word foreverism comes from, is a kind of a marketing strategy to bring back old things, place them in the present, and then prevent them from ever disappearing and allowing them or forcing them to grow forever, in a sense, so that nobody misses Star Wars, or nobody misses the past ever again.

Paris Marx: So, I guess the distinction there is: If I like Star Wars, and I still had the original trilogy, maybe I have my VHS tapes, or I bought them on DVD, or whatever. And I occasionally watch those, and I was like: Man, these are some great movies. Then I put them back in my cabinet, and that was it until I watched them six months or a year later. But then the distinction there, is that what you talk about with foreverism, is you’re not just pulling out your old tapes and watching them over and over again. But now, of course, they’re constantly new products, picking up on this franchise, picking up on this IP, so you can constantly be buying new things be consuming new things as a result of it. Picking up on that connection to it, but it’s not really nostalgic in the sense because you’re not thinking back or just saying: I love the original trilogy. But there’s always something new, whether it’s the Yoda show, the young Yoda or whatever. I don’t watch them, clearly. But you keep consuming these things. And of course, Disney can sell you the toys and all the other things as well. So I guess this is what you would see is the distinction between the two? There’s one, the original thing, but it can’t just be the original thing, because now you need to keep making more and more and more and selling it. And this is the distinction between the two. Is that right?

Grafton Tanner: Yes, that’s exactly it. So I remember being alive back before the prequel trilogy of Star Wars. If I wanted to watch those movies, I could pick them up, VHS tapes, put them on and watch them. That that was it. I mean, I could go maybe read novelizations of it or something like that. But in terms of the big ticket items, the movies themselves, that was basically it, and there weren’t any other films. So, to foreverize Star Wars would then be to essentially create new stories based off the old intellectual property itself, so that it never disappears. And then therefore, people don’t experience that longing for it anymore. That doesn’t mean that the nostalgia doesn’t prompt them to seek out the new stories, it very much can do that. It also doesn’t mean that a foreverized product doesn’t accomplish its goal of eradicating nostalgia forever. In fact, that’s one of the points in the book is that just like how the doctors hundreds of years ago, were trying to eliminate nostalgia and couldn’t, marketing companies today — by giving people what they think they longed for — can’t also eliminate the conditions for nostalgia either. 

In some ways it backfires and actually makes it worse. And that’s part of the foreverism process. In fact, it’s sort of built into it. Plenty of people watch baby Yoda, or whatever, and some of these series, and they get really critical of them. All you have to do is spend a little time on — I don’t know if you’ve done this, but I have for research purposes, solely for research — it’s like listening to some of the Star Wars dedicated podcasts and the YouTube channels, in which all they do is just criticize the newer installments in the franchise. I mean, to me, that’s not a problem of a foreverist institution like Disney. They like that. There’s no such thing as bad publicity as long as you’re talking about that it doesn’t really matter. So that’s another angle to the the argument.

Paris Marx: That’s interesting, because I did want to ask you about this. So, listen, I was a Star Wars kid, I grew up on it. My dad, my uncle, everyone had me watching Star Wars, my whole family was into it, my mom, my stepmom, everybody. But my big thing is Lord of the Rings. I love Lord of the Rings. And that trilogy was everything to me. Of course, I read the books, loved the books, but it really was the films that introduced me to it. And of course, the experience with Lord of the Rings is similar to so many of these other franchises, or intellectual properties, where it couldn’t just be the one trilogy that did really well, that won a bunch of Oscars and made the money. You had to have the Hobbit trilogy, which I think was terrible. Now, of course, you have the Amazon television show, which looked beautiful, but has a terrible story. It doesn’t make any sense, really. So, I feel like, the more that these companies try to exploit these intellectual properties, by keeping the present, by constantly trying to churn out more and more, they actually degrade the property itself, and potentially the nostalgia that people feel for it in the sense that Star Wars for me is not nearly what it was, when I was younger.

I don’t even really long to watch the original trilogy anymore, because I feel like it’s been so degraded. I feel like you see, even with the Marvel films, people slowly getting tired of those. Harry Potter as well, you had the original film trilogy that people were really into. And then you had the Fantastic Beasts trilogy, which people really were not into. And of course, then there’s some personal things with JK Rowling’s transphobia, that are turning people off of that as well. But I think even without that, there would have been a waning of interest because of the way that the property has been exploited. So I wonder what you make of that, because on the one hand, you’re talking about how the foreverist impulse is to constantly be making more and more, but it seems like the more that they do that, the more it actually degrades that interest in the product, as well?

Grafton Tanner: It’s true. In fact, that’s even an experience on the creator side of things. So I’ve got this interview in the book, where Kathleen Kennedy, I guess she’s still the CEO of Lucasfilm at this point.

Paris Marx: I think so, I think she’s still involved or head producer or something.

Grafton Tanner: So, she’s up there and working closely with George Lucas. She’s got this interview in Vanity Fair, where they actually talk about their approach to Star Wars. They don’t use the word foreverism, but instead, they call it “persistent storytelling.” And so they go: We’re not interested in doing trilogy arcs anymore, or anything like that. Instead, what it is, is we’re going to turn the intellectual property into a long-running series or something, with multiple seasons. And we’re just going to do that until maybe it runs out of steam or something. So, she talks about how in doing that, the love of the story itself has died for her a little bit. She got nominated for some award, I can’t remember, and they created a highlight reel over the decades of her and George Lucas teaming up together to make these movies. So, she said: I saw this photo of us from back when the early days of Star Wars and we were having so much fun, and it’s like: There’s nostalgia, having so much fun. And it seems like a lot of that enjoyment has been leached out of us through this persistent storytelling process. 

That occurs on the fan end, as well. Sometimes people will be a bit critical of me for going after things like Star Wars, or Marvel films or whatever, because they seem like easy targets. Oh, it’s fantasy — be real. That’s not it, I was also a fan of Star Wars as a younger person. And it’s more or less the feeling of almost too much of a good thing. What, why do I feel so turned off to this thing that I once really enjoyed? And it’s like: Well, honestly, it could have been anything, it could have been my favorite band. It could have been my favorite books or whatever that are then turned into a McDonald’s franchise, if you will. There’s some sort of gut, emotional reaction to watching something that you like, in part, because it’s limited, get turned into a forever product. So, I think that’s been a driving force behind this project. A foreverized product is not like the result of a mass demand for it, we all just want more. It’s more or less a decision made on the creative side of things: We can make more money by just marketing it as intellectual property and franchising it until it doesn’t make money anymore. So let’s try that.

Paris Marx: Just to add to what you’re saying about the creative side, or the Kathleen Kennedy position. There was a an interview that George Lucas gave a number of years ago as well — which I’m sure I’ve mentioned on the show before because I tend to do that — but he’s essentially talking about the difference between making films in the United States versus the Soviet Union. And he was basically talking to people in the Soviet Union and talking about what went into making films. And he said: In the Soviet Union you couldn’t criticize the government; that was a clear restriction. But beyond that, you were pretty open to doing whatever you wanted with your films. And he said: In America, we act like we have this full freedom, we can do whatever we want. Sure, we can criticize the government. 

But there’s also this restriction that commercialism places on what you can actually do with a film and what’s going to be marketable, and what’s going to be picked up by a studio and put in all the cinemas. So, he said that that line of commercialism is constantly getting smaller, like the room that it allows you in order to explore different things becomes more narrow over time. And I think that, just reflecting on what he said, and looking at the properties that we have, in the sense that you have these companies like Disney that are constantly trying to exploit and exploit and exploit the properties that they own, that are popular. And you see the ability of what they can do with those properties become more narrow, you see the quality decline in terms of what they can produce? And then of course, you also see the audience interest’s be reduced as well, and I don’t think that there’s a proper response to that on the companies end.

Grafton Tanner: Exactly, well, except to just to keep doing it. That’s the thing, too, I really thought about when I was writing this book was I was like: Well, I’m over here using Star Wars as an example, and yet, it’s been eerily quiet — quieter, I should say, maybe than it has been over the past few years with the Disney-fied versions of Star Wars — but the thing is, I guess it remains to be seen to what extent this will continue to be a trend in filmmaking or in the production of streaming series or TV series. And it could not be, this could be just a strange fad, or whatever, of the 2010s. But what I ultimately wanted to do was, think about what nostalgia’s relationship is to that? Is it the case that these products actually are the result of a nostalgic demand for them? Do they actually cause us to feel nostalgia, something that might be really hard to determine? Or, in fact, is it just a new spin on an old method to try to prevent people from experiencing a discomforting feeling of: Man, that thing that used to be around is not around anymore, and I kind of liked it, where did it go? Well, here it is; here it is in full. It’s almost like continuing to eat something even though you’re not hungry anymore, but just because it’s there or something. That isn’t necessarily an audience response — it’s a corporate endeavor. It could just be a trend, or it could be, like you say, maybe a brief pause before it ramps up again.

Paris Marx: I find what you say they’re really interesting, because when I think about how I engage with these stories that I’m really into — whether it’s the Lord of the Rings, or I just finished watching “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” So, I spent the whole of 2023, basically, slowly making my way through this series, and getting to know these characters. And at the end there’s this satisfaction of completing the story, but there’s also, in a sense, this longing where like: Okay, my relationship with these people, or whatever, is over now, because their story for me has ended. And I think you can see that in a lot of things. It pulls people into these products, at least when these companies are starting to make them again, if they haven’t been made for a long time. So it does have this draw, but then the more and more that they take advantage of this feeling of longing, I think, the more it degrades it. The more that you feel like: I’m not drawn to this anymore, I don’t feel this desire to come back, because this feeling that I had with the original thing, or the first time that I experienced it, is totally gone. Because what they’re making in its place does not feel like what was made originally.

Grafton Tanner: Completely, I know that feeling as well too, and wanting a series or a movie to continue. But it is actually that feeling that’s part of the combination of feelings that go into a person really enjoying something. Whether it’s your favorite band, or favorite musical artist, or even your favorite writer, and so that we can use artificial intelligence to create more songs by that person or to write more Shakespearean plays or something. But it is almost like encountering the uncanny valley version of it. It could be that it meets that need that people want more of the same thing, but it just poses a ton of questions and problems, I think, in terms of ownership of one’s name, image and likeness, to use the term from sports. Whether or not it’s it’s a good thing to have a deceased person’s voice continued to communicate with us, not to mention the physical and material environmental impact of the technologies that need to be in place to allow that proliferation of dead voices. And then what that does to our idea of aging, getting older, death itself.

Paris Marx: No character can ever go away or get old. They have to constantly reappear and use these technologies in order to enable them to do so. I wanted to stick on this question of culture for just a second. Because we’ve been talking about how there’s this desire to constantly recreate these properties and create new entries into these intellectual properties and to create new entries into these franchises. One thing that I’ve noticed, of course — following this, and it’s reflected in your book as well —  is that this also changes or puts pressure on the production process. Where you have these incentives to use these technologies, to make it easier to constantly churn out these new entries and these series. And so you have the creation of these virtual environments, these different kinds of sets, the other technologies that go into this. Can you talk a bit about that element of this and how it actually changes how these things are made, which might also contribute to the poorer quality of what we see.

Grafton Tanner: Totally, one of the starting pieces of the book was the one or two interviews that Ian McKellen did after starring in “The Hobbit,” his experience of that versus his experience on the Lord of the Rings. There’s that very famous image of him in the green screen set with his head in his hands, trying to act. And it’s this really surreal glimpse into a world that I’m not very familiar with, which is just: What is it like to be this big budget actor in one of these productions? For Ian McKellen — a person who has starred in Shakespearean plays, has been on stage, and is just a world-renowned actor — having to, essentially on “The Hobbit” act or be alone in a green screen set with what he described as almost like sticks that were set up, with the faces of the different hobbits taped to the sticks with a light bulb behind it. And every time a hobbit would speak, they would light up the ball behind the sticks, so he would look in that direction and then they filmed that. 

So, the post-production process, actually apply the digital world, on top of it. In the interviews that he gave around that time, he was like: I broke down and I cried; it was really taxing on me, not just as an actor, but as a person. It’s bad enough to do long days of shooting, but how about long days of shooting without anybody around in a green cell, essentially? So, companies like Disney have tried to get around that by creating, instead of green screen sets, LED screen sets. I think one of their technologies they have is called The Volume and it’s essentially just a big set of screens that they can cast the image of where they are, the digitally rendered landscape up on the screens around the actor, so it feels like at least in some sort of context other than a green set. 

But the production crew on these movies have to be ready at a moment’s notice to alter the set and make changes, and that can be taxing too. There’s another interview that I cite with Jake Gyllenhaal about on the Marvel sets how quickly scripts can change and dialogue can change at a moment’s notice, simply because what they’re dealing with is so, at its core, a digital form of filmmaking, so therefore a form of filmmaking that allows for more micro-coordination at any moment. So it’s a very unstable process in some ways, maybe even more unstable than the old days of the film reel running out, and everybody having to pause and they reload the camera or something. 

Paris Marx: At least you got a little break then. 

Grafton Tanner: Exactly. There is a break and everyone from the crew up to the millionaire actors who, when they complain, I tend not to pay much attention to it, either. But it is interesting to hear their perspective. That all of them are having to create this product that’s very unstable simply because it’s so digitalized, that it allows for on-the-fly, last minute production rewrites in order to keep everything straight. Which is also a problem, too. Once you stretch that franchise out long enough, and it gets so complicated, the word universe really is fitting even though it is kind of a euphemism. So much has to be kept straight and it’s like: If we find a continuity error, then everything’s got to be rewritten right here at the last moment. It’s very taxing. No wonder Kathleen Kennedy is in interviews being like: I don’t really have a lot of fun doing this anymore.

Paris Marx: It’s fascinating too then because, obviously, you’re talking about the actors and stuff, talking about what it means for them and how it’s not what they expected when they got into this craft. To be on these green screens, talking to fake markers, not having this interaction with a proper set around them because everything is digitalized. But then of course, you have the workers on the set, like the writers who were on strike last year, the actors who are not the big names, like the Jake Gyllenhaal’s and the Ian McKellen’s, the visual effects workers, of course, who talk about being pressured immensely, in particular by Disney, in order to turn around these effects really quickly. And it’s like: So we have this system where the public is not liking what is being churned out of it as much. Sure, they’ll go to see it because they want to see something, and maybe they’ve seen some of the rest. But people are becoming less and less interested in what’s coming out and less impressed by the quality of the media and entertainment that they’re receiving. Meanwhile, everyone on the back end is increasingly hating this process as well, so it’s all just to serve the need for these companies to keep making money off of properties that they know we have these historical ties to. It just feel so broken.

Grafton Tanner: It really starts to feel, and I note this in the book, sometimes I don’t engage too much with these products, because to be honest with you, it just doesn’t interest me. It’s not an enjoyable experience to watch a Thor Three or something and have most of the dialogue be explanation to catch people, like me, up to speed. That is just not a good time to me. However, every now and then I’ll engage. It is like watching people trapped in roles a little bit, because they know: Why turned down the opportunity to be in a Marvel movie? You get a lot of visibility as an actor; you make lots of money. Why turned down the opportunity to work as a visual effects designer for Marvel or Disney? If you grew up on those movies, you really liked them a lot. Sounds like a pretty good gig. They obviously should be paid more and get better benefits. But at the very least that’s on the resume, looks pretty good.

I understand why people do it, but it does sort of feel like the outside looking in. It’s like people not being able to say no, almost seems like they are trapped in this corporate system from which they can’t escape. Maybe that’s selling them short or something. But you do have to wonder: Who is enjoying this? If the fans are dedicating whole podcast episodes to picking apart the latest reboot, and the people making it, as you say, are not having a great time either, then who is this for? And it does start to feel a little bit like the bitter medicine. I don’t care if you’re feeling nostalgic, you’re going to take this medicine, we’re going to cure you with these leeches or whatever, to get that emotion out of you. And it sort of feels like the same thing. It’s like: I don’t care if you don’t like it, you’re going to consume and experience these products, as you say, that we have some sort of tie to in history. Because it’s good for you and it’s the right thing to do to not, maybe, yearn too much for the past. And you and I both know that yearning for the past has its own problems, and we see at the political level all the time. But it’s also equally problematic to try to eliminate an emotion out of people that historically has proven to be pretty disastrous.

Paris Marx: It almost feels like it works in a sense, though. Because you have them releasing these products, we get less interested in it, our nostalgia for the original then erodes along with it. Because it’s just been so over exploited. You can’t just go back to the old ones without thinking about all the other crap that’s associated with it now, that’s been created. You talked about the political level here, I think that’s a good opportunity to pivot what we were talking about. Because we do see these political, nostalgic narratives playing out very frequently in our politics right now. Whether that is obviously the “Make America Great Again” the most notable one from Donald Trump and those similar sorts of arguments or narratives being used by right-wing and far right figures in many countries now. But then you also have politicians like Bernie Sanders and some more left-wing politicians saying: There was a pre-neoliberal time that was better than now, before so many of our institutions and public services were eroded, that we should go back to or something. Or at least to draw attention to how things used to be different, to use that as an argument to be able to do something different into the future. So how do you see both the deployment of nostalgia into the political realm, but also how the foreverizing that you’re talking about takes a different form, than what we would associate with nostalgia?

Grafton Tanner: It gets tricky, because “Make America Great Again” is so obviously a nostalgic appeal. I’ve written about this, and so have countless others. So, when I started to think about: Well, let’s think about what foreverism looks like at a political level. Well, if it’s like it is at the cultural level, what it does is it tries to eliminate the conditions for nostalgia, or at the very least eradicate it after its outbreak, if you will, to use viral metaphors here. And so for me, when I think about something like “Make America Great Again” what it is saying is, it’s implying not just that the past was somehow great, and therefore, you should be nostalgic for this version of the past. It’s also saying: We need to revive that nostalgic version of the past that I’ve told you that you should be interested in. And I, as Donald Trump or whoever the political right-wing person is: I’m the one who’s actually going to do that. So if you’ve put your trust in me and voted for me, that can actually get us back there. And when we get back there, we don’t have to be nostalgic anymore, because we’re there. 

We’ve done it, we’ve made it great again, and now we don’t have to. There’s no more yearning. It is itself the promise to eliminate. It’s almost like an inducement of nostalgia and then here’s the cure behind it. So for me, I think looking at it as a nostalgic appeal is part of it. The dangerous part of it, to me, is the implication that that framing of the past can be revived, kept in place, and not gotten rid of. I do think that there are a number of right-wing individuals who support Trump, who would be completely fine with him, or an AI version of him, a foreverized version of him, being an office forever. Because then it would be that there’s no more of the negative feelings that we bought into by supporting this candidate, not to mention all the other reasons why they would support Donald Trump, including protection of their interests, corporate interests, or otherwise. I do think that that, to me, is sort of a foreverized, promise. I’ll bring it back, and we’ll leave it there and seal it into place. Then we won’t have to worry about longing for the Great America that disappeared.

Paris Marx: What do you see in the relationship between nostalgia and the fact that I feel like for a long time now people have felt that socially, we as a people as a society have been stuck. It doesn’t feel like things are getting better, it doesn’t feel like that has been happening for a long time. It feels like progress is something that has been completely eliminated, even though the tech industry will talk a lot about how they’re moving things forward and innovating. It doesn’t really feel that just having an iPhone 12 is really moving us forward at this point. So what do you make of that feeling that this social stuckness, even in many cases, people feeling like they’re going backwards, especially over the past couple of years, where things have been getting so expensive, interest rates have gone up, people’s mortgages have become more expensive, etc.? What do you make of the relationship between those social factors and what you’re talking about in this book?

Grafton Tanner: That’s a great point and it’s something that I write about throughout the book, which, in the old days, when nostalgia is first coined as this disease, it served as this foil to progress. And that’s one of the main reasons why so many people were really concerned about this, quote, disease. And is that this could actually be the destruction of a progressive civilization is if we long too much for the past, we can’t move forward. That’s it. And so nostalgia is the one weapon that was guaranteed to destroy progress. Progress would be the one weapon to fight back against it. What happened was over time, is that the belief in progress, as you say, sort of dwindled a bit. When it was like: Well, I feel stuck, it doesn’t feel much like things are moving forward; I want things to be easier on me; I would like to be able to afford things as I get older. Framing something like the latest iPhone as a progressive move forward, when it just doesn’t really feel that way, and anyone who’s purchased the new Mac product in the past, however many years can definitely attest to that. Progress doesn’t have the same ring as maybe it used to. And this is a big reason why we’re thinking about this in the US right now, as we’re entering into this next presidential election cycle. When candidates get on the stage and talk a lot about progress, it doesn’t quite hit like it used to. Plenty of people go like: Yeah, right. 

So, when Donald Trump comes up and preaches this anti-progress narrative, suddenly everybody buys into it, because it seems to make a bit more sense. And the promises of progress don’t seem to match the experience of the daily lives of some people. So instead, it’s like: If progress isn’t going to destroy nostalgia, this thing that’s so threatening because it seems to thwart the forward momentum of a society, then there has to be another weapon maybe to do that. And foreverism is that weapon because what it does is it says: We can seal things as they are and sort of freeze them in place, and if there’s change, it’s very incremental. So iPhone 12, 13, 14 — not much difference there. Political candidates get elected — not much changes. We still don’t have basic free and accessible healthcare in the United States. We’ve basically lost the right for people to get an abortion in the United States. And all of these things sort of change, but it’s almost like society as slight updates not as actually progressive measures, that make people’s lives better. So, the end result is that people do foreverize themselves, sealed into place, and then they stay there from then on.

Paris Marx: Absolutely. It’s incredibly worrying and when you see people stuck in that position, you can understand how after being promised that things will get better for so long that they turn to a candidate who says: You are your problems, or who were to blame is somewhere else. You’re not to blame and we will restore this wonderful past because you can’t imagine a future that is better, we can at least pull from what we know, or assume we know. Because usually these pasts are slightly fictionalized, or quite fictionalized, anyway. In order to just create an idea of something that would be appealing, but ultimately, this is in service of particular corporate interests. These same foreverized or nostalgic political projects are often the same way. Of course, we see nostalgia used on the left as well, but especially when we look at these growing fascist projects, or at least extreme right-wing project. They promise to use the past in service of the public. But as we know, it’s very much often in service of people much higher up the food chain.

Grafton Tanner: It’s true, and any of these kinds of emotional appeals are, I mean, you see it with appeals to anger. I’ve written a lot about Donald Trump and, and nostalgia, but there’s a lot that has been written and even more to be said about Donald Trump and anger. Anger as a human emotion has its own usefulness in certain contexts. Plenty of people are angry about things that they should be angry about. But anger can also be used in terrible ways and can ruin friendships and ruin countries, ruin whole communities, and do a lot of harm. So I think the point that I’ve been trying to, I guess, write about in the past two books has been the question of what to do with our emotions is a really important question. And to be able to recognize when an emotional pandering is occurring at the political level, and be able to know: Is this the right time in the right context to employ that emotion, or is it not? 

And in fact, it might be the time to be nostalgic for, like you said, Bernie Sanders referencing a pre-neoliberal era just in order to give attention to an alternative that might be hard to imagine in the present, but maybe there are some of them that exist in the past that we can think about a bit more. Is it the right time to be nostalgic about that particular thing and what is the goal in doing that? Or is this not the right time? And in fact, it needs to be a time of hope or forward thinking. And that’s a really difficult thing to do when some of these emotions are constantly being targeted at the corporate level, at the political level. In order to create profits for somebody, and it’s not typically middle-class and working-class folks.

Paris Marx: We’ve certainly seen that playing out for a long time. Now, with that wealth being siphoned off of regular people and brought right to the top. And of course, now we have people worth more than $100-200 billion. I think even three, Elon Musk might have hit $300 billion at some point. It’s ridiculous to even imagine that someone can hoard that much wealth and keep it away from everybody else, when there’s so much intense suffering that’s happening. I wanted to pivot a little bit because you talk a lot in the book as well about the kinds of digital infrastructures that make all of this possible, right? You talk about how there’s this desire to store so much in these data centers to even store memories in the cloud and things like that. What do you make of that piece? And how does that fit into this broader idea or concept that you’re that you’re laying out in this book? 

Grafton Tanner: The term foreverism, and foreverizing — I came across the term foreverizing on a digital transfer company, I believe it was iMemories. You have a number of these companies that what they do is they’ll take old photographs, old VHS tapes, all this old analog media that’s supposedly decaying in the back of someone’s closet, and they digitize it. My family has done this and they’ve taken all the old home movies that were on VHS tape, and they’ve sent them into one of these companies. So, now they have access to them on an app and they can watch them or whatever. And iMemories calls this process foreverizing, we don’t just digitize your memories is what they said, we foreverize them. I just thought that was so fascinating, because obviously, they’re trying to set themselves apart from the other companies: We do something better than just digitize them. My interest was in that particular word usage. 

They’re essentially implying that the “memories” that you have saved in these analog devices are not going to last forever. So if we digitize them, that will make them last forever. And not just that, but then you’ll have more access to them. You don’t have to dig out old VCRs or something to watch these tapes on, you just pull up your phone, pull up the app, and then you’ve got instant access to the past again. It’s like: Why be nostalgic for your home movies, when you could literally just watch them all the time on your phone with a few clicks? And so that’s sort of what they’re implying. These things will last forever. And yet we know and anyone who studies digital infrastructure knows something like the cloud or whatever is not at all guaranteed to be a last forever technology. It’s absolutely just as physical as a VHS tape or something. It’s absolutely prone to breaches and deletions. So why would we associate the digital with the forever? And that’s the big thing I’m writing about in that particular book.

Paris Marx: It’s interesting to me, because when you think about these data centers, they’re not something that lasts forever at all right. And we know this very clearly in the sense that they rely on a lot of resources in order to keep themselves going. You obviously have the computer parts that need to go in. And I think a lot of people don’t realize that these computer parts need to be cycled in and out very frequently, in these data centers. There’s a lot of waste that comes out of it. And we don’t have proper recycling for a lot of this stuff. It isn’t happening. And then on top of that is, the things that I feel like people have been talking more and more about, especially in the past year with the AI stuff, is the water usage of these data centers, the energy use of these data centers, and how these things are growing enormously. And I think one of the things that has been in my mind, recently, but really came back to me as I was reading your book was how, when it comes to digitization, and when it comes to the idea of the cloud, we have this idea that everything should be in the cloud, that we should be saving everything that is on the internet; everything should be backed up; everything should be stored. And I’ve been beginning to wonder and it continued, while I was reading your book, whether that really makes sense, whether everything really needs to be saved? And we think about other mediums, yes, we save them some things, but not all of it. 

Grafton Tanner: It’s true. And one of the questions I pose in the book is: How do we determine the things that need to be saved and the things that don’t need to be saved? And one of the ways that anywhere from Amazon down to the digital transfer companies like iMemories, one of the ways that they justify the saving of everything, is by framing the information and content that we produce as “memories.” And that can be a very anxiety-inducing feeling to be like: What if I lose my memories? Well, who would want to do that? So then if we frame them as memories, then they become this thing that needs to be saved, even though a memory comes and goes. And so it’s not only a using that term to justify saving everything. But also it’s a slight redefinition of the term itself — memory as not just something that comes and goes and is renegotiated and changes throughout one’s life, but also something that remains static and accessible. In a way it is a foreverization of not just the content, but the idea of memory itself. I ought to be able to have access to my past or to any past, be able to pull it up at a moment’s notice and engage with it. 

And again, if we start with the definition of nostalgia, as some feeling experienced when we actually don’t have constant access to the thing we’re nostalgic for, then it is, in a sense, a way to keep that feeling at bay. Here’s the past, your past, at a moment’s notice, the end result, though, however, still might not eliminate nostalgia, because as you probably know, as well as I do, if I go a little too deep in my photos on my phone, or, or on Instagram or something, I’m encountering the past. It is within reach, and yet the nostalgia still doesn’t quite go away. I still might begin to long for it. There’s also the the other issue of having everything saved means there is the possibility that one might not access it as much simply because it’s more of an archival impulse, ‘I’ve got it all saved.’ And it’s almost like trying to find what to watch on Hulu or Netflix, too many options, and therefore no way to make a decision with that much information saved. When my parents digitized their home movies for the first week or so they really worked on their app a lot watching the home movies, and then they stopped because there were too many. 

Paris Marx: I’m guessing there’s probably a subscription that they have to keep paying in order to access the videos [laughs].

Grafton Tanner: I’m sure!

Paris Marx: I think what you said about memory is so interesting. Because for me, and I wonder how many other people think this, but when I think about my memories from when I was younger, often memory is this thing that we recognize fades over time. Not everything gets preserved up in the brain because the brain isn’t actually a computer and doesn’t just have this infinite memory or whatever. But some things stay current and other things fade away. And sometimes there might be something that triggers the return of some memory that you forgot was stored away there somewhere in your head. But I when I think about my memories, especially of when I was younger, sometimes I find myself wondering: Is this a memory of something that I observed myself? Or is this a memory of a home video I watched one time that I’m remembering and that now I feel like is a memory itself? 

And so it does almost make you wonder: How does the mediation of technology or how does our engagement with technology change the way that we think about memory that memory works? Not to say that I think our memories are extending to the cloud or something, but just how having access to these things in perpetuity, and having all these photos, and all these videos always available to us changes the way that we remember our own lives. Because obviously, we’re getting very specific pictures of it, when we look at versions of what we have saved through capturing with our phones, or whatever. 

Grafton Tanner: That’s been something I’ve thought about for a while as well. And I wrote a bit about that, in the previous book, “The Hours Have Lost Their Clock,” about to what extent do images and photographs and just the media representations of our past that save our past, to what extent do they actually shape our memories? And I have a number of memories that I know, or can suspect are actually just me watching having watched some home video or something when I was really young. And yet, I still see that as a memory. To me, it’s hard for me to distinguish between false and true memories easily because to some extent, even the event that I experienced firsthand, whatever it might have been from the past is itself, as I grow older, changes. It changes to meet my needs, whatever those might be, and then they may come and go. And in some ways, that’s just as almost false, if you will, then having experienced it by watching or seeing a photo of I don’t know if that makes sense. 

But the sheer volume of information or “memories” that are saved, will either force us to see our past in a different way, because it’s that’s just the way it would it would work or because there’s so much information, we might not access it at all. And it might even actually create even maybe a blind spot in our memory. This is something that I thought about when I read that book, “The End of Forgetting,” by Kate Eichhorn. Kate makes the argument that a person, by the time they’re 18, have had this data trail of their that extends back to even the moment before they were born, if maybe their parents or their guardians were posting about them before they were even born. And so she says that at a certain point, we may reach a point where the ability to forget the past and move on. For some people, this might be good. They might want to distance themselves from from a part of their past that wasn’t really them or they didn’t like, but they grew out of might become more difficult. But it’s also equally true that that information can also disappear very quickly. Because it is digital; it’s not necessarily forever.

Paris Marx: A targeted assault on all of the metadata centers to try to get rid of your data off of all the different servers at once, so it’s not backed up. I think that’s a really fascinating conversation. And just to think about the broader ramifications of these things when it comes to memory or anything else. But this has been a really fascinating conversation. And to close it off, I just wanted to ask you, where do you see this foreverizing impulse going? And do you think that this is something that we ultimately need to challenge? And if so, how do you see us being able to do that?

Grafton Tanner: I do wonder at the cultural level, to what extent fans and consumers alike will reach or have already reached a breaking point with foreverized content. I try to ask my students this a lot: What is your opinion of this endless rebooting of movies and series? A lot of them are pretty exhausted by it at this point. And that wasn’t always the case back when I was younger, around their age; it wasn’t always that way. There was, at least in my circle, a big blatant embrace of the rebooting. Yes, it’s back! Can you believe it? I don’t always get that with the generation that I’m teaching now which so there could be a bit of a shift away from the desire to consume reboots and franchises and intellectual property universes simply because it’s one’s duty to do that, or something one must see the latest  installment in Marvel or whatnot. And, if that happens, it could lead to a bit of a corporate slowdown of of the production of those pieces, but maybe not. 

And then at the political level, I just think it’s important to recognize that when some of these nostalgic appeals are made that seem blatantly nostalgic at first they are, but what makes them even more dangerous than that is the fact that the promise is not just to like: Hey, remember that there was this period in the past that was great. The danger of it is the promise that we can retool the present to be like that again and then nobody has to worry or long for that passed anymore. That, to me, is the dangerous thing. And I think that that plenty of people on the left recognize that. But I think what often happens is that — and I’ve done this too — is I’ll go for the jugular of, well, it’s just nostalgia. And instead of stopping and seeing there’s a much more nuanced approach to this, that I think it would be more beneficial for us. And that is recognizing that the goal of the emotion, and the context in which the emotion is expressed, is much more important to think about than just the emotion itself, which can be used in a variety of different ways. And I’m not just talking about nostalgia, I’m talking about happiness, anger, sadness, all of these human emotions. What is the goal of employing that emotion in political discourse? And is it to benefit people like regular middle and working-class folks? Or is it to pad the pockets of billionaires? That’s something that I think we have to keep asking.

Paris Marx: I think those are important questions to keep in mind and it’s been really fantastic to dig into this with you to have you back on the show. Thanks so much for taking the time!

Grafton Tanner: Absolutely, thanks so much.

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Paris Marx

Paris Marx is a tech critic and host of the Tech Won’t Save Us podcast. He writes the Disconnect newsletter and is the author of Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation.

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