Nostalgia is a basic human emotion. Strangely, it is a combination of two contradictory emotions- a sweet longing for the past and a pain emanating from the fact that the past can never be fully experienced again. Throughout history, nostalgia has served as a social and political tool, a means of gathering support by promising to return to a mythical past, be it through revolution or ideological reforms. The Romantics of the 19th century embraced nostalgia through the glorification of the past. This longing for simpler, and even medieval times was a reaction to a new and complex world brought about by the Industrial Revolution and scientific and intellectual advancements of the Enlightenment. Those who could not fathom the modern world resigned themselves to reliving a ‘golden’ past, one of moral certainty and blessed ignorance. In Germany, Romanticism developed into a form of nationalism idolizing the German ‘national spirit’, a message resonated by a future German dictator.
Now is also an age of nostalgia. Processes such as globalization and digitalization have created a world that cannot be fathomed. Truth and lies are indistinguishable. Online information is contradictory at best, and paradoxical at worst. It is a world where borders are rigidly enforced for some (immigrants), and non-existent for others. It is a time of existential insecurity as traditional societal roles are in a state of upheaval as ideas easily transcend borders bringing with them revolutionary change. It is thus not surprising that contemporary populist movements employ nostalgia and promise to resurrect a glorious, homogenous and usually white and Christian world. These are noticeable in the US where a President promised to Make America Great Again, or make America conservative again. Oddly, Trump was the 21st equivalent of Dwight Eisenhower.
Poland and Hungary also look to the past, both offline and online. Indeed, Polish digital diplomacy is dedicated to reimagining the nation’s past during WW2 while the UK too Tweets images of the Royal Navy and other traditional hallmarks of British power. Nostalgia is nowhere more evident than in cultural products. Movies like Dunkirk, Their Finest Hour, Churchill and more all yearn for the moral certitude and social cohesion of WW2. A time of black and white, good and bad, ally and foe. The same is true of the Crown, while shows such as The Americans and Deutschland 83 celebrate the fabled cohesion of the Soviet Union. It is no accident that Russia named it’s Covid vaccine Sputnik, harking back to a time when the Soviet Union led the race to the moon.
Nostalgia as a Digital Tool
This week I sought to understand how nostalgia could play a role in digital diplomacy. To do so I examined a long series of Tweets published by the BBC Archive Twitter account. The majority of Tweets dealt with the 1960s. Yet these did not highlight the counterculture, the sexual revolution, feminist movements or even Michael Cain and Twiggy. Rather, they offered glimpses into more certain times. The first Tweet included a black and white image of the presenter of Panorama, Britain’s staple current affairs program. Panorama, unlike today’s media outlets, was synonymous with truth, objectivity and investigative journalism. Thus, in the days of Panorama the world could be fathomed. Crimea was either part of Russia, or Ukraine. Not both.
Another Tweet included an interview with an actor who voiced the film Animal Farm in the 1950s. Here is a classic interview from the 1960s. There is no shortage of time, no sense of expediency. There are no breaking headlines or Fox ‘News Alerts’. The two men engage in a long conversation, both of them belonging to a certain upper class as would be expected from 1960s television. Here, perhaps, is a nostalgia for time. This was an analogue world whose pace was not only manageable but welcome. Nations did not fall between breakfast and lunch.
Most nostalgic was a visit to a ‘small Yorkshire town’ where an old liquorice factory was still mass producing candy. There are no mechanical assembly lines, no robots or gadgets, merely ‘hard working folk’, merrily going about the sweet production of sweets. It is a throwback to a time when factories still existed and people without knowledge of excel spreadsheets and Python could still find ample employment.
1970s Tweets often included interviews by Michael Parkinson, who was a regular visitor in the houses of millions of British viewers. Parkinson was to the UK what Johnny Carson was to the US- a cultural icon. One known not for his rants, fits of rage, bizarre theories and occasional, uninformed political commentary. He was a ‘light’ entertainer, one who always asked questions with smiles and treated his guests with respect. He was the antithesis of the O’reilly Factor. Through Parkinson, one remembers a more gentile and curious life. One without hurtful comments and racists comments online. This was not the age of rage, but the age of sage. Whether these attributes actually characterize 1970’s Britain is immaterial. Nostalgia creates the illusion of a better past. It is, in itself, duplicitous.
One Tweet dealt with the 1980s. Yet here again the BBC Archive did not focus on the social upheaval brought about by the Thatcher years. A decade that saw mass strikes, class struggles, intensified IRA activity and the birth of millionaires who got rich fast of the stock market. Rather, the Tweet deals with guitar lessons offered via the BBC to children. Here, British society is already more diverse as one of the teachers is black.
The final Tweet I analyzed heralded the future of motor gadgets in the 1960s. Though this Tweet seems innocent enough, it represents a time when technology was not so menacing. People looked forward to a car phone and were not weary of deep fake videos, bots, IA systems that wage war on humanity or killer drones. There was no Black Mirror, only The Saint.
Those following the BBC archive might soon find themselves existing in a dream consisting of a succession of Christmas mornings and hot chocolates. A fantasy world that offers the illusion of a simple, classless, race-less and tranquil UK. And who would not return to that ideal, even at the cost of some populism? Yet the danger lies in the illusion. For life in the 60s-80s was anything but stable in the UK. From Cold War threats to the decline of an Empire, the nation changed thoroughly. It was also alien to the idea of social mobility, and many of the values and norms that Brits now hold dear. Yet that is exactly the danger of digital nostalgia- it masks the hardship giving light only to the triumphs. These were the very dangers of Romanticism.