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The Nostalgic Pull of Old Technology

Why we tend to think of outdated technology with such fondness.

Key points

  • Our cognitive biases make us susceptible to "tech nostalgia" — a fondness for old and outdated technology.
  • Old pieces of technology get linked inextricably to to the simpler times they belonged to.
  • There is a big mismatch between how we experience things and how we remember those experiences later in life.
  • The fading affect bias causes us to remember things as being better than they actually might have been.

Just yesterday, I was reminded of a Nokia phone that I had when I was in college. It was from a line of phones called “xpress music," and the phone was objectively worse than the phone I currently have in every possible way. And yet, when I was browsing the internet and looking at pictures of that old Nokia phone, I had this incredible longing to use it, to touch it, and to feel the clickety-clack of the keys while typing a message. Why would this happen? Why do we have a tendency, especially with respect to technology, to look back at subpar products with incredible fondness?

 I have written in the past about nostalgia, and how our "experiencing self" and our "remembering self" have very different perceptions of reality. So if my experiencing self in college was having constant wrist pain as a result of all the uncomfortable button-pushing while sending texts, all that my remembering self recalls about the old Nokia phone is how good it felt to have physical keys on the phone, and how much simpler those times were.

One reason this happens is because of the fading affect bias, which is psychology-speak for how emotional memories associated with negative events fade away more easily than those linked to a positive event or outcome. Say you had a lovely two-week vacation to Italy with your family as a child, and while you were there, you fell down and hurt yourself quite badly and spent two days of the vacation in pain. For the experiencing self, those two days would have been agony. But for the remembering self which looks back on the vacation decades later, the memories of the Italy trip are all happy. While you might recall that you spent a couple of days in pain, the actual memory of the pain itself has faded away, leaving only the memories of the nice time you spent with your family there.

Coming back to technology, I think another reason we are so attached to old pieces of technology is that they somehow get inextricably linked to our fond memories of the times they belonged to. The very definition of nostalgia is a general longing for the past, and when we think of “the old days," we automatically and by extension have a longing for the tech as well.

We are not all equally susceptible to this technology-related nostalgia. It is likely that people who are older, and may be having trouble keeping up with newer phones, are the ones who most feel a longing for a time when making a phone call required nothing more complex than placing the receiver on our ears and dialing a number.

I sometimes find myself longing for old-school typewriters, despite never having used one, and knowing for a fact that it would have been much more cumbersome than using a computer. This is a variant of nostalgia called anemoia, in which a person feels a longing for an era that they themselves never lived through. Given that much of nostalgia is about the stories we tell ourselves about times gone by, it is no surprise that we can feel a desire for a time-period just by listening to what people who lived through that era have to say.

The next time someone waxes eloquent about how much they loved their old phone, you will probably know to take what they say with a healthy pinch of salt.