Suffering From An Old Wound In The Smart, Connected Age
Mad Men, math men, and the the age-old question: Where are you aching to go (back to)?
“It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards…it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the ‘wheel,’ it’s called the ‘carousel.’ It lets us travel the way a child travels — around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.”
— Don Draper, in Mad Men
With the final part of the final season of Mad Men returning to U.S. households, a sense of nostalgia returns as well. Oh, those crazy times, when big ideas still mattered, whether it was the first man on the moon or the creative genius of ad men on Madison Avenue. We take exquisite pleasure in the madness of Mad Men. Characters like Don Draper lend the domain of advertising a cultural sanctity. At the same time, the men and women of Madison Avenue never seem sanctimonious or boring because the personal chaos they inhabit mirrors the seismic shifts of the period. Their tension between morality and immorality, stability and anomie, surface and depth is signature romantic. If romantics are anything, we are conflicted. We long for that amber-hued period in the past when work provided a bulwark against all the erupting madness of the world — yet we simultaneously celebrate the moments when fortification fails, exposing fissures across class, gender, and racial lines, revealing to us “the allure of messy lives.” Don Draper himself cites a poem by Frank O’Hara describing the contradictions of this yearning: aren’t we all “quietly waiting for / the catastrophe of my personality / to seem beautiful again”?
Nostalgia has been an evergreen in movies, too, perhaps most vividly portrayed in Casablanca when Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman reassure each other of their prized, exclusive possession: “We’ll always have Paris.” Nostalgia is not only a longing for a time gone by, in which all worldly matters were imbued with meaning; it also refers to a more timeless, existential sentiment. Coined by seventeenth-century Swiss physician Johannes Hoffer, who attributed soldiers’ mental and physical maladies to their longing to return home, the term “nostalgia” is a combination of the Greek nostos (home) and pain (algos). Nostalgia means that we’re suffering from an “old wound”: cut off from a deep connection to profound truths. As knowledge workers, we exchange information for the sake of instant gratification and incremental gains, using technology to optimize our efficiency and productivity. Yet, as romantics, we are nostalgic for the period when the future seemed less predictable and the world less rushed.
No one captures this sentiment better than the “Amish Futurist,” the alter ego of the writer and economist Alexa Clay. Through social technologies, the Amish Futurist wants to spread the “low-tech prophecy,” as she calls it, and celebrate “analog nomadism.” Alexa’s goal is to probe for the “why” in the development of new forms of technology. Why are we making it? What will it really add to our lives? She describes her agenda as Socratic: by taking a moral stance on the role of technology, she can ask these existential questions of the software community. Yet, because she appears at technology conferences dressed in her Amish clothing and speaking in a soft voice (at a recent gathering in Berlin she baffled an audience of 500 digital industry executives with a meditation on “the power of buttermilk”), her inquisitions are never seen as aggressive or off-putting. “People love it,” she told me. “They get excited about the experience of talking to a ‘real’ Amish person.” The Amish Futurist is on Twitter, but reluctantly so: “We telegraph our tweets — they are then transcribed by people in India who upload them online. Social media is an abomination.”
Novelist Charles Yu laments that he can no longer fall in love with technology and confesses, “The sexier our high-tech stuff gets, the less I am able to feel anything about it.” He remembers the excitement of opening his e-mail in-box: “A private channel had opened up, a vast network of channels, connecting the inside of my head with the insides of other heads. And that network became part of my inner cartography. It changed my map of reality. The physical world gained a new dimension, intangible but no less real.” For Yu, the problem is that technology has now become too good at representing our real world. He speaks with regret about a nostalgic “possibility space — not in the mathematical sense, but a place inside that screen where, at least in theory, anything could happen.”
The traditional technologist’s task is to expand the territory of predictability, to map out the truth, and to widen the comfort zone. In contrast, the romantic-as-technologist expands open-endedness and ambiguity, seeking authenticity by widening the discomfort zone. Instead of seeing technology as serving a utilitarian purpose, the romantic engages with it to capture the strange beauty of the world and create a nostalgic sense of wonder. This sense of wonder is what is being taught at the School of Poetic Computation in New York, an artist-run organization that uses programming to make works of pointless beauty. The founders say their intention is to promote work that is “strange, impractical, and magical.”
This kind of training reminds us that certain innovations are powerful simply because they remind us of earlier moments in our lives, moments when we reveled in the simple joy of making and creating. We call ours the age of connectivity, but we might well call it the age of reconnection. We are keen to attach ourselves to something intuitive we once knew but have forgotten over time: the integrity of the person we want to be and the one we actually are, the integrity of left brain and right brain, science and art, reason and heart. We befriend old school friends on Facebook; we revisit places on Google Earth we once visited in the real world; we play songs on Spotify that we liked when we were teenagers; we watch movies on iTunes that meant the world to us when we were growing up. This Proustian “remembrance of things past” is multiplied and amplified in the virtual world. The echoes of our lives finally have a chamber.
The first friendships, the first kiss, the first love, the first car — we are trying to bring back the innocence of the “first” when everything tasted, smelled, and felt fresh and promising, and life was one big realm of possibility. Imagine what different twists and turns our lives might have taken had we followed the stranger whose eyes met ours on the subway. We may not be aware of it when we’re young, but as we grow older we realize that our unlived lives weigh as heavily, if not heavier, than the ones we lived. “I bear the wounds of all the battles I avoided,” the Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa writes in The Book of Disquiet.
This “old wound,” this nostalgic longing for connections and reconnections, finds expression in today’s market trends. It is at the heart of the rise of local artisans; and it also underpins the Maker Movement, promoting the renaissance of traditional arts and crafts, DIY engineering, and the resurgence of hardware, all of which are driven by the quest for a hands-on experience of work that overcomes the alienation between maker and product. Inventiveness, prototyping, and craftsmanship are being celebrated; Maker Faires are booming; and “hackerspaces” have entered academic and corporate campuses. For the Maker Movement, everything old is new again.
Although it is an “old wound” that perhaps never heals, research has shown that nostalgia can help with transitions, stimulate our generosity toward strangers, and guide us through periods of boredom, anxiety, and loneliness. Perhaps this is why, consciously or not, it is increasingly reflected in our consumer products and experiences. While they appear to be about novelty and the future, the most meaningful of them remind us of a basic human quest: think of the tablet and our desire to touch; or social sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest that cater to our innate urge to share (and in the case of Instagram, to instantly “age” a photo through filters). These are new products and services designed to take us into the future, and yet they connect us with a certain idea of the past, resurrecting the romance. Even Polaroid is attempting a revival — as an app.
Nothing is more nostalgic than the emergence of handwriting on the web. The web service Bond allows users to send handwritten notes to friends. And the website Think Clearly features a number of handwritten agendas, each one outlining a different “existential” business crisis: “This week I felt as though my work was like walking into a sea of uncertainty.” The handwritten to-do lists include “Try to imagine when your work is done. When you are no longer needed,” and “Write your resignation letter. You are free to write it in any format that you like.” Similarly, the website The Rumpus started charging five dollars monthly for people who wanted to receive old-fashioned letters in the mail from their favorite authors. The company calls it a “print subscription.” A traditional experience is reframed through the means of the connected world.
Jonathan Harris, an interactive storytelling artist, plays with different concepts of nostalgia in his work. His Cowbird website allows people to share their personal stories using photos, videos, sound maps, time lines, and casts of characters. The site aims to create long-form narratives that foster a sense of longevity and continuity amid the fragmented social media noise. As Harris puts it: “The Twitter and Facebook stuff seems to be constantly devoured by its own novelty. Every item is smothered by the one that comes after it, and that happens continuously, 24 hours a day. There’s no sense of a collection or of building anything. One thing that I’ve been trying to get back was that feeling of when I used to keep sketchbooks, knowing I could pass down a record of [my] life. It’s that feeling of building something, not just drowning in the moment all the time.” Users can communicate with each other with the “gift” of their story. Harris said: “It takes a little bit of the loneliness out of our online existence, which can stem from just shouting into the void.” In a related spirit, the online time-travel site FutureMe.org enables people to send e-mails to their “future selves.” The service delivers messages to your e-mail address years or even decades after you wrote them (you can determine the exact date), and the delight lies in the surprise of receiving a letter from the past. A collection of anonymous e-mails was released as the book Dear Future Me.
The power of nostalgia is also an increasingly effective ingredient in marketing campaigns. For example, the nonprofit CAREinstalled large-scale exhibits of “care packages” at high-traffic sites across the United States. These care packages harken back to CARE’s original name — Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe — and its role in creating the first-ever care packages sent to European survivors after World War II. Each one of the installation packages features an outsize element such as a thriving crop of corn or a verdant village bursting out of the box, conveying the message that CARE is delivering self-sufficiency, economic opportunity, and justice, not mere aid. The organization is reclaiming its rightful ownership of the concept, restoring the package’s aura and expanding its reach far beyond its current associations with sleep-away camp and college dorm rooms. The campaign invites us to reimagine those very first packages arriving on the shores of Le Havre in May of 1946, reconnecting an everyday concept with its rich historical roots.
All these products and experiences reveal insights about what I call “retro-innovation”: ideas that mimic an experience of the past in order to transport the user back into a bygone era, or use a new format to meet an “old,” sentimental need. Nostalgia can also help explain the rise of the curatorial. One particularly successful example is Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings, a “human-powered discovery engine for interestingness.” Popova celebrates subjectivity by sending subscribers an assortment of articles chosen simply because she deemed them worth reading. We crave these curatorial figures: modern-day versions of the old-fashioned concierge (like Gustave H. inGrand Budapest Hotel) who acknowledge us as unique individuals, offering up an escape from algorithmic recommendations and filtered preferences.
This same respect for subjectivity can also be applied to customer research. The field of design research purposely treats its subjects as complex human beings that can only be understood through inquiry and close, if not embedded, observation. Elyssa Dole, a design researcher, even created “museums” of the customers she studied. She built a little shrine for each of them, decorated with their portraits and housing all of the memorabilia and personal artifacts that she could possibly collect during her research: diary notes, drawings, photographs, printouts of e-mails and text messages, transcripts of interviews, subway tokens, concert tickets, boarding passes, magazine articles, souvenirs, and other items that were more or less significant for evoking the essence, or at least the image, of a person.
This excessive portrait of the customer as a museum appears to be inspired by Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk’s novel The Museum of Innocence, in which the male protagonist, after a tragic ending to a nine-year-long romantic relationship, goes back and begins to collect every single object related to their love story as it unfolded from start to finish. He eventually exhibits them in the house of the woman he was in love with, converting it into a “Museum of Innocence” (there is now in fact an actual Museum of Innocence in Istanbul based on the book). As Pamuk writes, museums are places where time is transformed into space. They are containers of nostalgia and protect our greatest dreams, desires, and hopes. They show that which we long for and defend the radical idea that another life is possible.
The museum of museums is NASA’s Voyager Golden Record, a collection of human sounds and images on board the Voyager satellite in outer space. Every piece was selected to portray the ingenuity and diversity of life on earth, so that an extraterrestrial life-for might understand what it means to be human. It features works of, among others, Beethoven, Guan Pinghu, Mozart, Stravinsky, Blind Willie Johnson, Chuck Berry, and Kesarbai Kerkar. Even if these artifacts are never heard by aliens, they will forever remind future humans of our most inexplicable longings, tethering us to our terrestrial home.
In our smart, connected age, we should cherish the “old wound” — our longing for something essential, for a home — as an important source of romance. We should create businesses, products, and services that don’t fix the pain but legitimize it as a way to reveal and build character. Sites such as Futureme.org and Think Clearly allow us to find solace for our deepest fears about the future. The Maker Movement and DIY sensibility, including TechShops and “hackerspaces,” acknowledge our need for the most grounding of experiences: the tactile, the sensuous, the work of the human hand.
Ask yourself: How can you create businesses that reconnect us with an essential sentiment unfulfilled in our modern lives? Which traditional human experience can you update and bring to life with technologies of the digital age? Where is your home, and what is your museum? And what is your foundational myth, the romance at the heart of your story? Where is your “Paris”? What is your wound?
Edited excerpt from The Business Romantic: Give Everything, Quantify Nothing, and Create Something Greater Than Yourself.Copyright © 2015 by Tim Leberecht. Excerpted by permission of Harper Business, a division of HarperCollins Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.