Nostalgia as Negotiation

In a changing world of technological innovation, nostalgia is a powerful tool for navigating the contemporary experience

Photo by Hector Laborde on Unsplash

The exponential growth in digital innovations in the last decade has been changing the way we live, creating ripples in our cultural fabric. With apps, wearable technology, e-commerce and social media; technology has become inseparable from daily life. This heady digitization of our world has propelled us into unfamiliar territory that we have yet to learn how to navigate. Seen superficially, it seems as if we got here without much resistance or negotiation; happy consumers in a world that knows exactly what we want because, well, Big Data!

But a closer look reveals an underlying tension, a resistance to technology that manifests not so much as behaviour but as one powerful emotion — nostalgia.

The more technology pervades our lives, the more we yearn for the past. Think of the number of remakes of films and songs that Bollywood has produced in the last two years alone. The chartbusters list for this year features remixed versions of songs from the yesteryears, such as ‘Tamma Tamma’, ‘The Humma Song’, ‘Oonchi Hai Building’ and ‘Laila Main Laila’. On radio, there are almost as many channels playing old songs, as the ones playing new songs. Paperboat, a brand built around childhood memories and nostalgia, made such an impact in the year of its launch. This mining of nostalgia was less evident and less frantic just a few years ago.

This sense of nostalgia isn’t limited to the older generations. Because our lives are changing so quickly, the present rapidly becomes the past, and this recent past is yearned for & sought out even by the youth. Research done among Gen Z, the first generation to be raised with smartphones, suggests that even they feel a yearning for simpler times. This is believed to be one of the key reasons for the popularity of Pokemon Go, a game that let post-millennials get out, stumble over obstacles, fall and play, the old-fashioned way. SMS-es are already quaint and have acquired nostalgic value in the age of Whatsapp. #throwback and #tbt are some of the most popular hashtags used across social media. Red FM recently launched its retro radio channel in Mumbai that plays 90s music, and branded it as ‘Aaj ke zamaane ka retro station’ (a retro station for today’s generation), appealing to a younger audience.

Another way in which brands are dealing with the cultural tension of our times is by re-presenting the familiar in a tech-enhanced avatar. Sa re ga ma launched ‘Caravan’, a digital radio player which has over 5000 songs, including the Ameen Sayani Geetmala (a legendary radio show), pre-recorded and built into it. Caravan has limited features, but the beauty of the product is in the old-school joy of discovery, which is a natural part of the radio experience. Nokia is another brand that brought back a past hero — it made a splash by announcing the re-launch of its beloved model Nokia 3310.

Brands are also exploiting a yearning for an allegedly simpler time by mimicking humanity in their tech-enabled services. Chatbots are behaving like real humans, sense of humour and all. Forget to log on to 8 tracks, and you’ll get a notification saying “Come back, we miss you! We promise we’ll change”. Online shopping, with all its merits, can be an alienating shopping experience, devoid of the warmth of touch-and-feel. And so, Amazon launched its ‘Apni Dukaan’ (Your Own Shop) campaign in the quest to seem familiar and approachable.

So where does the future lie? In reclaiming the past? Or boldly embracing the new?

Brands have to borrow from, and appeal to, deep rooted cultural imprints to be able to have an impact. Technology can change the world, but culture and emotion march to a different beat. Brands that will continue doing well in a world moving towards augmented reality, AI and the internet of things, will be those that are also cognizant of consumers’ need for familiarity, traditions and simplicity. The answer is not in reliving past glories. Rather, it lies in maintaining a balance between the old and the new worlds, as has always been the case. After all, the hype over the comeback of Nokia 3310 surpassed the adoption of product when it was actually launched. People don’t want to stick to the old ways. They do want the flashy new things, but in a form that’s comfortingly familiar. Evoking nostalgia may just make the new and the unfamiliar more palatable.

Originally published at