What a Computer Screen Can and Cannot do for Our Nostalgia

Katha has written for Communicating Across Boundaries before and I love what she writes today – it resonated with my TCK heart and brought up some good questions and thoughts. This is the first part of a two-part series that Katha is doing on “Nostalgia.”  Katha comes at these pieces from a personal as well as academic angle as her Master’s Thesis was on nostalgia. We would love to hear your thoughts at the end of the post. You can read more about Katha at the end of the post and connect with her at her own blog. 


computer - nostalgia

What a Computer Screen Can and Cannot Do for Our Nostalgia

We live in a world that has grown closer together, as one definition of globalization puts it.

People around me say they don’t have to go anywhere because the world is right at their doorstep. They can choose their dinner menu from at least ten different cultures, and music found by one click online sets the right tone. What’s the big deal with travelling? Others are travel maniacs. Get on a plane and within ten hours (or less, depending on where you live) you’re in a completely different world. People go on vacation to exotic places, spend two weeks in a hotel/beach landscape, and say they know a place.

Friends go on short-term trips to experience ‘the real Africa/India/whatever place you want to put in there’ and come back missing the food, the animals, or the crowded minibus taxis. And I find myself thinking, ‘You have no idea…

The following scene could probably take place in each TCK’s daily life…

…I log myself into Skype and wait for my friend to come online. It’s 7 am and I am little tired, but I also don’t really care about that. It is difficult enough finding a time that we both are available – she between coming home from university and going out with friends in Australia, me before spending all day in classes in Germany. Or other friends joining in from the States after they’re home from church. Skype dates are set up via Facebook or even doodle to find a time where time zones, schedules, or simply life, don’t bother us. We meet virtually from all over the world, and often the first thing we say is, “Thank God for technology!” We talk for hours and hours, share our lives and hearts, but also reminiscence about the time we spent together in yet another part of the world. We laugh, cry, encourage, and pray together – as if we were right next to each other. As if there was no ocean between us. But there is. And I realize it every time I switch off my laptop.

In a way, that Skype call didn’t really cure my homesickness for a certain place or a good friend; it actually increased my longing because I once again had to realize that technology can do a lot, but it cannot bridge the gap between time and space.

Looking at the omnipresence of technology in our globalized lives – how does it affect our feelings of longing and nostalgia?

TCKs are surrounded by movement: either we move ourselves or we watch our friends leave. We are used to saying goodbye on a regular basis, airports have become a second (or third, or tenth) home for us. Since we are constantly on the move, leaving behind too many wonderful places and people, globalization and technology have become a blessing for us – it makes communication and staying in touch with dear friends all around the globe so much easier.

One big advantage of technology like photographs and films is that it enriches facts with vivid images and emotions “far beyond that which could be evoked from a mere chronology of places, persons, and events” (Fred Davis). It helps to recreate the past to a certain extent by eliminating the gap between time and space. There is a new architecture of space because things that used to be far away suddenly appear to be close through email, Skype, videos, and photographs. No matter how far you might feel apart from a place, media bridges the distance and creates instant intimacy. You can easily stay in touch with friends you had to leave behind, even remote places in South African townships or Ugandan bush villages have Internet on their phones these days. Through globalized markets you can get products and tastes from all over the world without leaving your neighborhood. Distance does not matter – with globalization and technology you can create a home away from home or preserve traveling memories for the future.

But does it cure our nostalgia?

When inventions like photography and later videography came about some people said it would eradicate the feeling of nostalgia because we are now able to access our memories in vivid form whenever we want. Some hundred years later, we still grapple with that feeling of longing tugging at our hearts and pulling us back again and again. It seems that nostalgia will always be there, simply in different forms and genres. And it can also have a negative impact because it changes the way we remember, preserve, and deal with homesickness. In a slow world people experience things intensely, but with an increase in speed there is also an increase in forgetting. The more we try to keep up with the speed of progress, of life, of friendships – the more we hear this voice inside of us, we feel this longing to slow down, to go back to a time where things were so much easier and carefree.

Svetlana Boym put if beautifully when she said that nostalgia is ‘a yearning for a different time – the time of our childhood, the slower rhythm of our dreams.’

We long to keep the past alive so we are able to relive it in slow motion. Memories preserved via technology can serve as easy escape from a dull present or the struggle of re-entry into a culture we don’t fit in. Simply watch pictures, call a friend, and you’re back in a different place and time. However, we seem to forget that no virtual reality can ever replace real experiences or recall the actual emotions felt; all it can do is to create a fake image of home or past times. Technology sells the idea of connectedness, which leads to the impossibility of being alone. Constant calling, texting and communicating with home can become a harbor to preserve homesickness; instead of dealing with it, we try to stay in touch with two worlds at once. Then we buy into the illusion that friends on screen are very close. We share lives, relationships, and emotions via video camera. Nevertheless, as soon as we switch off the laptop the connection is lost and only a feeling of loneliness and longing remains. In the end, it makes us even more aware of the fact that there is only one life to live. The past is past and cannot return – the illusion of it, though, increases the longing for home and nostalgia for what can never come back.  

I must admit, I often feel trapped between the curses and blessings of the globalized world I live in. I for sure enjoy staying in touch with friends around the globe. I am grateful for the privilege I’ve been given to be able to travel so much and to see so many beautiful places on earth. And I love looking at pictures or watching movie sequences from a time long gone, remembering things as if they had happened yesterday and feeling what I felt back then.

Yet, I also know the feeling of emptiness after a Skype call, realizing you are still miles and miles apart and knowing that life eventually has to move on. And I wonder how much I can or should enjoy the blessings without suffering from the curses at the same time?

I am not sure we will ever find a fully satisfactory answer to this question. But I am asking you, fellow wanderers and “nostalgics”: How do you use technology to bridge the gap between the different worlds you’ve lived in? How do you deal with the “downside” of it?

Katha - finding your nicheAbout the author: Katha von Dessien is a TCK, who spent some of her teenage years in Uganda and South Africa. She is now based in Germany finishing her teaching degree. More stories and thoughts she shares on her personal blog: http://thisiskatha.blogspot.de/

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