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Image: Canva.

If I were to start a commune, the first rule would be no internet-connected technology. Old radios, record and CD players are acceptable, and television is A-okay provided it’s not ‘smart’. A fridge and a toaster? Both permitted, so long as they don’t talk to each other.

Dreams of shirking modern life to start afresh are common in times of political unrest and pervasive pessimism. For those who are Extremely Online (derogatory), imagining an escape from the slog of the internet is a typical part of the plan. The digital detox is a modern manifestation of the urge to retreat from what Jenny Odell calls the ‘unforgiving landscape of productivity’ in How to Do Nothing, a manifesto on resisting the encroachment of capitalism on our inner lives. Get me off this information superhighway so I can start living!

The low-tech dream is spreading with—ironically—the help of social media. Think softly lit scenes of physical books, a return to the flip phone and analog photography (or at least, a filter to replicate it), the hashtag ‘slowliving’ proliferating Instagram and TikTok. Meanwhile ‘internetcore’ is trending: early web aesthetics of clumsily formatted backgrounds, bubbly typography, clunky animations and pixel art. Vintage video games are being re-released and sales of cassette tapes, vinyl and wired headphones are booming.

Trends are cyclical, but the wistful pull of retro-tech appears to act as a stand-in for a yearning for a different present and an alternative future—a pining for the utopian promise of technology; a dream of unrealised potential.

The wistful pull of retro-tech appears to act as a stand-in for a yearning for a different present.

It’s not so much a matter of imagining the world was better or simpler before the rise of modern technologies (although this is certainly something to be debated at the commune), as it is that such aesthetics represent a moment in time when our technological future was ripe with possibility. According to cultural theorist Svetlana Boym, nostalgia can be prospective: ‘the fantasies of the past, determined by the needs of the present, have a direct impact on the realities of the future.’ Looking around at the current role of technology in the landscape of political, economic and social upheaval, it’s no wonder people might wish that things had gone differently.

After all, this is not the cyber utopia once imagined. At the turn of the century, the early internet represented seemingly boundless possibilities. Now, the possibility of creating liberating dreamworld beyond the confines of capitalism has narrowed, if not disappeared entirely. Swathes of kooky self-hosted sites have been replaced by sleek, minimalist design synonymous with the corporations that dominate the net, with their rampant surveillance and monopolies. In this sense, each kitschy low-res web-collage or animated cursor can be seen as a small rebuttal to the round corners and clean lines peddled by the likes of Meta and Google.

Left: Retro-themed website. Image: Poolsuite. Right: Facebook web design and Apple products. Image: Canva.

But sentimentality warps accuracy. Was the internet actually freer and more creative in the past? By the turn of the millennium, internet privatisation was already almost a decade under way. The open web hasn’t actually died, so what are we mourning? In fact, as highlighted by Ben Tarnoff in Internet for the People, the web’s very openness is what allowed companies to so liberally scatter their tracking and advertising software online, like little data-gluttonous breadcrumbs. Openness isn’t necessarily progressive either, as Astra Taylor notes in The People’s Platform: ‘No matter how technically “disruptive” or “revolutionary”, a communications system left to the free market will not produce the independent, democratic culture we need.’

While openness isn’t living up to the hype, the sense that creativity and connection have irrevocably suffered within the walled gardens of closed platforms is also questionable. Dominant social media networks have significant pitfalls, but they are also places where people gather, make culture, practice politics, forge identities and build communities.‘Nostalgia for an internet before all this is also nostalgia for a time when fewer people used the internet,’ emphasises Tarnoff. ‘When its users tended to be whiter and more affluent.’

Sentimentality warps accuracy. Was the internet actually freer and more creative in the past?

When I think about the limits of techno-nostalgia, Nora Ephron’s 1998 film You’ve Got Mail comes to mind. Remember when catfishing strangers on anonymous chat forums was a charming premise for a rom-com? The opening captures a pre-2000s vision of cyberspace, and with it, an accidental prediction of total datafication. The then-burgeoning possibilities of the internet feel palpable as Meg Ryan excitedly coos: ‘I turn on my computer, I wait impatiently as it connects, I go online and my breath catches in my chest.’

You’ve Got Mail (1998). Image: Imdb.com.

It’s only from the kooky cynic, Frank Navasky (Greg Kinnear) that the audience is presented with any kind of critique of the internet. ‘You think this machine is your friend,’ he says, gesturing to an Apple Powerbook 3400. ‘But it’s not.’ By positioning Frank as the easily dismissible eccentric, You’ve Got Mail mimics the cultural tendency to denigrate critics of technology. Often this is by design. It serves billionaires and investors well to make it seem that humanity’s advancement is intrinsically linked to tech development. In a cringeworthy attempt to decry so-called enemies of progress, venture capitalist and ‘techno-optimist’ Marc Andreessen recently went so far as to suggest that standing in the way of AI is akin to murder.

The mischaracterisation of tech criticism goes at least as far back as the early 1800s and the Luddite uprising. The Luddites were neither anti-technology nor anti-progress but condemned the use of technology by the emerging entrepreneurial class for exploitation and personal profit. In You’ve Got Mail, when Frank is asked if he’s interested in writing a book, he offers to write on ‘something really relevant for today, like the Luddite movement’. The joke only works because of the widespread cultural (mis)understanding of the Luddites and their politics. Just as ‘luddite’ is often used as a pejorative, it is here used as shorthand to mock Frank’s concerns. But twenty-five years later, esteemed technology journalist Brian Merchant has published a book about the history of the Luddites, and it is relevant today.

You’ve Got Mail mimics the cultural tendency to denigrate critics of technology.

Despite the technological throughline, You’ve Got Mail’s central conflict isn’t between analog and digital cultures but between small businesses and corporatisation. Perhaps unintentionally, the film is also a prophetic metaphor for the privatisation of the internet. It’s not just a battle between behemoth Fox Books and independent Shop Around the Corner; it’s a battle between the early web and the handful of companies who seek to monetise it. Meg Ryan cries out: ‘Do you want the Upper West Side to become one giant strip mall?’ But she may as well be asking: do you want the internet to become one giant online shopping centre?

Many know of the internet’s military origins, but the history of its privatisation doesn’t get the attention it deserves. From the 1970s to the 1990s, the internet shifted from a military tech project to a government-led network used mainly by academics, mutating into the process of commercialisation toward what we know today. Corporations took over the physical infrastructure all the way down to the deep-sea cables and sought to monetise not just access, but online activity as well. Enter: surveillance capitalism. In spite of the rhetoric of progress spewing from Silicon Valley, we find ourselves in a relentless cycle of sameness fueled by profit incentives.

Philosopher Franco Berardi described the postmodern condition as ‘the slow cancellation of the future.’ That is, without significant cultural movement there is no subjective dimension of what’s to come. This is reflected in Mark Fisher’s notion of ‘Capitalist Realism’: the sense that capitalism is the only viable political and economic system such that we cannot even imagine an alternative. In Ghosts of My Life, Fisher explains that ‘retromania’ has resulted in anachronism being taken for granted: ‘retro offers the quick and easy promise of a minimal variation on an already familiar satisfaction.’

Invariably, companies claim to ‘disrupt’ something—taxis, traditional media, housing, the arts. Their vision for disruption is couched in the language of social progress, while ultimately upholding the status quo and exacerbating pre-existing inequalities. Fisher writes that ‘cultural time has folded back on itself, and the impression of linear development has given way to a strange simultaneity.’ Aside from feeling trapped in perpetual remakes and a never-ending expansion of the Marvel Universe (so help us), Berardi and Fisher’s concerns about the recycling of culture have alarming parallels in the tech sector.

Popular AI techniques trap us in cycles by ingesting an enormous amount of data to identify patterns, create a model and, in turn, make predictions and inferences. In practice, this means automated recruitment tools that systematically disadvantage women, facial recognition that perpetuates racist bias and automated decision-making systems that lock people into poverty. Culturally, it looks like AI-generated mundane amalgamations of stolen art, and truly average—mathematically and stylistically—writing. There is little room for curiosity without consequence in systems designed for engagement and amplification, and so our cultural bubbles risk turning into cages.

Without significant cultural movement there is no subjective dimension of what’s to come.

What does it mean for our collective future if the very function of such technologies actually confines the possibilities of art, culture and opportunities available to people? How might it limit the scope of political thinking? In an anthology of radical science fiction inspired by the work of Octavia Butler, poet and prison abolitionist Walidah Imarisha posits that all social organising is science fiction. Ursula K Le Guin emphasised that ‘resistance and change often begin in art’ and spoke of the importance of writers who can imagine alternatives to how we currently live. Generative AI tools like OpenAI’s ChatGPT could never do this kind of essential political imagination work. Not only does the widespread use of such tech threaten the livelihoods of workers, but it also threatens to further restrict the scope of possibilities on offer to all of us.

It’s easy to romanticise a low-tech past, but personal exile into a slow-paced, disconnected life isn’t the solution. The real work is here, in the world as it is. For now, my hypothetical non-networked commune will remain a fantasy. Rather than retreat, we might turn to a politics of refusal. To critically engage with the consequences of the current political economy of technology, and to decide when to say no.

What use is this feeling of nostalgia? What can be done with it? There is no going back to the crossroads, no time travel machine to make the Luddites win, recast Frank as the hero of You’ve Got Mail or thwart the privatisation of the internet. But perhaps this longing can help inspire a movement that will be necessary to wrench open our collective technological horizon that has shrunk before our eyes. Tarnoff notes that ‘at some point, everybody loses the internet they love’. Maybe that was Usenet, Geocities, Tumblr or MySpace. More recently, it may have been the ransacking of the once beloved hellsite, Twitter. ‘Alongside these personal losses,’ Tarnoff writes, ‘is a collective loss: a series of missed opportunities to reimagine the internet’. It is up to us now to seize that feeling and work together, to mount power against the status quo, and build something different.