When Uncle Joshua, a character in Peter De Vries’s 1959 novel, The Tents of Wickedness, says that nostalgia “ain’t what it used to be,” the line is played for humor: To those stuck in the past, nothing—not even memory itself—survives the test of time. And yet Uncle Joshua’s words have themselves aged pretty well (despite being widely misattributed to Yogi Berra): Technology, though ceaselessly striving toward the future, has continually revised how we view the past.
Nostalgia—generally defined as a sentimental longing for bygone times—underwent a particularly significant metamorphosis in 1888, when Kodak released the first commercially successful camera for amateurs. Ads soon positioned it as a necessary instrument for preserving recollections of children and family celebrations. According to Nancy Martha West, the author of Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia, the camera “allowed people … to arrange their lives in such a way that painful or unpleasant aspects were systematically erased.”
Technology is poised to once again revolutionize the way we recall the past. Not so long ago, nostalgia’s triggers were mostly spontaneous: catching your prom’s slow-dance song on the radio, riffling through photo albums while you were home for the holidays. Today, thanks to our devices, we can experience nostalgia on demand. The Nostalgia Machine website plays songs from your “favorite music year”; another app, Sundial, replays the songs you were listening to exactly a year ago. The Timehop app and Facebook’s On This Day feature shower you with photos and social-media updates from a given date in history. The Museum of Endangered Sounds website plays the noises of discontinued products (the chime of a Bell phone, the chirping of a Eurosignal pager). Retro Site Ninja lets you revisit web pages from the ’90s.