Technological nostalgia as healing

by Gautam Raja

Remember this trick from the early days of the cell phone? You call a friend on his landline, and chat with him about plans for the day. As you’re talking, his doorbell rings, and he excuses himself to answer it. He opens the front door, and it’s you.

There’s astonishment and laughter all round, and a salute to how amazing technology is. (You have, of course, made sure to disconnect the call, because such frippery was paid for by the dear minute.)

By the time the Nokia 3310 was launched, this stunt was probably getting stale. Even so, I was surprised to read that the iconic phone was launched as late as 2000. Seventeen years later, the 3310 will be relaunched, taking us back to tiny screens, decent call quality, and long battery life. I’ve never been one for phones, but I loved the 3310, and wasn’t surprised to read of its return.

Apart from novelty and nostalgia, a phone whose battery can last a month on standby, will quickly become a safety back-up. It can be charged and thrown into a glove compartment or bottom of a suitcase at the start of a trip. It can accompany you on hikes where weak signals make your regular phone last only a few hours. And because it’s light, simple, and rugged, it can accompany you on bike rides, beach visits, or even quick dog walks at night, where you don’t want to be waving around an expensive smart phone.

As someone who is interested in products and values that are a deliberate step back in time, it’s fascinating to me that we are already far enough on this ride to return nostalgically to products from a mass digital age. This isn’t like stepping back to vinyl after CD, or to horse-drawn carriages after automobiles (don’t you think horses will come back?). It’s more like returning to the VCD from Blu-Ray, albeit in a way that makes sense.

When we moved to our new home, we packed up our television. And though we’ve been here for over a month, it’s still boxed, and a library has seen use. The television will eventually come out, but I’m seriously considering stopping the streaming service, and returning to renting movies on disc. We’re not alone in finding that having everything at your fingertips is like having nothing at your fingertips. We have frequently spent our entire TV dinnertime scrolling through the thumbnails, unable to settle on anything. And when we do, it’s almost always something mindless, or comfort food that we’ve seen tens of times before.

It’s tempting to be entirely bereft of an idiot box, but realistically, it seems right to at least make the turning on of the television an occasion again. I’m not sure that the relaunch of old mobiles will make phone calls an occasion, but if I had one, I’d look forward to “3310 days”, when I have the ability to text and phone, but am not continually ensnared by a few square inches of black mirror. I’m rapidly becoming as bad as everyone else about my smart phone–needing it near me at all times, and checking it many, many, many times a day.

I began this article with an image of how naively we opened our door to this surprising technology. You might assume I’m closing with a “little did we know” lament about where we’ve come. But I’m actually starting to think that the cycles of fashion are healing mechanisms, and that we have more control over our ways of life than we allow ourselves to believe.

First published in Gulf News, March 14, 2017