hi i took last week as a pause from publishing the newsletter (still posted podcast, youtube, and short form videos) but am back now! This piece is a little different than what I normally write about but i feel like a conversation about media consumption is really tremendously important.
The Cult of Nostalgia
I’ve been really fascinated by nostalgia recently, specifically how it defines culture and therefore the economy (such as the Super Mario Bros movie, Marvel Cinematic Universe, constant reboots, the monetization of familiarity). We love the past.
Susan Sontag’s view on this was that that we engage in a cult of nostalgia allowing us to focus on commemorating the past vs critically engaging with the present. We like to stay in pristine museum walls versus building new things! As Svetlana Boym wrote in the very poignant The Future of Nostalgia -
What is crucial is that nostalgia was not merely an expression of local longing, but a result of a new understanding of time and space that made the division into “local” and “universal” possible. The nostalgic creature has internalized this division, but instead of aspiring for the universal and the progressive he looks backward and yearns for the particular.
And to be fair, I do think there is a place for nostalgia!
It’s nice to share the past with people, and memories are the foundation of our personhood. But from an economic perspective, it can get a bit skewed. As Derek Thompsonpoints out -
It's crazy how many different forces in Hollywood are pushing toward infinitely recurring IP loops. Original stories need to shoot the moon with reviews and buzz to have a chance at $100m, while middlingly reviewed renditions of familiar IP throw up $200m w/o breaking a sweat.
It’s cheaper to be nostalgic!
Less risk, both for the consumer and the movie producer.
We operate in a risk minimization bubble with these really big cinematic productions
But this can be problematic because these big movies often serve as a cultural anchor, giving us a sense of who we are on a really, really big generalized scale (I don’t personally align with these movies, I am sure many others don’t but I am generalizing). And when the anchor is floating in a sea of endless iterations of the past, how can we imagine anything different as a collective? The stories that we tell define us.
The focal point of your life is on commemorating the past as opposed to changing the present. Your memories are more important to you than your dreams.
How do you dream about the future when you're always looking backwards? The endless repetition prevents us from iterating on new cultureand when that happens, there’s room for brands and corporations to begin defining that culture for us, as Toby Shoring writes in Life after Lifestyle.
Stare long enough, and you begin to see the whole: an economy where culture is made in service of brands. To be even more literal: cultural production has become a service industry for the supply chain… all culture is made in service of for-profit brands, at every scale and size.
We begin to define ourselves by what we end up consuming, by brands - just look at any gym influencer or various subreddits or merch drops.Consumer spending is 70% of GDP growth, so there is an incentive to align us to the products that we buy and the brands that we use and the corporations we follow.
But it results in the commodification of self, a way for us align to stories and narrative (increasingly told by brands). We create ourselves via consumption.
But we also commoditize our feelings too.
We try to assetify everything we experience to give it a sense of value on the sociological marketplace. We prevent ourselves from the full experience of the world in a form of “therapycoded invalidation”based on what we think what we are feeling means based on some sort of lengthy framework versus actually simply feeling the feeling.
And to be fair, there is a balance here. But when we get so deep into attaching some sort of value to what we feel like we should feel, when we develop entire complexes around it, that’s where it can get really dicey. Susan Sontag would say we do this to give a sense of superiority over our experiences, constantly analyzing and therefore alienating ourselves from what we are doing.
There ends up being a distribution of experience - you have the Peter Panification of feelings, where people try to not feel anything at all, and then you have Feeling Commodifiers, who feel everything so much - with the intent of not feeling at all.
Both of them end have the same result - they don't experience anything in entirety. They become detached.
This is detachment is only amplified by social media, where we are just bombarded by overwhelming situations in the present. These images (or videos or newsletters or podcasts, any sort of media) really end up separating us from reality - where we can see the most gutwrenching things to the most wonderful thing in a span of 20 seconds, to the point where we conflate feeling and action. “Because I saw this image of war, I contributed to stopping the war”
It creates this idea of connection, this sense of familiarity, but we really aren’t doing anything (and to be fair, we often can’t do much). As Susan Sontag wrote:
"Thinking about images of suffering is not the same as doing anything about suffering. To treat the images of suffering as equivalent to the suffering itself is to participate in a cult of nostalgia."
And it is more than just bearing witness to suffering. It’s everything! I think that there are three D’s that we can look at this detachment through:
I have made two tiktoks on this week alone - one video I responded to was spewing straight lies, but had over 10 million views on TikTok. What a fear mongering thing!
Michael Pettis has written extensively on how *hard* it would be for us to dedollarize - it’s not countries just deciding to not use the dollar anymore (although that is the beginning of a worrying pattern).
Best of the worst: The dollar is the best thing out there - clear, liquid financial markets, transparent corporate governance. It’s the least nasty meal available.
But also structurally: We do have surplus and deficit economies. What the U.S. does right now is absorb the world’s surplus - from countries like China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. Export-oriented economies rely on the dollar to stabilize their own currencies!
Even more structurally: We also have a balance of payments! Current and capital accounts! The U.S. has a surplus in their capital account, a deficit in the current account. In order for someone to take on the role of reserve currency, they would have to take on that same structure, which would require a bit of a sacrifice from China (assuming they would do it!)
Structure is really hard to erode immediately. The Stealth Erosion of the Dollar paper from the IMF highlights that the dollar is losing status - but a big winner isn’t stepping up, it’s a bunch of little currencies.
But you wouldn’t know that from the absolute bonkers fear mongering on social media platforms. And that circles back to detachment, accepting everything at face value, taking media as capital T-Truth.
And all that to say that being an informed media consumer is really hard! Like I said, we are constantly bombarded to the point of desensitization. Consumption is commodification of self, and some people use the media outlets that they associate with as a core feature of their personality.
It’s always dangerous to talk about Elon Musk because of how xyz his fanbase can be. But I think that he serves as a good example of the delusion aspect of media consumption. Just as an example -
Twitter labeled NPR as government-funded media, which like fine, they do get money from the government (~1%). If we are going to label everyone who ever got money from the government, essentially all of us would probably have that sticker on our forehead
Because the label was misleading, NPR peaced out and decided to not use Twitter anymore
Elon Musk shared an exchange that he had with Bobby Allyn from NPR where Bobby was like “why?” and Elon responded via tweet with “Defund NPR”
This is a great example of truth vs depiction of reality.
We don’t see certain types of media as depictions of reality, we see them as Truth. We give them a free pass, don’t really analyze them in context of the complexity that we exist in. So with Elon, there are a LOT of people that took what he said at face value, without going a layer deeper into what it means.
And I am not advocating for a winner in the situation, I think it’s just important to be aware of the delusion that threads within all that we look at. Everyone has some sort of angle - it’s really just human nature. It’s up to us to parse out those threads, weave them into our own interpretation, and make sure that we’ve fully analyzed why someone like Elon Musk might do what he did (not a call on his character, but this is a guy that has $13b in hung debt on a platform that is losing advertising and can’t monetize).
We have to think about what is obscured and what isn’t.
To tie it all together - existing in the past is easier than engaging in the present (nostalgia) and we have commoditized ourselves to the point where we sort of are what we consume - and we’ve assetized our feelings too to give them “value” on a sociological marketplace.
We have condensed a lot of our existence into pixels. Humanity becomes 0s and 1s, enabling the aforementioned dedollarization and delusion. People can be exceptionally cruel, but somehow everyone can be marginally crueler when protected by the glow of their screen.
So when we talk about the importance of analyzing our media consumption, it really is about analyzing yourself. But in a way that allows us to remain anchored - to not completely detach, which is just so incredibly, unbelievably hard. Half the reason I wrote this piece was to remind myself of all of this - we must be good stewards of the online space, because it’s only going to get weirder.
Thanks for reading.
Some other links
How Tokyo Became Anti-car Paradise | Why Americans die so young | House Hoarders | Inside Taiwanese Chip Giant, a U.S. Expansion Stokes Tensions | I’ve worked in child care for three decades. It’s been a long, tough road. | Remote Work and Household Formation | Here’s Why You’re Seeing Gross Viral Recipes on Your Subway Commute | CAMEL: Communicative Agents for "Mind" Exploration of Large Scale Language Model Society | How Hollywood manipulates you by using your childhood memories | Contingent Supply: Why Spodumene Reserves May Be the Key to a More Secure Lithium Supply Chain | Sounds emitted by plants under stress are airborne and informative | An aperiodic monotile
Disclaimer: This is not financial advice or recommendation for any investment. The Content is for informational purposes only, you should not construe any such information or other material as legal, tax, investment, or financial advice.
Derek also wrote a book exactly on this topic that you should check out from your local library or buy from your local bookstore! It’s an excellent read.
Of course, this is a generalization of a mass media America problem. Culture in the U.S. is booming but not collectively - in individualized communities.
Trend cycles are inherently nostalgic, and right now, are just repeating the past incessantly.
Nothing against therapy here, but I do think there is a point of diminishing returns of analyzing each behavior in-depth. Sometimes, we just are feeling weird.
Super insightful, Kyla. I have an article loaded in my newsletter for two weeks for now riffing on a clip from McLuhan circa 1977. He talks about "nostalgia and the digital man", saying at one point:
"One of the big marks of the loss of identity is nostalgia. And so revivals in every phase of life today—revivals of clothing, of dances, of music, of shows, of everything—we live by the revival. It tells us who we are, or were."
Here's the interview clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ULI3x8WIxus&ab_channel=mywebcowtube
Excellent! Reminds me of Social proof.
And that is what makes broadly defined Artists 🧑🏽🎨🎶💫wonderful. "You laugh at me because I'm different, I laugh at you because you're all the same."