Looking back is nothing new. Fashion repeats trends all the time, musicians sample to create new hits, and every movie ever made is now being remade by Disney. However, in the past few years, I’ve noticed that more and more trends seem to be looking back at our technological pasts. It seems to me that we’re suffering from, or maybe basking in, a sort of tech nostalgia.
I first heard about Vaporwave from a friend who is hilarious, hip and chronically ironic. When she described it for me I couldn’t tell if she genuinely enjoyed it or was fangirling as a joke. The answer, as it seems to be with so many throwback trends, is both.
Vaporwave was born on the internet. It started as a music genre that incorporated elevator music, smooth jazz and heavy synthesizing. From this, a broader visual aesthetic and subculture, emerged favoring cyans, magentas, and artifacts of the early internet such as clip art and glitch art. The result is absurd. Much like dad shoes, it’s so bad it’s good.
In February of this year, I attended the Krewe of Vaporwave’s Mardi Gras ball in New Orleans where I live. My boyfriend dressed as a jazz solo cup in the trash and I went as Microsoft Word 2000 with spellcheck zig-zag eyebrows and a keytar made from an old apple keyboard. The whole event was one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever participated in: there were dresses made of CDs and a wall of CRT televisions. My boyfriend insulted Win Butler, the lead singer of Arcade Fire also known as DJ Windows 98, and I spun around in a defunct gondola car. The parade that followed was virtual and felt like a dystopian version of the Mario Kart I played with my cousins as a kid, except all you could do was wander around.
In the Midwest, my friends are similarly drawing from the past to inform their present parties. Namely, they’re participating in PowerPoint parties. All you need is a computer, a projector, and a group of very funny friends. Guests create comedic PowerPoints, often telling a story or making an argument, and then present them with plenty of swirling slide transitions and swooshing bullet points.
I saw a PowerPoint performance once, before having ever heard about the concept. In it, a ClickHole writer made a case to her parents about why she should have her ladder privileges restored, despite abusing those privileges in the past by climbing across the ceiling with her sticky frog hands and feet. It was one of the funniest comedic performances I have ever seen, due in no small part to her choice of format.
Vaporwave and PowerPoint both draw their inspiration from interfaces past. However, I think they’re both more extreme examples of a tech nostalgia trend visible across locations and platforms, from the glitchy gif stickers accessorizing Instagram stories to the “Is your child texting about [blank]” meme that rewrites early text-speak. So what’s the appeal?
My first instinct is that as technology becomes more powerful through AI, powerful algorithms and a more effective vessel for evil (*cough* Facebook *cough*), we’re all reaching back to an era of innocuous tech. Clippy could be annoying, but not a threat to democracy. The internet today can be a scary place with Black Mirror-esque peril seemingly looming. In the face of these threats, real or not, it would be nice if we could still Ask Jeeves.
Technology is also sad. Tech has left people more connected and more alone than ever, with people presenting picture perfect lives on social media as reality when in fact their realities are far from perfect. Memes have become a way for people to express their sadness or dismay, like with the “This is fine” dog. All of this makes the frivolity and superficiality of the early internet appealing. Returning to former tech is a way of using absurdity to highlight absurdity.
Both of these explanations would point to a form of escapism, which begs the question, what, exactly, are we escaping from?