A Digital Phenom: Increased Presence of the Past in our Lives

In the Music section of The New York Times, music critic Simon Reynolds explored how and why The Songs of Now Sound a Lot Like Then. Right in the middle of this column, Reynolds takes a stab at the larger vintage chic pop culture phenomenon and its relation to the digital age. Just something that made me go hmmmmm….

The fading of newness and nowness from pop music is mystifying. But in the last couple of years a concept has emerged that at least identifies the syndrome, even if it doesn’t completely explain it. Coined by the co-founders of cyberpunk fiction William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, “atemporality” is a term for the disconcerting absence of contemporaneity from so much current pop culture. This curious quality can be detected not just in pop music but in everything from fashion to graphic design to vintage chic.

A prime example of atemporality is the fad for photography apps like Hipstamatic and Instagram, which digitally simulate the period atmosphere of pictures taken in the ’70s or ’80s, using the cameras and film stock of the time. Instant-nostalgia snapshots are part of a culture-wide fascination with outmoded technology and “dead media” (Mr. Sterling’s term) that encompasses everything from the cults for manual typewriters and cassettes to the steampunk movement’s fetish for Victoriana to the recent movie “Super 8.”

Mr. Sterling sees the time-out-of-joint nature of today’s pop as a side effect of digiculture. One of the curiosities of the futuristic-seeming information technology that we now enjoy is that it has dramatically increased the presence of the past in our lives. From YouTube to iTunes, from file-sharing blogs to Netflix, the sheer volume and range of back catalogue music, film, TV and so forth that is available for consumption is astounding.

We can access all this stuff with incredible speed and convenience, share it and store it with minimal effort.

Speaking of access to music of the past with incredible speed and shared with minimal effort…


2 thoughts on “A Digital Phenom: Increased Presence of the Past in our Lives

  1. Check out the WSJ review — link below — of a new book (Retromania) by the same Simon Reynolds, continuing the discussion and identifying a trend in both “the Western economy and popular music in which both are in a ‘post-production’ mode, shifting away from manufacturing raw materials and instead manipulating them.” Reynolds sees a “dichotomy between ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’: The former generates musical forms (blues, country, reggae, hip-hop), and the latter refines and recombines them, but with ‘detachment and irony.'” The future of truly original new music may lie in the rapidly changing societies of China, India and Brazil, he says, who are “making things instead of merely reconfiguring them.”

    I’m not entirely willing to believe that nothing original is being produced; but certainly so much of what people are listening to – from pop to indie – has a vintage feel. One of my fav. albums of last year (or was it 2009) was “Lisbon” by the Walkmen, which sounded like the not-unpleasing union of Bob Dylan, Buddy Holly and a mariachi band, all with a 21st-century NYC veneer. Not a bad thing, as I love Buddy Holly and Bob Dylan, and mariachi music too, but certainly it makes one stop and consider whether that’s all we’ve got left…and I don’t like the thought. Funny enough, maybe Reynolds is right on his other point about developing societies being the way of the future – I’ve been really into Indonesian gamelan music, lately, because it sounds so entirely new and different to my ears.


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