Michael Grasso / December 15, 2020
The Circle of the Snake: Nostalgia and Utopia in the Age of Big Tech
By Grafton Tanner
Zero Books, 2020
I’m sure many members of Generation X have taken a moment to look around the pop culture landscape over the past decade and a half and had a sudden moment of realization: there are certainly a whole lot of people trying to sell me things using the media of my youth. Ultimately, this is nothing new. I remember when every pop culture moment, from sitcoms to TV commercials, seemed to be using the Baby Boomers’ favorite songs to sell them cars and sneakers. But in 2020, the dominance of these re-treaded properties is even more nakedly cynical, whether its the endless sequels of the Star Wars and Marvel cinematic universes, or the easy-to-consume, signifier-filled pastiches of the worlds of Stranger Things and Ready Player One. The cultural marketplace, as dominated by bloated media and tech empires, no longer sees any need to admit the novel, the fresh, the unusual.
Both the “why” and the “how” of this cultural and technological tendency are explored by author Grafton Tanner in his new book, The Circle of the Snake: Nostalgia and Utopia in the Age of Big Tech. (Disclosure: Tanner is an occasional contributor to We Are The Mutants.) Tanner explores not only the pop culture properties that utilize nostalgia in an effort to assuage the anxieties of contemporary life in the aftermath of the 2008 financial rupture; he also explains how tech companies use the feedback from algorithmic analysis to keep consumers locked into a never-ending cycle—an ouroboros—of digital satisfaction of their subconscious desires for an older, more secure time. This nostalgic digital utopia, in turn, keeps consumers constantly “on,” working through endless “quests” that approximate proactivity but in the end keep people locked into pointless and unproductive cycles of feedback, emotional satisfaction, and control. “Recommender systems and predictive analytics—the very tools that allow our contemporary media to function—zero in on quick reactions, such as a flash of anger or a swell of nostalgia,” says Tanner in his Introduction. “These reactions are noted by algorithms, which then make recommendations based on them… The result is a nostalgic feedback loop wherein old ideas travel round.”
Tanner examines how the Big Tech tendency towards technolibertarianism and monopoly over the past 20 years has created the material conditions for this self-reinforcing system of psychic feedback. With an increasing belief in culture as disposable and “just for fun,” the material and political implications of this system of control are obfuscated. The way that these cultural narratives award Big Tech further and deeper power over all of us is merely part of the game. And we are enlisted as active players, not merely passive viewers, as in the era of television’s height. The online world, Tanner notes, demands a keen eye for analysis and a deep capacity for paying attention. The technolibertarian and neoliberal alike view our tech-suffused world—everyone is plugged in, 24/7—as a kind of utopia-in-waiting, or indeed a permanent utopia, where the idealized past can be endlessly revisited and basked in, while the present never changes from its current state of cultural and political stasis. This virtual plaza of commerce, emotional satisfaction, the illusion of proactivity, and control and surveillance describe the boundaries of Big Tech’s dominance of both our material and psychic space at the beginning of the 2020s.
The interview below was conducted in November and December 2020 via email and has been lightly edited for clarity.
GRASSO: Given the topic of your first book for Zero, Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts, the topic for The Circle of the Snake seems like a natural outgrowth. But from reading the book it also seems like there were a lot of specific events and observations about the world of Online and Big Tech over the past few years that led to the book’s development. What are the origins of The Circle of the Snake, and what kinds of specific cultural developments led you to propose and write the book?
TANNER: I can pinpoint the exact moment I knew I was going to write a book on Big Tech. I was living in a kind of exile in 2016, in this small town in Georgia, trying to piece my life back together after a series of false starts after college. I was sitting in a Barnes & Noble reading the 2016 Tech Issue of The Atlantic, and there was a story by Bianca Bosker about former Google employee Tristan Harris, who left the Valley and started an advocacy group called Time Well Spent because he thought Big Tech was eroding mental health. He was on a mission to fix Big Tech by making it work for us, not against us. But the piece didn’t make me feel better about tech. In fact, it was terrifying: here is an ex-Valley technocrat, mournful that he had invented habit-forming technology with severe public side effects, asking us to not only forgive him, but believe in him to create newer, better tech. I was incensed.
Shortly thereafter, we learned that Cambridge Analytica sharpened their psychographic modeling techniques by harvesting Facebook data from millions of users without their permission, all to aid in the election of Donald Trump. There was suddenly this huge backlash against Big Tech. I was supportive of it, but I also understood it came a little too late. Tech critics had been sounding the alarm for years and years. It took the election of a fascist for the left to wake up to the tech nightmare, only to realize the ones promising to end the nightmare were former technocrats themselves.
And yet, as many were loudly critiquing Big Tech for its role in throwing elections, spreading fascism, and worsening mental health, the culture industry was churning out politically retrograde nostalgia-bait. Was it really that the techlash had made everyone even more nostalgic for the pre-digital past? Or was there some kind of connection between nostalgia and Big Tech? These were the questions I had in mind when I started writing.
GRASSO: I think one of the things I like best about the book is your fusion of theory, philosophy, and epistemology with the material and economic realities of 21st century Big Tech and Big Media. Throughout the book you explore concepts such as surveillance, sublimity, nostalgia (of course), and virtuality with concrete examples from the online plaza. Essentially, if I’m not mistaken, you’re saying that the people who created the feedback loops that keep us hooked on technology and the internet and mine our data for still more ways to sell to us have themselves studied their philosophy, economic history, and techniques of mass psychology and persuasion with great attention?
TANNER: Persuasion techniques, yes, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say the technocrats have studied much else beyond their limited worldview, which is scientistic. Yes, technocrats like James Williams and Tristan Harris like to cite philosophers, but they usually do it to support their self-help solutions to the attention economy. Wake up with a little philosophy, they say, because reading Socrates is better for the mind than scrolling through Twitter. It’s a very neckbeard way of thinking about cultural consumption.
Make no mistake: these technocrats are uninterested in anything other than making a lot of money. If that means learning psychological techniques of persuasion with Stanford psychologist B.J. Fogg, then so be it. They weren’t and aren’t trying to make the world a better place or something. Like the banks before the Great Recession, the technocrats are out to make a quick buck by any means necessary, and they would have kept on doing what they were doing if the bubble hadn’t burst. People were disgruntled with Facebook for years before Cambridge Analytica, and tech critique was already a robust genre by 2016. But it took a kind of implosion, a Great Recession-style reckoning with Big Tech, to change the public opinion. Honestly, the technocrats would probably benefit from studying a little history and philosophy, instead of cloistering themselves in the ideological fortress of STEM.
GRASSO: I think one of the “oh shit” moments in the text for me was finding out that the Black Mirror special choose-your-own-adventure episode “Bandersnatch,” which I quite liked mostly for its material and inspirational signifiers (early ’80s computing, references to Philip K. Dick) was also used to mine viewers’ data in a delightfully dark real-life Dickean stroke. It’s not merely that nostalgia offers us a safe place from the dangerous present, but that those who create these nostalgic visions are working hand-in-hand with the very media empires that make us crave the past: another ouroboros.
TANNER: “Bandersnatch” not only exploits viewers’ nostalgia for its own gain, but it further normalizes the feeling of being controlled. Everyone today knows we’re being controlled from afar: by Twitter, Instagram, Amazon, insurance companies, think tanks, banks, and so forth. We are part of this giant social experiment called consumer capitalism. The purpose is to find out what we’ll buy. But we aren’t being controlled by future gamers or, as much as Elon Musk would like to believe, programmers in this computer simulation we call life. “Bandersnatch” is a work of fiction masquerading a horrible fact—that Netflix is the one controlling us, that we are not as in control as we think. The irony, of course, is that we relinquish our control via the technology we use every day, but we ultimately have very little choice in the matter. Students use devices at school, and jobs often require employees to have smartphones. We aren’t puppets, but we’re by no means totally free either.
Scene from “Bandersnatch,” in front of the No. 1 Croydon Building, South London.
GRASSO: So that leads me to asking you about your critique of specific media franchises: Stranger Things and the endless array of sequels and especially reboots we’ve seen since the end of the aughts. You very cannily explore Stranger Things‘ reliance on physical signifiers of commodities and objects that are no longer extant but remind us of the shackles of our technology-laden present (the old landline telephone, the shopping mall) as a key to its appeal to both Gen-Xers who were there and Zoomers who weren’t. Likewise the cinematic reboot is a way to cheaply create product and content that will connect with multiple generations. This element of “spot the Easter egg, aren’t you smart?” for older generations melds with the offer of a trip to a now-alien time for younger generations. These franchises seem to simultaneously reward passive immersion in nostalgia with an illusion of proactivity.
TANNER: Well, the spot-the-Easter-egg activities are very often nostalgic exercises themselves. Viewers are invited to find the nostalgic signifiers, even if they don’t know what they are. That’s the brilliance of Easter egg marketing for advertisers: you might not know what the hidden clue means, but you know it’s a clue and so you make note of it. Of course, the “real” fans will be able to cite all the references, but regular viewers can sometimes recognize a clue, like a corded phone or a VCR or a reference to an older movie, when they see it.
Easter egg marketing is the advertising tactic of choice in the prosumer age. It turns watching into a game. And it’s very heuristic. The films with the most Easter eggs inspire the most “count them all” YouTube videos or Buzzfeed listicles. The problem here isn’t that movies and series reference a bunch of older media; the problem is that Easter eggs reference certain things and leave others out, thus establishing these unnecessary pop culture canons. I don’t care that the Halloween franchise makes reference to itself. It’s an extended universe at this point—of course it’s going to do that. What I find questionable is its constant updating in an attempt to recapture the magic of the original film. I’m always signaling my love of Halloween III: Season of the Witch, but that film is too wacky to be included in the Halloween universe, because the franchise is desperately trying to give us the original again, as if it were the first time, without all the messy parts of the sequels. The Halloween filmmakers want to keep the bloodline of the first film pure, which means anything standing in the way must be excised.
GRASSO: You mark the period between 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008 (and its aftermath) as the final foreclosure of any alternative to our current future and one of the dividing lines between an idealized past depicted in our nostalgic media and the forever Now. Unsurprisingly, so many of the elements of online life we now recognize as irredeemably toxic (social media, ranking and rating apps, tentpole cinematic universes full of identical sequels) began around the end of the Bush years as well.
TANNER: One of these days, I’m going to write a history-critique of the 2000s. I find the decade fascinating. It was probably the nadir of contemporary culture. Mark Fisher called it “the worst period for (popular) culture since the 1950s.”
It’s true: there was no breaking point at which contemporary nostalgia ramped up. It was a gradual shift between 9/11 and the Great Recession. Directly after 9/11, the U.S. was reeling from shock. Before nostalgia set in later in the decade, there was a feeling of futurelessness, as Robert Jay Lifton wrote—a feeling that there can be no future after 9/11, that the fear of another terrorist attack foreclosed the future altogether, that if people could fly planes into buildings on a regular weekday morning, then anything horrific is possible. During these years, we saw the birth of cinematic universes with the Star Wars prequels and the first megabudget superhero films. Of course, there were Batman, Superman, and Star Wars films before the twenty-first century, but it was after 9/11 that we saw the avalanche of these movies, several of which could not have been made without post-9/11 Pentagon support, with its bloated influence and near-endless supply of capital. You cannot downplay the reach these films have. They’re seen all over the world. And they aren’t just pro-military propaganda, they are engines of nostalgia.
After the Great Recession, nostalgia calcified. People were moving back in with their parents, revisiting old memories to soothe the anxiety of joblessness. Financial recessions are progressive only for the bankers, if they’re bailed out. For workers, they’re regressive. They set people back and invite the sufferers to hide away from it all. There is nothing wrong with this reaction. We cannot blame people who were hit by the Recession for their nostalgia. But we can blame the ones who caused it. And austerity measures only increase the desire to escape into nostalgic feelings. In short, financial meltdowns are crises that affect the future because they erase the plausibility of surviving the present.
GRASSO: You state that nostalgia is not only an emotion used to track us and to trigger specific emotional responses (which themselves are often assuaged by consumption), but also, possibly most importantly, to control us. And that control is not only physical/material but also social/aesthetic, limiting our options to wander away from the digital plaza. How do nostalgia and nostalgic media help this attempt by the market to quantify, objectify, and commodify us, the consumer?
TANNER: Content creators—a sickening term that reduces art and culture to commodities—understand the value of nostalgia. Consumer scientists have known for years that nostalgia sells. If anger draws your attention to the screen, then nostalgia triggers you to buy what will soothe the anger. That’s the cycle we’re dealing with in the present century.
And the worse things get, the more that nostalgia will naturally rise to the surface for many people. It’s not that media companies force-feed nostalgia to us. Many people are already feeling the emotion. It’s inescapable because nostalgia is a modern condition. Corporations merely go the extra mile by locking nostalgia into these feedback loops. The more you feed nostalgia into the cultural industry, the more of it you will consume because entire companies depend on you to want it. We live in a world of disruption, and every modern displacement is accompanied by nostalgia. Corporate capital knows this and depends on it.
GRASSO: Two of the specific technologies you talk about, Instagram and virtual reality, have undergone mutations in their appeals to our desire to escape the modern world. Instagram started off as a fairly disposable nostalgic evocation of the Polaroid camera aesthetic and has become a playground for big-money influencers and exhibitionists; virtual reality has evolved into just another facet of the internet’s control apparatus, despite its conceptual origins in early ’80s cyberpunk and its promised potential to give people the ability to create their own worlds. Why do these technologies seem to always mutate in the direction of greater commercialization and/or control, despite their initial apparent harmlessness or revolutionary promise?
TANNER: In the case of Instagram, its nostalgia factor was mainly due to the horrible photo quality of early smartphone cameras. With some Wi-Fi, a phone, and an app, you could take photos anywhere and upload them on the spot, which was enticing enough for many people to do just that, but you couldn’t deny the photo quality was very poor. So one way to deal with this poor quality was to saturate photos in a kind of analog haze, which could be done by applying one of several different stock filters. I can’t emphasize this enough: so much of our nostalgic appetite in the early 2010s was whetted by the inability to take and post a decent looking digital photo.
Whether it’s Instagram or virtual reality, digital technology is never totally harmless. It’s like when Tristan Harris and the Center for Humane Tech guys tell us we can have our digital cake and eat it too. You can’t have “humane tech” because tech is driven by the profit motive, which itself is often powered by another force: the military. Have you seen this new recruiting ad for the Marine Corps? It’s basically telling young people that joining the military will be an escape from the overwhelming anxieties of the digital age. The scariest thing about the ad is that it conceals the long relationship between tech and the military. Which is to say, the “tech” presented in the ad couldn’t exist without the military-industrial complex. At this point, any new, possibly revolutionary digital technology will either be bought out by a Big Tech monopoly or put to use on the battlefield.
GRASSO: As far as solutions and escapes from this predicament go, you talk a little bit about the ineffectual attempts of former technocrats to try to ameliorate our enslavement to the internet and social media with apps that limit time on websites or “safety labels,” and find them all wholly wanting. Likewise, you mention attempts to make nostalgia something constructive, playful, reflective (in the schema of Svetlana Boym). And yet the very structure of the internet and Big Media as it stands now denies all alternatives to the current control stasis. What does a constructivist nostalgia look like? Where could it exist in the cracks of the current marketplace? Is there a place for nostalgia as a political instrument of the left outside of the usual avenue of Left Melancholy?
TANNER: I’m currently writing a history of nostalgia, out fall 2021 with Repeater Books, called The Hours Have Lost Their Clock: A Recent History of Nostalgia. In it, I put forth a theory of radical nostalgia, drawing on the work of Alastair Bonnett and Svetlana Boym. Radical nostalgia is the third “R” beyond reflective and restorative nostalgia, which Boym coined. She was right about nostalgia, but over the first two decades of the present century, restorative nostalgia ballooned while the reflective strains were edged to the margins. But there needs to be this third form, radical nostalgia, because the melancholic disposition of reflective nostalgia just hasn’t been working for the left and the restorative tint has proven to be destructive.
Radical nostalgia is the act of looking back to those moments when collective action stood up to capital. It yearns for the social movements of the past. It aches for them. It isn’t interested in “getting back there,” in restoring what’s been lost, but in learning from those who came before: the struggle for indigenous rights, the staunch anti-capitalism of Martin Luther King Jr., Stonewall, the Battle of Seattle. When Richard Branson signals his support for LGBTQ+ communities, that isn’t radical nostalgia. There’s nothing radical about it; it’s mere nostalgia. Radical nostalgia looks to these and other movements to continue the fight for a more egalitarian future. It is inherently anti-fascist.
Radical nostalgia takes the action step of restorative and the aching heart of reflective nostalgia and fuses them together. It knows that the past isn’t perfect, which means what we yearn for shouldn’t be either. Restorative nostalgia is too clean, too high-definition. Reflective nostalgia kicks the can around, although reflectors might recognize the problems of the past long before the restorers do. But radical nostalgia knows that everything is imbued with horror, the past especially. Many revolutionary movements of the past suffered from machismo and intolerance, even in their own collectives. Radical nostalgia knows this and endeavors to leave it in the past. Some things must remain buried.
And radical nostalgia is one perspective we can take to resist the utopian thinking of tech. At this point, Big Tech is about the only entity that circulates visions of the future, but those visions are falling out of favor thanks to the techlash. Get ready, because they will absolutely be replaced with a different utopian vision: the humane tech movement. We’re going to be dealing with the technocrats for years. It’s going to seem like we should trust Tristan Harris and the Center for Humane Tech guys. They’re going to be pushing their vision of the future for years to come. But they are the new boss, same as the old. Only collective action, informed by the decolonial and anti-fascist movements of history, can resist what’s coming in the next decade and beyond.