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Engineering

The Nostalgic Absent

In the platform world, nothing is frozen in time

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Two weeks ago #GothamFilter, the Muse of Nostalgia, saw fit to visit me twice in one day. First she came bearing an old post on the wings on Facebook’s On This Day feature. For myself, I turned that feature off the first time it surfaced the awful poetry I wrote back when statuses were phrased in the present tense: Kevin is thinking lots of slant rhyme and something about eyes being windows to the soul etc. etc.

But my Dad, who is On Facebook, still has the feature, and he shared/reblogged/whatevered this memory:

Dad is proud of me, at long last.

My father is a kind man, and he is reminding me of a genuinely good memory. In 2011 I won a competition for local mobile app developers. It was neat. I got a plexiglass plaque and a second-generation 16GB iPad that I gave to my Mom and have (barely) kept alive to the present day. The competition was held in a fancy ballroom, I had to go to a department store the day before to buy Chinos, and when I won tables of strangers in immaculate suits stood and applauded. I “liked” this post from my Dad.

The second visit happened later that night, after I salvaged an old laptop from the attic and coaxed it alive. I needed a computer with a CD drive. For weeks a box of old things from my parents’ basement lurked in a corner of my apartment; I had finally opened it. There atop drifts of “Magic the Gathering” cards and old school papers rested a CD-ROM labeled in orange Sharpie: Kevin’s Documents 2003.

If I were to commit some terrible crime the contents of this CD would be what daytime TV slow-panned over. There were folders full of strangers’ headshots. For some reason teen me had saved to My Documents many .jpgs, .bmps, and still .gifs of maps, mostly of rural America, of places I’d never been. The maps were annotated with MS Paint. There were two folders of Diablo II screenshots, and a .zip file of The-Cain-Rap.mp3. I had for some reason transcoded The Hardest Button to Button by the White Stripes to .wav format before saving it. I’d forgotten what a CD sounded like as it spun out reified bytes.

Most of the disc held homework, nested by year and subject. I clicked through. The normal classes. Then, oddly, a folder named Texas:

Print This Please.eml is a chart of Bush’s approval rating by year in office. I was 15.

I have never taken a class about Texas. Inside the folder were two .docs. I will not share with you their exact contents because if I did teenage me would actually step into the future and commit that terrible crime. But, briefly:

Selftimeline.doc was a several-page enumeration of depressing world-historical events—the start and end of the Cold War, the US invasion of Iraq, the melting of polar ice sheets—interspersed with my quotidian life of being born, going to school, and being a Boy Scout.

Guilt.doc was an AIM conversation thanking xXm00nch1ldXx (fake—though representative—screen name to protect the innocent) for inviting me to a party and then further explaining, at long unreplied-to length, that I never get invited to parties, so thank you, it was a real treat for me, seeing as I never get invited. To parties.

All of this is to say that I was overcome by a wave of nostalgia and could think of nothing else for several days. When the embarrassment subsided I began to wonder: would this nostalgia have been as powerful in the form of Facebook’s “On This Day”? Part of the real difference between my dad’s post and the CD was the form it took: the spinning disk, the unrolling folders, the ancient file formats. I have no doubt that if I were to see a Facebook circa 2003 post, I’d feel a real nostalgic tug, but I never will: Facebook is a platform that’s alive and constantly adapting, and content can be reshaped and designed-around by the platform at will. There are no files we can write to disk. In the platform world nothing is frozen in time.

But muses are muses because they stick around. Nostalgia didn’t look like Kevin’s Documents 2003 thirteen years ago, and it won’t in our adaptive future—but it will look like something. I look forward to seeing what. As long as it’s not poetry written directly into Facebook.

Story published on Apr 22, 2016.