Sometimes the Internet surprises us with the past or, to be more precise, its own past. The other day my social media feed started to show the same clip over and over. It was one I had seen years before and forgotten about, back from the bottom of that overwhelming ocean of content available to us at any given moment. Why was it reappearing now, I wondered?
That’s a hard question to answer under any circumstances. My teenage daughter regularly shows me Internet discoveries that date from the mid-2000s. To her, they are fresh; to me, a reminder of just how difficult it is to predict what the storms of the information age will turn up. In the case of the clip I started seeing again the other day, however, the reemergence seemed less than random.
It’s a two-minute feature from a San Francisco television station about the electronic future of journalism, but from way back in 1981, long before the Internet as we know it came into focus. While there is a wide range of film and television from that era readily accessible to us, much of which can be consumed without being struck dumb by its datedness — Scarface or the first Star Wars trilogy, to name two obvious examples — its surviving news broadcasts seem uncanny. Factor in the subject matter of this one, predicting a future that already feels past to us, and the effect is greatly enhanced.
The more I kept seeing this clip in my feed, though, the more clear it became that its uncanniness didn’t just derive from the original feature’s depiction of primitive modems and computer monitors — and a Lady Di hairsyle — but also the fact that it had returned from the depths of the Internet to remind us, once more, that we did see this world coming.
The information age is doing strange things to our sense of history. If you drive in the United States, particularly in warm-weather places like California or Florida, you won’t have to look too hard to see cars from the 1980s still on the road. But a computer from that era seems truly ancient, as out of sync with our own times as a horse and buggy.
Stranger still is the feeling of datedness that pervades the Internet’s own history. For someone my daughter’s age, imagining life before YouTube is as unsettling a prospect as imagining life before indoor plumbing. And yet, even though she was only seven when the site debuted, she was already familiar with the Internet before then.
But it isn’t just young people who feel cut off from the Internet that existed prior to contemporary social media. Even though I can go on the Wayback Machine to check out sites I was visiting in the 1990s; even though I contributed to one of the first Internet publications, Bad Subjects: Political Education For Everyday Life, and can still access its content with ease; even though I know firsthand what it was like before broadband, when I would wait minutes for a single news story to load, my memories still seem to fail me. I remember, but dimly. I can recall experiences from pre-school in vivid detail, yet struggle to flesh out my Internet past from a decade ago, before I started using Gmail.
What the clip that resurfaced the other day makes clear is that history is more subjective than ever. Some parts seem to be moving at more or less the same pace that they did decades or even centuries ago. But others, particularly those that focus on computer technology, appear ten or even a hundred times as fast. If you don’t believe me, try picking up the mobile phone you used in 2008.
When he was working on the Passagenwerk, his sprawling project centered on nineteenth-century Parisian shopping arcades, Walter Benjamin made special note of how outdated those proto-malls seemed, less than a century after they had first appeared. These days, the depths of the Internet are full of such places, dormant pages that unnerve us with their “ancient” character, even though they are less than a decade old.
As Mark Fisher brilliant explains in his book Capitalist Realism, we live at a time when it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. But there are plenty of people who have just as much difficulty imagining the end of Facebook, even though some of them were on MySpace and Friendster before it. That’s what makes evidence like the clip I’ve been discussing here so important. We need to be reminded that we are capable of living different lives, that we have, in fact, already lived them, so that we can turn our attention to living the lives we actually want to lead.