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Are you being played by Netflix? Why tech giants do not want us to be nostalgic

Unthinkable: Powerful organisations may be trying to ‘suppress emotions that threaten capitalism’

Leo Woodall and Ambika Mod in the Netflix series One Day

Nostalgia is big business. The Netflix series One Day has underlined that point, jumping to the top of TV streaming charts in the past month. The story about an on-off relationship unfolding to a Britpop-infused soundtrack gives viewers of a certain age a dose of poignant escapism.

Full disclosure: I got totally swept up in it, and I am still thinking about those last episodes a fortnight later. But, if my brain is divided into emotional and rational parts, the latter is now asking: Was I just played by Netflix?

Drama is all about toying with our emotions but there’s something particularly calculating in the business model of big screen producers. From the 1980s retro-themed hit series Stranger Things to popular reboots of Barbie and Wonka, a cash-for-nostalgia dynamic is well established.

Should this trouble us? American author and critic Grafton Tanner believes so, arguing that nostalgia is being weaponised by powerful interest groups in an bid “to suppress the emotions that threaten the systems of oppression under capitalism”.


Suppress the wha’? I hear you say.

Tanner develops the idea in his book Foreverism. Nostalgia can be understood as “an emotion experienced when something normally absent in our lives becomes momentarily present”, he says. Foreverism is the exploitation of this emotion – or more precisely an attempt to eliminate nostalgia in its purest form – for economic or political ends. Examples range from social media platforms monetising throwback clips to opportunistic politicians banging on about the “good old days”.

Foreverism at first glance sounds like a conspiracy theory but it tries to capture something very real about technology and how it screws up our relationship with time. Thanks to digital media – and those who profit from it, says Tanner – we are “living in a time when nothing ever ends”.

It certainly seems like that with TV productions. Just 12 episodes were made of Fawlty Towers in the 1970s before it took its place in the BBC archives. Some 34 episodes of Stranger Things have already been broadcast with Season 5 to come. Netflix has a habit of milking every good series to the point that you want it to die.

“I absolutely agree with this, and that’s a good example of foreverism,” says Tanner in conversation with The Irish Times.

“Digital technology encourages foreverism because one can digitise the past and edit it to appear not just new again but alive and growing. The past can be deepfaked so that Nirvana can keep releasing new songs even though Kurt Cobain died in 1994, or so that James Earl Jones can continue voicing Darth Vader in future Star Wars movies long after he dies.

“The digital allows for the possibility of the past to remain forever present. But some things need to end for us to grow nostalgic for them. Without an ending, or when something old is rebooted, the space to feel nostalgia diminishes.”

Foreverism infiltrates our personal lives as well as our culture, he argues. It helps to explain why we get so anxious about making mistakes – we worry that an online trace of past error will spoil our curated existence.

How is foreverism linked to reactionary political movements?

“It’s never enough for a reactionary politician to spread nostalgia, they must also promise to alleviate nostalgia by returning to the past,” says Tanner.

“‘Trust in me’, they’ll say, ‘and I’ll get the country back to its rightful place’, which currently only exists in the past. Beneath that promise to return is the acknowledgment that once the country is ‘great again’, there will be no more nostalgia. All will be right again, no bittersweet feelings of yearning, just one elongated present stretching interminably into the future. That’s political foreverism.”

It is not a coincidence, according to Tanner, that one of the most influential figures in the tech world – Elon Musk – is also a prominent critic of immigration policy in the United States.

“Foreverisers like Elon Musk benefit greatly from a tightly controlled social environment that ensures their wealth increases forever. ... They’re also very sceptical of emotions and see them as obstacles to logic and reason ... [or] threatening to civil order.”

That includes both nostalgia and anger. They reserve the right to express these emotions themselves “but then get mad when other folks are angry about causes they disagree with”, says Tanner, who teaches at University of Georgia.

“Ultimately what they want is an emotionally neutral environment that protects their interests forever while allowing them the freedom to express emotions themselves, and they see immigration as a spoiler of that selfish dream.”

Tanner stresses that nostalgia can be a force for good (in short, don’t beat yourself up if you enjoyed One Day). It can make us question what constitutes progress which is why “in older centuries, societies that worshipped progress hated nostalgia”.

“Corporations eventually discovered that they could kill two birds with one stone: make loads of money giving people access to the past while eliminating their nostalgia.

“Tech corporations took this a step further and started promising that one could live forever in a digital realm. ... But digital technology cannot solve death and never will. It also can’t suppress emotions like nostalgia forever.”