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Nostalgia and Technology: Finding Beauty in Balance

Woody Allen doesn’t know what Twitter is, can’t do anything with his cell phone except make or receive calls, and he still types out scripts with a typewriter.

“You ever see old people and their television set has tape over a lot of the buttons so they can’t make a mistake? So they can’t access those buttons, they can only turn it on and turn it off? I am exactly that way– as long as there are two buttons to press, I can do it,” he said in an interview with The Daily Star.

Meanwhile, Baratunde Thurston edits articles, writes books, communicates, engages and even participates in political movements from behind a computer screen.

“It’s irresponsible not to use the tools of the day,” he told Fast Company. “People say, Oh, if I master Twitter, I’ve got it figured out. That’s right, but it’s also so wrong. If you master those things and stop, you’re just going to get killed by the next thing.”

Respectively, the 76-year-old screenwriter and 35-year-old director of Digital for The Onion are solid products of their generations. And yet, ask them about their sentimentality and their answers are in the same vein.

According to Allen, nostalgia is a characteristic of weak moments. “…thinking back and thinking, ‘Gee, it was great to be able to play stick ball in the street and go run into the house and take a shower and eat some unhealthy food’ – not having any idea it was unhealthy or caring even if I knew – but I didn’t. It was a simpler life. But then when I stop and think, really? Go back to that life– was it so nice? It wasn’t. I hated school, I did terribly, I had all kinds of problems.”

Meanwhile, super tech-savvy Thurston uses the loss of the Milkman to explain his feelings about nostalgia, stating that we drank milk before the Milkman and we’re still drinking milk after the Milkman. “When you think about these layers between you and whatever you need to satisfy your life, liberty and happiness, the nostalgia for some of those pieces is temporarily understandable. What I get concerned about is how we sort of prevent progress by focusing too much on the loss of littler areas as opposed to how we can all win in a much larger game.”

Balancing Act

Their answers aren’t exactly surprising. By definition, nostalgia and technology are opposing ideas. Technology invites change, nostalgia resists. Technology facilitates change while nostalgia holds fast. We constantly struggle with keeping them together, but we don’t give up.  Why?

The picture I used at the top of this post is a prime example. When I was a kid we used classic No. 2 pencils in school. They were wood and lead, painted yellow, and had a little pink eraser at the top. Most teachers kept a manual sharpener screwed to a wall in the corner of the room, but if you were lucky there was an electronic one floating around somewhere.

On my first day here at Mindjet, I was delighted to find the pencil in the photo above in a desk drawer: It’s brown and yellow! There’s a little pink eraser! It has “#2” printed on it in black! Oh, the memories! But wait— this pencil doesn’t need to be sharpened because it’s plastic. And both the lead and eraser are replaceable. Oh, the efficiency!

In the end, I agree that it’s irresponsible to fight progress, but I don’t believe that leaving the whole shebang in the past is always the best way to move forward. I’ll touch more on this in my upcoming study of four different generations in the workplace, but for now I’ll leave you all (especially Mr. Allen) with this idea: We can better facilitate the acceptance of change and innovation by appealing to the past— and not just aesthetically. After all, Steve Jobs pioneered the world of technology, most recently with a device with just one button.

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