User Error: Neostalgia
Forget Y2K, the 2010s are back – at least until the nostalgia-fueled trend cycle’s next turn. But retromania leads us down into a labyrinth of data horror, writes Adina Glickstein in her February column.
There’s something haunted about the Apple Store in my hometown mall. Something hanging in the air, the way that some retailers are shrouded in a haze of perfume. Eau d’Apple Store – which, actually, is closer to the absence of smell, all the sensory traces abstracted away – puts me on edge. I associate it with my local Apple Store but I’d imagine it’s characteristic of Apple Stores everywhere, because they’re all essentially the same: blonde wood, perfect rows of little screens, liquid crystal, interfaces glowing. All beveled edges; gentle “squircles.”
There’s a sinister emptiness to all of this, I thought, tagging along with my mom to a Genius Bar appointment near Christmastime. Waiting and moping teenagedly; watching my four-year-old iPhone battery drain so much faster than it used to. One day, much sooner than the Geniuses want us to believe, these screens will cease to glow. And indeed quite like a teenager – like one gazing into the eyes of her high school sweetheart instead of into the synthetic light of a phone – I am delusionally obsessed with Forever. The digital world pretends, even threatens, to be Forever. But don’t we all suspect, backed up by comprehension in more or less detail, that devices have no more claim on Forever than we do? The Apple Store’s blandly cozy aura, vague gestures to Bauhaus: such a cope, a strained projection of timelessness, financed by designed obsolescence.
When the walls of the Apple Store start closing in, I excuse myself to embark on the Great American Pastime of a mall walk. Adjacent to the cursed device retailer sat – still sits – Abercrombie and Fitch. The mecca of forbidden middle school desire, calling to me with that signature sandalwood musk. I wouldn’t have wagered on Abercrombie being Forever, but it’s been resurrected, one of many signifiers floating in a wave of collective nostalgia. Forget Y2K; the 2010s are back with a vengeance.
My Explore page is split, bipolar, between people dressing like knockoff Ke$has and people dressing like “old money,” nostalgic for first-gen Gossip Girl.
Miu Miu Fall 2022 trickled down into “balletcore.” My Explore page is split, bipolar, between people dressing like knockoff Ke$has and people dressing like “old money” à la Blair Waldorf, nostalgic for first-gen Gossip Girl, or like Massie Block from The Clique. We’re listening to Pitbull and shooting digitals like Cobrasnake. The New York Times did a piece about teens raiding their parents’ basements for decade-old point-and-shoot cameras. I have my dad’s old Nikon CoolPix and a burning desire to whip it out at parties but it wasn’t built to last and now it barely holds a charge.
Desperate to recreate something of the world I see depicted in the photos shot by cameras of that vintage – the flash reflecting off sweaty complexions, naïve conviction that the good nights never have to end – I wind up searching for the excessively long-sleeved waffle knits and excessively short-hemmed miniskirts of yore. Worse, justifying it to myself by saying it’s “healing my inner teenager.” The Abercrombie store, it turns out, totally fails to deliver on any of these nostalgic stirrings. Halfheartedly on-trend but shamefully late, their outpost in the mall of my tween memories is now stocking wide-leg chinos. Millennial office fodder. Like, for people who eat yogurt at their desk. For lunch. I’m crushed.
For consolation, I turn to the internet, because that is where we are made to believe things are eternal. I call up another mainstay of my mall rat era, an online dress-up game called Stardoll.com. I used to pay Stardoll.com real money – purchasing Subway (sandwich shop, not public transit) gift cards, which the platform inexplicably accepted as currency – to gain “Superstar” status, unlocking a wider range of hairstyles for my avatar and a grander virtual “suite” in which she could live.
Offline, I had Starbucks cake pop detritus lodged into my pink-and-purple braces. But on Stardoll.com, I was skisweetie2029, the admin of a message board called EliteDancers, a digital doll with improbably shiny hair and the nose piercing that I always wanted IRL but my parents wisely forbade. The receipts are long lost, thank god, but I bet I spent a hundred bucks on Subway gift cards, building my tricked-out online paper-doll life.
Unlike Abercrombie’s ungainly attempt to keep up with the times, Stardoll.com has barely been updated. The website is mostly the same, though notably jankier. Skisweetie2029 is right where I left her, but the platform chugs along unforgivingly. Adobe Flash Player hasn’t been supported since 2020, so parts of the game are inaccessible, now. With the patience to endure painful load times, you can still drag-and-drop illustrated clothing onto celebrity paper dolls, including four different eras of Avril Lavigne.
But nothing is Forever – least of all Avril Lavigne. Scrolling through my Stardoll.com suite, I find that I’m locked out of certain rooms for failing to maintain Superstar status. I try to position my avatar in a flattering close-up, to take a screenshot for this column. Attempting to resize her or the clothes she’s wearing produces a freaky Alice in Wonderland effect where the cursor loses control and everything grows or shrinks or spins uncontrollably. The furniture in my suite is pristine as the day I brought it home from the virtual store; it’s the code, the infrastructure, that’s starting to show its age. At some point I get an error message – failure to load the page; too many redirects. It will only be a matter of time, I think, before Stardoll.com ceases to function entirely.
Another moment of agony. Although I guess it’s pretty standard. You grow up, you need money for sandwiches. Your tastes change, algorithmically refined, shaped (whether you’d like to admit it or not) by the whims of the market. Years later, you eventually develop a new-old affinity for the babydoll tops of your tweendom which, not that long ago, you reviled for their association with a ganglier version of yourself. You confront your own porosity, the permeability of desire, as you slowly become amenable to things you would happily have left in the past.
One of the only stable features of the past is and has been pop culture’s addiction to cannibalizing itself.
The music critic Simon Reynolds told us, in the year of my own peak Abercrombie affinity: retromania sells. One of the only stable features of the past is and has been pop culture’s addiction to cannibalizing itself. This is, at least in part, a paradoxical effect of the drive for perpetual novelty. Eventually, there’s nothing to do but mine existing content and produce new, albeit cheapened, renditions. Little attention is paid to maintenance or repair – everything is instant, drop-shipped, on-demand – unless you’re willing to pay a premium for “authentic” vintage, in which case you can fork over a small fortune to buy the shirts you literally had in middle school from Depop.
The trend cycle has no doubt been accelerating thanks to the proliferation of image-sharing platforms and hastening of manufacturing. This model – fast fashion – is often rightly criticized for being wasteful. It endlessly forges its disposable revivals, and in so doing, it forecloses the future. Writing on the “culture of high speed nostalgia cycles” in the most recent Real Review, the architect Jack Self put it well: as our vision of the future dims, truncated by looming climate crisis, so too does the distance between the past and the present. The temporal horizon recedes in both directions. The coziness of “before” can eternally be made anew, at profit. But also, undeniably, at cost.
Another dimension of this, and an underrated one, I think, is the acceleration of data production. The accretion of images that fuels this nostalgia. Daisy Hildyard writes about “the second body,” the cloud of detritus and used-up resources that each of us leave in the wake of our human form. I think about my data second body – and my data second body’s second body, the resources needed to power the network of server farms that make up the so-called Cloud. A few months ago, when she was working on a show about internet infrastructure, the artist Sarah Friend told me that the interior of a cloud data center is like a labyrinth, with certain routes blocked off. It’s set up that way to efficiently direct the air flow, cooling off the massive, stinking computers. It is enormously noisy inside. Hot and noisy. Redolent like oil. The repressed shadow of the scentless, air-conditioned Apple Store.
Now, data centers haunt my dreams. In certain nightmares I am trapped inside one like the hedge maze at the end of The Shining. The Overlook Hotel is based on a real hotel, a few hours’ drive from where I grew up. We took a field trip there when I was in middle school. I bet you can imagine what I wore, because I’m wearing it again today. And there I am in the Overlook Hotel of my nightmares, trying to outrun the inevitability of bit rot, the radiating toxicity of cast-off lithium batteries. Trying to outrun my data second body’s second body. She answers to the name skisweetie2029. She is eating a Subway sandwich. She is who I was feeding with those gift cards, all along. She catches up with me but I can fight and apprehend her. She starts to glitch. She’s down for the count. I steal her outfit, as a trophy. The big, square, velvet-lined A&F label sewn into the back of her oatmeal cable-knit is a tip-off. I grin, because I know I’ll make a killing reselling Forever on Depop.
ADINA GLICKSTEIN is an editor at large for Spike and publishes “User Error” monthly. Last month, she wrote about New Year’s resolutions, goblin mode, and Ray Kurzweil.