Grafton Tanner, The Circle of the Snake: Nostalgia and Utopia in the Age of Big Tech (Zero Books, 2020), 176pp.
Julian Willming reviews a text that explores our yearning for a utopian version of the past that never existed.
When was the last time you heard somebody moaning: “Back in the good old days, everything was just better…” without making a concrete case for what exactly was so much better? In The Circle of the Snake, Grafton Tanner addresses this very specific emotion of nostalgia and puts it into context with Big Tech and the colonization of utopia. Tanner´s starting point is the dualism that humans can be placed into two categories: the besotted digital utopian and the misremembering nostalgic sufferer.
To set the stage, Tanner starts with a detailed description of the vast power of digital technologies. Drawing on Freud, Benjamin and Goffman´s Face Theory, Tanner argues social media made every human an analyst who is able to herald their opinion whenever desired. This can bring emancipatory revelations (e.g., the Trump locker-room scandal) but comes at a cost of non-stop surveillance and instability. Investigating the mental health impacts of digital technology, Tanner does not only unveil a link between digital technology and depression, but also traces down the manipulation by Big Tech to solve the psychological problems it has created in the first place: Persuasive Tech, which is defined as a technology able to alter human behavior, functions as a lever for oppression and patriarchal domination, according to Tanner. He then interprets digital behavior to be a refuge from reality, calling it a “sublime” tool that shapes every aspect of life. The book further illustrates how each section of human life is invaded by Big Tech, hinting toward a permeating Big Tech Realism, much alike Fisher´s Capitalist Realism.
It is not until the end of Chapter 2 that Tanner creates a connection to nostalgia, which, to him, is the inevitable and emotional consequence of a dystopian now colonized by Silicon Valley. One could say there is no escape but the false remembering of the past. What Tanner calls Pre-Recession Nostalgia is a cultural yearning for a past that never existed, reflected in the romantic music by Arcade Fire and dozens of Star Wars re-makes.
He further distinguishes between instant nostalgia and personal nostalgia. Whereas personal nostalgia is a form of remembering that can induce positive emotions, instant nostalgia is a clickbait for time tourism, manipulated by tech corporations. Instagram deploys polaroid filters and Netflix streams ’80s-inspired films and series like Stranger Things. Algorithms have understood such yearning for the past and thus keep feeding us with instant nostalgia. The consequence, according to Tanner, is the homogenization of taste, or even the illusion of taste like a hall of mirrors. This sets a nostalgic reminder to the pioneering retro-futurist band Kraftwerk and their single Hall of Mirrors: “The young man stepped into the hall of mirrors, where he discovered a reflection of himself. Sometimes he saw his real face and sometimes a stranger at his place.“ Consumers become more alike, and thus facilitate the analytical work by algorithms.
At this point of the book, it can be observed that most nostalgic cultural output is pulling the consumer back into the 1980s which deserves further attention. Tanner argues the ’80s were a time when citizens looked forward to a promising technological future, perhaps at the point of inflection in neoliberalism and progress. This could be connected to other reasons for the nostalgic longing. The 1980s were also a time when citizens could still keep up with the changes in the world and the use of novel technologies, rather than being bombarded by them. Telephones and televisions, for example, could still serve people in their daily lives, but dozens of dating apps, fitness trackers and QR codes have become overwhelming. The acceleration and speed of change in the twenty-first century is too fast for some to digest and leads to a loss of control over everyday life. It is thus understandable that Tanner fears that nostalgia can turn into a reactionary weapon.
Furthermore, in the 1980s, one could still refrain from technology. Today, we are so entangled in technology and its addictive features that withdrawal is both physically and psychologically impossible, which Tanner particularizes in Chapter 2. The Covid-19 pandemic accentuates this development, with some institutions only accepting digital proof of vaccination, or some countries abolishing physical money. This realization of being trapped within the technological functions as the source of nostalgia for a time like the ’80s when one could choose to refrain from the use of data-leeching technologies.
That said, the question of who is nostalgic and why could have been elaborated more in the book. Tanner is very user-centered and argues that algorithms raise nostalgic longing in those consumers who blindly follow them. Yet, how could this phenomenon be expanded to the content creators, who live in a time of zero-hour contracts, the constant pressure to present oneself and limitless technological options? Tanner states that nostalgia sells and that this is the reason for content creators to produce it. However, what if there is more to it than the simple logic of capitalism? Perhaps, the Duffer Brothers created Stranger Things not for the masses to chew nostalgia, but for themselves and the times they missed. This would then connect to a personal nostalgia (Batcho), which the Duffer Brothers themselves hint towards in a 2017 Guardian interview: “You find a movie you love and you figure out who directed it, then you go to the video store and go through all the John Carpenter stuff and all the Sam Raimi stuff.“ The new Matrix Resurrections, a film that is frankly more Marvel than Matrix, presents a similar scene, where a collective of software developers rave about the older versions of a fictional Matrix game. In these examples, I see a subconscious desire to participate in the past, a form of worlding (Palmer/Hunter) with the dead. Through the accessibility of archives and the internet, the past is not just an anchor or a collective memory anymore. It is an entity that we can engage with; that can inspire us. Reducing nostalgia to the logic of the market is thus creating a bleak, somewhat simplified dialectics of how the past exists in the present.
Tanner could have further elaborated the differences between real, somewhat justified nostalgia and artificially disgorged nostalgia, and how they feed each other. It could be argued that certain things in the past were simply better than in the present: social inequality has risen massively, and formerly intact ecosystems are dying across the globe (Fanning et al). These are legitimate reasons to long for a past, but have not been commodified by capitalism as of yet. Instead, corporate climate solutions, popularized most by Elon Musk, have a strong focus on the future, are driven by the values of progress and growth, and reproach any low-tech approach as primitivist. Tanner provides a strong case for the commodification of nostalgia and utopia, but a more nuanced elaboration with non-commodified nostalgia, embodied by anarcho-primitivists, concrete utopias (Wright) or convivial technologists, could have given the book a less abrupt ending, going beyond the “urgent and necessary reckoning with Big Tech” which Tanner states (128).
In conclusion, The Circle of the Snake provides a fundamental argument about the much-ignored human emotion of nostalgia and showcases how tech corporations aim to take advantage of the human psyche. Hopefully, this book initiates a discourse about nostalgia and utopia for other existential problems like climate change, pandemics and racism.
Julian Willming graduated in Psychology and Environmental Policy, Sciences and Management from the Erasmus Mundus program at Central European University, University of the Aegean and Lund University. He is technical editor at the EU-funded research project Clamor, which examines the intersection between art, activism and environmental justice. His academic interests include post-growth, mental capitalism and the economics of art and culture.
Batcho, K. I. (2007). Nostalgia and the emotional tone and content of song lyrics. The American Journal of Psychology, 361-381.
Fanning, A. L., et al. (2021). The social shortfall and ecological overshoot of nations. Nature Sustainability, 1-11.
Nicholson, R. and F. Hulley-Jones. (2017). The Duffer Brothers: ‘Could we do what Spielberg did in the 80s and elevate it like he did?’. The Guardian. 14 October. https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/ng-interactive/2017/oct/14/duffer-brothers-spielberg-80s-stranger-things
Palmer, H. and V. Hunter. (2018). Worlding. New Materialism. https://newmaterialism.eu/almanac/w/worlding.html
Wright, E. O. (2010). Envisioning Real Utopias. London: Verso.