Daily Features

Putting the NO in Nostalgia

Sentimental design in the digital age

By Angela Riechers, Superscript August 15, 2013

Objects bear witness, carrying narrative truth within even the smallest scraps. Think of the historical souvenir—of which author William L. Bird, Jr. showcases over 50 examples that people gathered on their own in the book Souvenir Nation: Relics, Keepsakes, and Curios from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History (Princeton Architectural Press, 2013). The book is a companion to an exhibition by the same name that opened August 9 and will run through August 2014 at the Smithsonian Castle. The collection includes buttons, twigs, Confederate punch bowls and other quirky curios not sold in any gift shop. As Bird notes, “If the past could be touched, it could be chipped away, excavated, carted off and whittled into pocket-sized bits—giving form to persons, places, and events that lingered forever in the act of possession.” 

Fragment of Plymouth Rock, 1830.  Photo courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press.

These carefully saved items appear trivial at first glance, unworthy of interest, until a viewer learns of a reason to care about this ancient napkin (it was Napoleon’s!), this shard of rock (chiseled from Plymouth Rock!), this lock of hair (cut from the head of Sir Walter Scott!). Once the cultural significance is established, we instinctively feel: Of course these things are important; of course they deserve to be saved and put on display! But why?

Owning such an item connects you to history. This isn’t just any old wooden splinter, it’s a piece of the building where Andrew Jackson studied law in 1784—it was there while he read by candlelight. And you weren’t. This July, the rooming house in Dallas where Lee Harvey Oswald lived during the summer of 1963 was put up for sale including all the furnishings, save for one pillowcase, duly noted, that the FBI didn't return with the rest of the evidence. If someone still has that pillowcase, he or she is well aware of its significance as a souvenir.

FBI inventory of Oswald’s room. Photo courtesy of CBS Sunday Morning.

Perhaps we care about preserving such humble items because we connect with ourselves through traces of tradition, the sharing of the human condition. These objects acquire the patina of our living selves, as in the wooden handle of an axe worn smooth by all the hands that have gripped it over the decades. The nicked blade of the axe and the threadbare hem on a pillowcase reveal the stealthy passage of time, but only through our involvement.

Which may explain why nostalgia enjoys a new place of honor in our media-saturated, high-speed lives; we lean ever more heavily on familiar references because we don’t see our human selves reflected in our intangible digital objects and accounts. The skeuomorphic design of Apple’s iOs versions 6 and earlier puts us at an uneasy crossroads of the real and the digital. In a kind of frantic attempt to split the difference between two competing worlds, the app icons refer to outmoded versions of the objects they represent: the vintage tube television, the spiral-bound address book, the paper envelope. We cling to physical souvenirs and literal representations of familiar objects, in refusal of what looks like a shiny yet hollow future.

A side-by-side comparison of iOS6 and iOS7 interfaces shows the newer version’s updated, cleaner look moving away from skeuomorphism. Photo courtesy of Apple Computers.

To address the imperfection and visible history absent from digital objects, computer scientist Erica Sadun and artist Camille Utterback developed an experimental iPad app called Sabi. It shows traces of each activity performed on the screen, building up ghost images, wear patterns, and permanent trails where interface objects have been dragged and moved, much in the same way a school’s wooden desktops build up layers of student graffiti, scratches, and carvings. In a similar vein, Richard Banks, a Microsoft researcher in the United Kingdom, designed a series of Technology Heirlooms combining durable physical objects with digital technology. These include a Digital Slide Viewer designed to replace the photo album by backing up and keeping Flickr accounts at home instead of online, and the Backup Box, a wooden box containing a hard drive connected to the Internet that constantly backs up a person’s tweets and contains them in a single private location.

Richard Banks’s Backup Box, top, allows a Twitter user to archive a permanent copy of all their tweets at home. The Digital Slide Viewer combines digital images from a Flickr account with a personal viewing device meant to be shared by a group. Photo courtesy of Richard Banks.

The design of iOS 7 holds hope that we are beginning to reject nostalgia and assign the digital world a more appropriate visual language. The icons have moved into flatland, dispensing with the shadows that would suggest the definition of physical contours. They are of a piece as graphic symbols, rather than a hodgepodge of literal representations of things most users will never see in real life—like the charming Frank Sinatra-era stand mike. Instead, the design creates a sense of depth and dimension through transparent layers to establish information hierarchies, a strategy possible only in digital environments. iOS7 acknowledges that although items seen and experienced on screens lack any haptic qualities, they can carry the same cultural significance that objects do, and are better expressed using a specific visual language that does away with faithful emulations of the 3-D world. If we acknowledge that these ephemeral things have their own value, though, it raises the question of how to keep them around for posterity.

The Book

Souvenir Nation William L. Bird

In 2010, the Library of Congress announced its intention to preserve the nation’s 50 million daily tweets in a permanent archive of the entire Twitter feed since its inception in 2006, and is still working out the details of how to store, index, and manage the daily torrent. However, it’s hard to imagine that this collection will ever carry the same gravitas for a future observer as the white towel used as a flag of truce at Appomattox in 1865, now safely preserved in the Smithsonian’s permanent collection. It is impossible to look at that innocent bit of fabric without experiencing the emotional punch of the Civil War: the twisted bodies of men and boys strewn across the fields, the assassinated President in his theater box, the agonized lives of the slaves. The towel was there at the bitter end of all of this, and you weren’t. Hard to say this about a tweet.

Flag used by Confederate troops to signal surrender at Appomattox, 1865. Photo courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press.


comments powered by Disqus