Our fascination with retro technologies seems to know no bounds – we’ve fallen head over heels for the animated GIF, we use retro filters on our digital cameras that recreate the photographic effects from an earlier era of film, and we yearn for Web site design features that echo the days of 8-bit videogames and the early days of the Internet. Now that icons of the Internet era such as iTunes and LinkedIn are beginning to celebrate their 10th anniversary, we’re peering back into the past, curious about how the Internet looked 20 years ago.
What’s going on here? Wasn’t innovation supposed to be all about the next big thing? Weren’t new exponential technologies supposed to give us futuristic spaceships, flying cars and the Singularity?
Our collective nostalgia about a simpler analog era—when things seemed easier, more manageable, and more authentic—goes beyond the Internet. Writing for Fast Company, Tim Leberecht suggests that “retro-innovation” is the new big trend in, well, current innovation. Leberecht noted at least ten different examples of how companies are attempting to tap into our nostalgia for a bygone era—everything from Evernote partnering with notebook-maker Moleskine, to experiences that celebrate trains, old-time cinemas and print magazines. Even the DIY Maker movement or society’s embrace of micro-entrepreneurs, Leberecht notes, can be viewed as signs of our collective yearning to return to our handmade, artisanal roots.
What this argument ignores, however, is that the history of innovation has always been one that nostalgically embraces the past—primarily because technology always evolves at a faster pace than human behavior can change. Nostalgia is simply the gap between the past and the future. Apple originally adopted what some in the tech world have referred to as skeuomorphism—or the design aesthetic in which the digital is made to look analog. (The definition has been the subject of some debate, however). At the time, the adoption was largely a reaction to the idea that even in an era of sleek, powerful tablets and e-books, people wanted the tactile sensation of seeing a page flip or seeing their e-books neatly aligned on a wooden bookshelf. As a result, Apple introduced design elements like calendars with faux leather stitching and bookshelves with wood veneer. Recently, that design approach has come under criticism.
When it comes to “breakthrough” innovation or “disruptive” innovation, there has never really been a complete discontinuity or break with the past. Even Sir Isaac Newton credited his ability to see “further” to his “standing on the shoulders of giants.” And so it goes with much of science, technology and engineering. We do not so much invent new things as build on the past accomplishments of previous generations. In his “Embrace the Remix” TED talk, Kirby Ferguson perfectly captured this sentiment, pointing out that even innovators we laud as pioneers have copied, transformed, and combined ideas from the past in exciting new ways.
With the rise in computing power, there has been an acceleration of the rate in which we build on new information technologies, leaving us clutching awkwardly for things we recognize from the past. The pace of change at times seems so overwhelming that it’s no wonder that sometimes we want to be transported back to an earlier era.
However, what’s happening now is no different than what happened at any earlier stage of the information age, suggests James Gleick in his book “The Information“, when every new innovation of the information age built on the success of past innovations. “What’s past is prologue,” Shakespeare wrote. There could be no better rallying cry for the innovators of tomorrow.