From misty memories of commuter happy hours to rotary dial apps: Why are we addicted to romanticizing the past?

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Because of the certainty, something we rarely ever have in real time. Once an object or event is safely stored away in the past, it loses its ability to give us any nasty surprises. It’s much like how reading a book or watching a movie for the second time through allows you to take your time and savor the details — you know how it all turns out in the end, so there’s no anxiety. Our nostalgic mistake is projecting that certainty backwards, as if the people living at the time weren’t beset by the same insecurities and fear of the future as we have today. We’re forever in a hurry to get away from where we are, but afraid that we’re rushing headlong into something worse. That leaves the past as the obvious place to look for a contentedness that we always feel has to exist outside of ourselves.

And, of course, when you’ve lived long enough to see so many things you took for granted change, fade, and be replaced, it starts to weigh on you in a particularly heavy, existential way that one day, it’s going to happen to you too. Hence a tendency to start digging in our fingers, not wanting things to slip away quite so easily.

In every age “the good old days” were a myth. No one ever thought they were good at the time. For every age has consisted of crises that seemed intolerable to the people who lived through them.

— Brooks Atkinson

If you look back at various writers in ancient Greece — the cradle of Western civilization, ferfucksakes! — you can’t help notice a familiar theme: bitching about these damn kids today, how they don’t make things like they used to, we’re going to hell in a handbasket, and on and on. I love a lot of ancient Chinese poetry, and it’s the same story there. There was always some Golden Age in the past when everything was great, and somehow, we’ve fallen away from it and are now living in a debased time, one step away from barbarism. Second verse, same as the first. Clearly it’s just an fundamental feature of human psychology.

Pace Ms. Williams and an otherwise good essay, though, I have to say that I hate the way so many of these ruminations end up fixating on technology as one of the main culprits that have stolen our time, innocence, social grace, what have you, rather than seeing it as a mere symbol of the restless hyperactivity and anxious activity that give birth to it in the first place.