Golden Age Thinking and the Irony of Social Media - Psych Week


By Jordan Reisman

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

First, it was the all too frequent trips to antique stores and flea markets with my Dad when I was a younger man. I saw nothing of worth in these old discarded goods, but he saw an endless amount of chances for him to reminisce, in turn adding clutter to our already cluttered house. When I was older, it was the “I Love the …’s” shows  on VH1 with marginally famous “celebrities” talking about Punky Brewster and the Pet Rock — things I had no connection to and therefore could not feel nostalgic about.

These efforts at re-contextualizing the past came of little consequence for me, and were mostly harmless bouts of nostalgia. Years passed though and the nostalgic movement only became stronger. Now, it seems that every second there is a Tumblr post glorifying “Back before iPhones when we would actually talk to each other” or an OkCupid user writing “Let’s have a good old-fashioned face-to-face meet up.”

I shouldn’t even have to note the  contradiction inherent in the medium through which these statements are broadcasted, but I will. Now you see countless posts about the social dangers of social media being displayed … through social media.

It’s no doubt that social media is responsible for an entire cultural paradigm shift, for better or for worse. It’s changed how we communicate, how we form communities, and how we work. It’s also made us a nation of whiners, as our personal Facebook pages have become outlets to vent every gripe we have with this world we live in. I’m not saying that people a few decades ago were any tougher than we are now, it’s just that now there’s more ways to vocalize our complaints.

The underlying theme of these sentiments is that the past was better. Things were simpler then, situations less complicated. We knew our place in the world and we had more than just screens keeping us together.

A recent Huffington Post article discussed  the concept of “Golden Age Thinking,” a term coined by the film Midnight In Paris in regards to the longing felt by the main character, screenwriter Gil Pender (played by Owen Wilson), to live in  Paris during the 1920s. In it, the writer Steve Honig writes about his dissatisfaction with Generation Y, what with the heavy emphasis placed in our devices and lack of reverence for the past:

“Golden Age thinking is not flawed; it is hopeful. It is striving for something better. It’s ironic with everything we have in today’s world, we are less happy as a society than we were in the past.”

Honig takes a positive spin on a potential harmful idea(living in the past), but he doesn’t save himself entirely from just sounding like an old washed up baby boomer who thinks there’s something wrong with “kids today.” Which is exactly what his parents were probably saying as he was going to his sock hops and drive-ins.

Gil Pender lived vicariously through Hemingway’s writing but eventually realized that he had to trudge through the present the best he could. Honig doesn’t seem like he’ll ever have this epiphany, but if he will, he has to first understand Gen Y.

Though, an older blogger writing about the “good old days” isn’t quite as weird as it is to find a younger blogger writing about it. An older blogger will have lived through decades and decades of cultural change and can attest to the ways things used to be. However, a member of Generation Y has pretty much been living in the same era his or her whole life, technologically and culturally speaking, by 2013.

This brings us to the inherent paradox of the ‘Golden Age Thinking’ post on social media. While social media has enabled us to do many great things, we also have the choice to use however much of it we want. Therefore, the old “we’re not social anymore” argument doesn’t hold much weight when you read it from a website that is playing a leading role in elevating internet outlets over newspapers, or from someone who runs a website whose relevance relies on its articles being reblogged on Facebook.

Another case in point: the blog Thought Catalog ran an article a few months ago called, “7 Ways Technology is Ruining Our Lives”, written by a writer who has also written widely on the pros and cons of being a twentysomething. He complains and complains about the social dangers of technology such as “everyone becoming awkward,” Facebook stalking, and everyone developing ADD, but in reality, his own actions are contributing to these inexistent problems. He’s giving the people one more thing to read on a glowing rectangular screen while they’re ignoring their friends.

He writes about a time “before the existence of the Internet and smart phones, people were much more willing to leave their comfort zone.” Well, where were you, dude? Definitely not trying out this brand new invention called the the Internet in 1997, just like everybody else, I’m sure!

Social media is a prevalent force but what is forgotten is how much free will is always going to be part of the equation. These preachers seem to only want to use social media and blogging for the activities that they like (keeping in touch with friends, finding events, finding others who have similar interests, and ranting about how the internet is keeping them from doing this in real life) but abandon it for the habits they claim to hate (hours spent at a computer, translating human tone and emotion into text). It does not work this way, as everything we will ever do or accomplish becomes a trade-off eventually.

Expectations are a dangerous thing. They fill our heads with such wildly idealistic scenarios and make failure so much harder to take. All of the aforementioned aspects of Golden Age Thinking are enveloped in expectations of the present that go largely unfulfilled. How could you want the past if you were satisfied with the present?

It’s as if everyone who buys into the Golden Age thinks that the now should be different, that the world should be even more connected but not in ways where that is actually possible; and because we are connecting more than ever, that people should be happier, even if we’re not – as if increased human interaction automatically increased harmony throughout history (see: Globalization). Here’s a radical notion though: perhaps it’s not technology that is ultimately making us unhappy, it’s the implicit expectation that they should be that lead us to that end.

From this generational chaos and confusion of the zeitgeist problem, there arises the bold yet somehow unsavory notion that maybe we’re doing things right – or as right as we can be. What if we get rid of the constant shame of the ever-present now that weighs us down, could we feel a little bit better about our lives?

We’re also in control of how much we consume, how much we text, and how much we blog. Everyone has a different threshold, and so it’s possible to take the things we liked about a past generation and incorporate it into our hyper-stimulated lives.

All humanity wants convenience and simplicity out of life, so unsurprisingly we turn to technology. It is, however, ridiculous to believe that these have much to do with whether or not we are truly happy – as if simplicity and convenience ever implied fulfillment to begin with. If we just let progress be progress without the assumption that we should become happier for it, we might actually afford ourselves the liberty to feel just that.