The role of nostalgia in an ever-changing world

I spent last summer doing a chemistry internship at Northeastern University and, aside from the invaluable experience itself, it was worthwhile because it resulted in my hearing blink-182’s “What’s My Age Again” for the first time. The instant that I heard the song’s nostalgic lyrics for the irresponsible antics of man-children and its classic, catchy chords emanating from my apartment-mate’s room, it got stuck in my head.

Since then, it has joined Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So” and the Beatles’ “It’s All Too Much” among the songs that I play when I get back to the dorm at the end of a long day. I relax in the sense of nostalgia that these songs create, a kind of calming reminder of simpler times.

I’m not alone in indulging in nostalgia. It seems to be having a cultural moment right now. In the realm of entertainment, “Stranger Things,” “Star Wars” and Pokémon GO had phenomenal success by trafficking in nostalgia.

In the realm of politics, Donald Trump has built his campaign on an appeal to the nostalgia of a segment of America that feels left behind by changing cultural norms, societal demographics and new technologies.

Clearly, these two examples of cultural nostalgia are not equal. The former takes nostalgia as a jumping-off point for rejuvenating old ideas as new works of art for the benefit of billions of people. By contrast, the nostalgia of Trump’s supporters is pernicious in that is calcifying. It reflects a kind of mental stasis, which is by no means unique to Trump supporters, that I find concerning.

I’ve felt it myself as a form of denial as I’ve pondered my own obsolescence. At my internship this summer, I did computational chemistry research. Working with computers, I became acutely aware of how much automation can supplant human effort, including my own. It’s terrifying to realize that, as computer processors improve and machine learning becomes more sophisticated, in 50 years much of the creative thought that I am taught now as a chemistry major might be done by machines instead.

My career is relatively safe. Even at current pace, it will still be decades before computers can do independent research. But for millions of Americans — many of them the disgruntled, blue-collar Trump supporters who have lost manufacturing jobs to automation — the nightmare has already arrived, as machines do their jobs better than humans can. For millions more, the nightmare will arrive in a few years as cars become self-driving and the service industry becomes automated.

In the longer term, even higher education will not protect workers from replacement with automation. The innovations in machine-learning and neural networks, which enable automation of menial tasks like driving, will automate complex tasks. Already, computers are replacing accountants and business analysts. Even the vaunted computer scientists will not be safe as computers begin to learn to write their own code.

Automation will tremendously benefit quality of life by reducing toilsome labor. But if we want to control technology’s advancement and not be dragged along by it, mental stasis must be avoided. It is necessary to actively anticipate the obsolescence of our education and reevaluate our expectations of our value to the world.

Something similar can be said of societal change. The racial tensions bubbling in America now, as many white people confront the prospect of being a minority in coming decades and see current minorities pushing for inequality and injustices to be addressed, are emblematic of the same calcified, static worldviews that set in when we don’t constantly reevaluate our beliefs.

It’s hard to accept new ideas. I took months to accept microaggressions as legitimate and not joke-worthy, and years to accept that it made sense to not believe in God.

But difficulty is no excuse; in the face of continuous social and technological change, mental stasis of any kind is unaffordable. At first this scared me. At first it was no fun to constantly question and reevaluate politics, religion, social norms and my employment prospects. It was no fun to be doubtful and uncertain.

But gradually I’ve come to find doubt and uncertainty thrilling! It’s much more satisfying to muster the intellectual bravery to dive into the ocean of progress head-on than to huddle on a static island of pre-existing beliefs while the waves eat away the shoreline.

Of course, sometimes I just want to relax, so I’ll come back to my room and blast blink-182’s “What’s My Age Again.” The key difference is that when I bask in the song’s nostalgia, I don’t pine for the past it evokes. Instead, I use the nostalgia as a measure of how the world has changed and how we must necessarily change along with it.

Naturally, though, you’ll have to come back and ask me what I think when I’m 23.