Art, criticism, and new uses for old technology.

I'm Sick Of Old Computers

Living in the wake of the new fascism brought on by white Boomers’ “Make America Great Again” longings for some half-remembered better past, one would think that millennials would be more cautious about the evils of misplaced nostalgia. And yet, on Bluesky, I see an online acquaintance complaining about this new wave of 30-something targeted 2000s nostalgia, and alongside it, a flood of defenders. “What about translucent plastic electronics?” says one person who lived through a terrorist attack, two imperial wars, rampant homophobia, and a stock market crash. “There were some good video games” says another, who has clearly not spent much time reflecting on the War On Terror propaganda baked into the Halo1 and Call Of Duty series.

transgender forum home page open, running on an old mac

This is aggravating. And it’s not to say I don’t like things like the translucent iBook G3 or Halo 2 or iPods. Obviously, I do, I spend plenty of time with these things, Wired even wrote about it. But the fact is: the 2000s were a bleak time for us gays, they were worse for everyone in Iraq or Afghanistan after the invasions, and the atmosphere of the decade was summed up in the looming christofascism of records like The Thermals’ “The Body, The Blood, The Machine” or (on the more popular front) the 90s optimism sputtering and dying out in drugs and suicide like in Green Day’s “American Idiot”. TV was torture in 24, it was paranoia in Lost, video games were more of the same. Nostalgia blinds us to these faults in the world, it allows us to pretend things were simpler back then, when reality was considerably more bleak. In its worst cases, it’s a lever for the far-right to pull when they want you angry with Black Lives Matter marches or the exstence of trans people in the public sphere. They can whisper in your ear to say “remember when you used to play Xbox with your friends and you never had to think about pronouns?”

But we truly were kids then, things were simpler only because we were kids. It’s through reflection that we start to realize the media we were consuming was often thinly-veiled propaganda, and it’s very easy to simply avoid ever having to perform that reflection. You can just build up a little wall for yourself consisting of iMacs and Xboxes and Game Boy Advances and never look beyond it.

An imagined do-over

When I wrote the editors’ note for the first issue of the Telnet literary magazine New Session I called it: “an imagined do-over, an attempt to decenter the corporate monoliths of the modern internet in favor of something simpler, something queer, something trans, something better. From the ground up.” The intent of the project was to highlight roads not taken, a way to use nostalgia to reimagine what the world could have been like if it was kinder and better. A way to gently ease people out of that wall of nostalgia they built. Body Out Of Time, a Hypercard stack I made of poetry and black and white low resolution nudes, takes that contrast a step further. It was explicitly trans, both in its content and positioning, designed from the outset to make the cis male dominated retro computing scene feel at least a little bit uncomfortable with a trans woman proudly owning her own body in front of them. If New Session was an attempt to ease past the wall, Body Out Of Time was meant to help tear it down.

A funny (and maybe, in retrospect, predictable) thing happened though: neither of these projects truly hit their mark. New Session was widely appreciated by creative technologists, those already working in art and tech, but these were not people with the blinders of nostalgia on. It inspired some truly incredible projects and I remain very happy about that, but the presentation as retro tech was merely evocative for those bought into the project of a literary magazine; the retro tech people I had hoped to reach were, by and large, not excited about reading short stories and poetry.

Taking a more direct approach with Body Out Of Time paid off for me in terms of reach (it was by far the most popular project I’ve ever put together), and it certainly did land in the hands of a number of people who would have been otherwise uninterested in evocative art made by a trans woman. But it had the problem that many erotic art projects made by women have: in the hands of men, it becomes more about titillation than whatever other artistic meaning it carries. To plenty of these people, it was irrelevant that I was a trans woman, it was more that there was a way they could see a hot girl on their old computers. What could cater more to their desire to remain as teenage boys forever than pornographic images on the computers they used when they were teens? It certainly wasn’t that every viewer used it for this, but certainly this contributed in a large part to its popularity (especially as contrasted with the popularity of similar erotic art I had made that did not use old computers, like Actually Existing2). In the end, this piece conceived with the intention to challenge nostalgia and patriarchy was then rendered partially inert by those exact same forces.

How to blow up an iBook

I don’t believe either of these projects were failures, but they taught me a few critical lessons about employing nostalgia. First, New Session taught me that nostalgia is something that can be used as an evocative aesthetic, but that pulling that lever won’t necessarily get you closer to the people you hope to shake out of their retro-solipsism. If we’re reflecting on the history of computing specifically, I think New Session was the artistic equivalent to Joy Lisi Rankin’s “A People’s History Of Computing In The United States”. It exists to force people to consider paths not taken, but only those who are open to a more reflective look at the past. It doesn’t attack the concept of nostalgia but rather redeploys it towards hopefully more productive means. To me, this feels worth exploring with further projects.

The lesson from Body Out Of Time is a little darker. The work originally came to me as a plot to highlight how policies against adult content in various retrocomputing groups were manifestations of that protective wall of cis, heterosexual, male nostalgia, but in the end, it was rarely viewed as threatening in the way it should have been. The lesson here is that running headlong into confrontation will rarely be a success, that these little protective shells are more adept at defanging and neutralizing work than I had previously imagined. And at worst, they can be used to reinforce a heteropatriarchal view of the world with men as historical technologists and women, cis and trans, as titillating objects for their computer gaze.

It might be odd to hear me, a person who regularly repairs old tech and makes art with it, say she’s getting exhausted by nostalgia. But can you blame me? It’s extremely difficult to see work that’s meant to engage with these themes either be ignored by those adjacent to it or subsumed into supporting it. When I saw the defenders of 2000s nostalgia bearing down on Gwen, my first impulse was to write some piece of software for MacOS 9 that called them homophobic Bush supporters and ridiculed them to their face3. But if I learned anything from my existing work, it would be that their response would surely be “oh cool, another piece of software to install on my rare collection of iBooks.”

Against the past

Instead, I’ll go back to thinking about ways to make my art that are perhaps less vulnerable to this type of co-optation. Video glitch art has been pulling me in lately because it can use old tech as low resolution abstraction, keeping it as an aesthetic tool rather than a totalizing experience. The video poem “Forecasting” I published recently is an example of directions I hope to explore more, synthesizing writing and poetry with video in ways that are less directly tied to an aestheticization of retro objects themselves.

It’s critical, though, that we reject the ongoing “Make Technology Great Again” rhetoric of the retro scene these days. Too many people hoard old trash not because they think they’ll do anything useful or interesting with it, but because they can use it to reinforce this wall that keeps the world out4. As people who want to see a better world and keep optimism in our work, we have to reject that, we have to rigorously self-criticize and self-reflect, because comfort in the past is the bedrock of fascism. And to everyone who rejects the outside world in favor of that comfortable nostalgia: I hope you drown in it.


  1. It’s wild that Halo 1 came out before 9/11, but the rest of the series is so _intensely _defined by its ham-fisted War On Terror metaphors. 

  2. Actually Existing is, in almost every way, a better project than Body Out Of Time and maybe the only piece of art made in response to a breakup I remain truly proud of. 

  3. Obviously any art I made would be more subtle than this. 

  4. I wrote about this a few years ago, though my thinking has evolved since then.