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Crypto Histories
July 8, 2023

Notes On Retrofuturism

With Web3 consumed by technostalgia, the artist Dev Harlan goes back to the future in search of new ecosystems
Credit: Dev Harlan, Five Body Problems: Limhamn #6 (detail), 2023. Courtesy of the artist
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Notes On Retrofuturism

1. The past itself, as historical change continues to accelerate, has become the most surreal of subjects…¹ (Susan Sontag) 

2. Technostalgia can be described as the fuzzy feeling one gets when seeing a device one used to use, having forgotten all its limitations or why it was upgraded. It is the warm endearment toward home computers of the 1980s that one might have encountered as a child, or else an unexplained fetishism for technology that predates one’s own lifetime but which represents a certain idea of the future — usually the optimistic future that one wishes to inhabit, not the messy, complicated, fraught present.

Nostalgia is a longing for an imagined past which allows one to gloss over unpleasant or undesirable histories in order to cope with the present. In this way, technostalgia privileges an imagined history of technology and an anesthetized view of that history. 

But sentimentalism is the opposite of criticality.
American Artist, The Mother of All Demos II, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

3. Web3 is the province of IT technophiles, a group that sociologist Colin Campbell regards as the “trailblazers” of new tech.² These early adopters are essential to persuading the neophiles — the consumers of the new — to accept new technologies. Technophiles have a consumerist appetite for anything that “creates a rapidly changing and continuous sequence of new wants” as well as a high frequency of “want turnover.” Web3 unites the technophiles and neophiles in a natively digital ecosystem in which the NFT market makes for a natural home.

For the neophile to sustain their uncritical desire, a powerful intoxicant is in ready supply — technostalgia. 

Themes and memes about chunky beige and pink computers varnish the aesthetics of Web3 culture like a well-worn Pong controller. Moreover, pathos for bygone tech acts to normalize obsolescence, perpetuating an economy fueled by solutionism and fast fashions. The result of such techno-infatuation is a level of critical disengagement that, to quote an early study of crypto art, “merely entrenches a state of neoliberal numbness in which aesthetics and ethics remain permanently uncoupled.”

Dev Harlan, Found Boulder, Porcupine Wash#2, View #2, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

4. Technophiles and neophiles are natural sci-fi lovers. But an obsession with the future does not preclude the reproduction of historical tropes. George Lucas is nostalgic. He owns a hoard of paintings by Norman Rockwell and is a prominent donor to the Norman Rockwell Foundation. These works, together with his larger collection of early American illustration are the foundation of his eponymous Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, currently under construction in Los Angeles. 

The original Star Wars (1977), a fight between reductively simple moral opposites, was nostalgic for Rockwell’s America of the 1940s and the only armed conflict in history where Americans could claim unambiguous moral authority. In Lucas’s film, the good guys are swashbuckling American “rebels” in the mode of 1776, while the villains are simultaneously Imperial British (complete with Queen’s English accents) and stormtrooping fascists, wearing military uniforms based on the German Cavalry of the First World War.

Fast forward nearly fifty years and today’s audiences are nostalgic for nostalgia. Indeed, Disney has had more luck with the Star Wars franchise since they went back to making the sets and costumes appear exactly as they did in the original, right down to the chunky industrial design and villainous German uniforms. 

Linda Dounia, Rainforest Surfer, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

5. The question is: which technology is driving all this technostalgia? Most discussions on the nature of technology begin with Martin Heidegger and his essay, “The Question Concerning Technology” in which technology aids in “enframing nature” and “ordering the real as standing-reserve,” thereby collapsing material existence into mere material resource.³ To paraphrase the essay: technology facilitates a “system of ordering” in which the natural world may be more easily enumerated, calculated, and commodified as units of capital within a capitalist system. On these terms, technology’s principal impact on society is the creation of inhumane indifference to the natural world, with everything rewired as raw material to be exploited and extracted.

Heidegger’s theory of technology is radically repurposed in Ruha Benjamin’s book Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code (2019). For Benjamin, “if we consider race as itself a technology, as a means to sort, organize, and design a social structure […] we can understand more clearly the literal architecture of power.”⁴ In her analysis, she observes how software tools that use AI, surveillance, and predictive algorithms reproduce long-standing forms of racism because the construction of data sets and algorithmic models is “‘an exercise in worldbuilding,’ a normative process in which programmers are in a position to project their world views — a process that all too often reproduces the technology of race.”⁵

Technostalgia reinforces an essentially optimistic and privileged worldview (WAGMI) that ignores technology’s preservation of racial capitalism and reproduction of racialized power structures. 

Ruha Benjamin punctures this unquestioning euphoria by asking: who does technology benefit and who does it exclude? 

Installation view of Dev Harlan and Cheryl Wing-Zi Wong, “POOLTIME COLLECTION” at Chashama, New York, 2019. Courtesy of the artists

6. CryptoPunks (2017) exemplify Web3’s trafficking in nostalgia by aligning technostalgia with past pop culture. Punks have an enduring appeal, prompting fuzzy feelings for a time when petulant antisocialism was culturally radical. The same cannot be said for Web3, where the pixel aesthetics of an 8-bit video game flattens four decades of antisocial behavior into a product as relatable as Mario Bros. What is it that makes 1970s cultural rebellion and ’80s video game design so irresistible for a generation that never experienced either at first hand?

Attempts are often made to conflate CryptoPunks with cyberpunk, whose origins lie in the dystopian science fiction of J.G. Ballard, William Gibson, and Phillip K. Dick. While there is certainly something dystopian about monetizing social discontent into a speculative economy, I doubt that it was quite the dystopia Dick had in mind. Yet he remains central to the formulation of Web3 aesthetics given his influence on Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) which, along with Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), constitute touchstones of dystopian sci-fi. Today, their particular brand of technostalgia is ubiquitous — grimey neon skylines bristling with Asian signage, kitbashed machinery, and sexualized female bodies.

Such tropes all fall into the troubling territory of “techno-Orientalism,” where cyberpunk reproduces reductive renderings of Asian subjects and colonial stereotypes. Blade Runner appropriates a range of Asian signifiers for its exoticized backdrop to the abuses of the main protagonist. Examples include the “mute” Asian man whom Rick Deckard berates when trying to order ramen from a street stall; the “wily” Egyptian trader he interrogates and roughs up; as well as the constant swell of non-white extras roaming the slummy streets in coolie hats.

In her essay, “Thinking about Bodies, Souls, and Race in Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy,” Julie Ha Tran identifies similar problems in Gibson’s original vision, which “feature[s] Tokyo or other Japanese cities as dystopic future worlds that are exotic, enticing, and cognitively estranging, as well as eccentric Japanese characters alien in their foreignness, and thus irrefutably Other.”⁶ In order to confront the boyish, misogynistic, white juvenility that founds such retrofuturist fetish, we should look to the work of scholars like Laura U. Marks, whose 2010 book, Enfoldent and Infinity, considered contemporary new media through the lens of classical Islamic art. In so doing, she not only opened a non-western window on new media, but also proved that the collapse of time need not be nostalgic.

In a brave new world of image-making there are some things we can keep and others we should choose to leave behind.
Sara Bezovšek, Screenshot from the webpage False utopia, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

7. I’ve collected electronic waste since I was a child. I don’t know why exactly, but I’ve been keeping a box of junk circuit boards and disassembled appliances since second grade. I began collecting computers in the San Francisco Bay Area as an adult, starting with a Macintosh SE from a thrift store. Having never owned that specific computer as a child, I am led to wonder why I felt so strangely nostalgic for it. 

Silicon Valley has a high rate of tech turnover not to mention electronic waste. I have often found old Apple computers and hardware in the trash, on the sidewalk, or else on Craigslist. This interest goes beyond nostalgia — I still have recurring dreams in which I encounter old computers in dusty basements. In one instance, a collector friend and I came across a large haul at a local recycling center, leading us to acquire nearly 300 Compact Mac computers. We then set up 1-bit gaming lounges, video installations, and other nerdy schemes to wring every last bit of usefulness from technological detritus. 

Our motto was: “obsolescence is a lack of imagination.”

Back then, 68K Macs had only just crossed into obsolescence — their worn beige and tan are the tones of optimistic pre-internet consumer marketing for a new “desktop publishing revolution” or “information superhighway.” These forgotten washes of tech-utopia pile atop each other year on year like geological strata underneath the seismic shifts of the internet age. Today, coarse-grained slabs show the record of consumer demand in discarded phones of shifting hue and density. If you’re not sure which year of the Anthropocene you are living in you can always Ask Jeeves.

A thin line abruptly breaks the record. That was the pandemic. Suddenly an avalanche of new tech-utopian evidence appears in crystalline metamorphic whorls. What are the premises and assumptions of these speculative claims and promises? What are their consequences? How do they reproduce the same failures and problematics of all the layers preceding them?

Dev Harlan, Found UV, Brother Printer, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

8. Earnest technostalgia siloes Web3 and the so-called “NFT art world” from the contemporary art world. Domenico Quaranta’s book, Beyond New Media Art (2013), analyzed how artists working with digital media have historically operated in distinct “art worlds” (per Howard S. Becker), determining that “the expression New Media Art identifies an ‘art world’ that is entirely independent, both from the world of contemporary art and any other ‘art world’.”⁷ Constituted of differing values, institutions, and marketplaces, for Quaranta, New Media Art reinforces a niche that is largely dismissed or ignored by “serious” institutions. His conclusion is that the category of New Media Art should be abandoned altogether, and that artists should strive to avoid categorization according to any single technical approach. 

Although Quaranta’s book was published ten years ago it seems to have renewed relevance for Web3’s digital art world, which may suffer from similar problems. Indeed, many of the characteristics he highlighted will sound familiar — New Media Art is earnest and unironic, mostly concerned with exploring the formal possibilities of (new) digital media. While the creators of New Media Art consider themselves hackers and experimenters, with the work itself tending toward spectacle and entertainment more akin to the experience economy. 

The predilection for medium-specificity found in digital art is often problematic for contemporary art thinkers because it reprises a dated, mid-century conception of art-making advocated by the likes of Clement Greenberg. Such an approach, which tends to sever art from society, was ultimately abandoned in the mid-1960s and ’70s in favor of new postmodern approaches that challenged the discrete work of art as a solipsistic meditation on itself.

Back in 2013, Quaranta noted that “[t]he New Media Art world is underpinned by an economy with a distribution system that does not involve an art market.”⁸ Web3 has both solved and exacerbated this problem by creating an art market apart, thereby siloing itself further. While its proponents revel in their newfound independence from the “trad” art world, they also lament their exclusion from it. 

The other art world has preserved its decorous compartmentalization through an unabashed belief in its own good taste. Crypto art has no such compunction.
John Gerrard, Stream (Sichuan), 2018. Courtesy of the artist

9. I used to be nostalgic for Moffett Field, the iconic Santa Clara Air Force base-turned NASA Ames Research Center-turned Google self-driving car campus. When I was a child, my parents would point out the gigantic 1930s blimp structure, “Hangar One” every time we drove by on Highway 101. What they didn’t know was that Moffett Field was so polluted from lead, asbestos, and PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyls) leaching from the hangar’s cladding that it would later be designated a federal Superfund Site

Chemical pollution has been part of the story of Silicon Valley since the early days of chip manufacturing in the 1960s. This was the cradle of civilization for the digital world, inaugurated by the likes of Fairchild, Memorex, and National Semiconductor, followed by Intel, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard. In the beginning, electronics manufacturing was touted as a “clean” industry to Bay Area residents accustomed to refineries, smokestacks, and other visual signifiers of heavy industry. The dirty secret of the new age of innocuous business parks was the chemicals, chronicled extensively by David Pellow and Lisa Sun-Hee Park in their book, The Silicon Valley Of Dreams (2002): 

[I]n December 1981, [...] it was discovered that the drinking water well that supplied 16,500 homes in the Los Paseos neighborhood of South San Jose was contaminated with the deadly chemical trichloroethane (TCA), a solvent used to remove grease from microchips and printed circuit boards after they are manufactured.⁹  

But manufacturing was only the start of the problem. Technology means physical material that persists long after its intended use. Obsolete electronics disposed of improperly leach chemical toxins back into soil and groundwater, as is often the case when richer nations export their e-waste to developing countries. CPUs (central processing units) contain lead, while PCBs contain cadmium and chromium. Many components are coated in Brominated flame retardants. All are deleterious for human and nonhuman life.

That’s how we ended up with our 300 Compact Macs. An Alameda e-waste recycling company had several pallets of Macintosh computers that were not worth refurbishing. But the state of California had just imposed a $10 fee to dump any device with a CRT (cathode-ray tube) which are known to contain lead, cadmium, barium, and fluorescent powders. 

Instead of paying to dump them, the e-waste company was willing to give away the computers for free. We took them enthusiastically.

After sorting and repairing as many working computers as we could, we got rid of the dead ones by leaving them in little piles around the Bay Area, since we were too broke to pay to dump them legally. It was regrettable, much like the tons of Atari cartridges buried in the New Mexico desert. Obsolescence is not cute, but a huge waste. For that I harbor no nostalgia.

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Dev Harlan is a New York-based artist working in sculpture, installation, and digital media. He has exhibited in the US and internationally and has permanent commissions with corporate and private collectors. Harlan is a 2020 NYFA Fellowship Finalist in Digital Media Arts and winner of the 2022 MOZAIK Artist Grant. Solo exhibitions include Christopher Henry Gallery and Gallery Madison Park, New York. Group shows include the Sharjah Art Museum, UAE; the New Museum, New York, and the Singapore Light Art Festival. Harlan has been an artist in residence at the Frank Lloyd Wright School Of Architecture and the SVA Sculpture & New Media Residency. He is currently pursuing a BA in Earth Science at Columbia University.


¹ S Sontag, On Photography (1973), New York: Rosetta Books, 2005, 59.

² C Campbell, “The Desire for the New: Its Nature and Social Location as Presented in Theories of Fashion and Modern Consumerism” in E Hirsch and R Silverstone, Consuming Technologies Media and Information in Domestic Spaces, London: Routledge, 1992, 56.

³ M Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology” (1954) in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, W Lovitt (trans.), New York and London: Garland, 1977, 19.

⁴ R Benjamin, Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2019, 195.

⁵ Ibid., 172-173.

⁶ JH Tran, “Thinking about Bodies, Souls, and Race in Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy” in DS Roh, B Huang, GA Niu (eds.), Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media, New Brunswick, New Jersey, and London: Rutgers University Press, 2015, 139.

⁷ D Quaranta, Beyond New Media Art, AR Carruthers (trans.), Brescia: LINK Editions, 2013. 35.

⁸ Ibid., 102.

⁹ DN Pellow and LS-H Park, The Silicon Valley Of Dreams: Environmental Injustice, Immigrant Workers, and the High-Tech Global Economy, New York and London: New York University Press, 2002, 73.