Tuesday, 23 September 2014

The Last Great Adventure - Nostalgia, Technology, and Death

It began in April when a message came to me with a peculiar request, and this disclaimer: I'm not pulling your leg. Not that such phrase typically instilled confidence, but I read on. A group of aerospace engineers in Kentucky started a business to provide a unique way to commemorate your departed loved ones - by taking their cremated remains to the edge of outer space and then dispersing it - amongst the magnificent vastness, the peaceful quietness, and likely the farthest place they've ever been. I've obviously come to think of this as quite poetic, but I can't deny that my initial reaction included visceral feelings of aversion or avoidance (probably because it is about death). And I wondered if my leg was being pulled. Their company name is Mesoloft.

Anyway, back to the request. They'd been struggling with the aesthetics of their device, so they wondered if I could design an origami paper enclosure to make it look more refined. Months passed by and emails exchanged. I experimented with different shapes and materials while the group at Mesoloft launched several test flights. Finally, they were ready for the public. And I got their permission to edit and make a video with their footages.

I like to use each video as an opportunity to learn something new about Adobe After Effects. So, while I was randomly animating vintage photographs with the parallax technique (public domain is awesome!), I decided that these definitely belonged with Mesoloft. And when my brother advised that I shorten the opening clips, because you can never underestimate people's attention spans nowadays, I stubbornly refused and defended my "artistic" vision. I mean, there must be some ingenious, romantic resonance between bringing old photos to life and this celebration of dreams and memories with flying balloon, right? I was just unable to articulate the reasons why, but I declared while trying to sound deep, "This video is about nostalgia. The fear of death and being forgotten is universal!"

Yup, I also could not believe the pretentious words that were coming out of my mouth (keyboard). But there is underlying truth, as it turns out. 

Even though, I soon realized that I was probably trying to mimic the hauntingly beautiful opening sequence of the movie Melancholia, in which Earth is on an inevitable collision course with a much larger planet. The end of everything was made clear right at the beginning of the film, yet we the audience proceeded to witness the now pointless, many struggles of human interactions. (It made such an impression on me that I was subsequently, majorly disappointed to check out that director's other films. Apparently, I just stumbled on to a Von Trier "lite".) We were not allowed to take comfort in ambiguity.

Nostalgia. In recent years, some have been critical of things that invoke nostalgia, from Instagram filters, hipsters, and indulgence in the "good old days", especially if you weren't even alive back then. In SALON, Amanda Petrusich warns us about the dangers of not being present:
But it’s troubling to think we could get stuck there — that we could lose our ability to forge new and significant relationships with art, and that we might no longer be able to use those connections to understand each other. Because that sounds counterproductive and, above all, lonely.
And not so surprisingly, K. Mike Merrill, being the the world's only publicly traded person, expressed his eagerness to only look forward in A Love Letter to Living in the Future:
To withdraw from society is to surrender to pessimism and accept that the best world we will ever have is behind us. I don’t buy it. I’m impatient for domestic robots, brain wave interfaces, crypto-currencies, bionic limbs, and video games as spectator sports to be commonplace. The future is coming true before our very eyes and if we are looking backward we’re not just ignoring what is ahead, we’re also going to miss out on what is happening right now.
But, should a techie not be able to appreciate the critical role any outdated piece of technology it once played? And like author John Green said, "Imagining the future is a kind of nostalgia." Rather, Merrill offered more of a critique on the Kinfolk-esque lifestyle, where so much effort is put into living "simply" in this fast changing world that it inherently cannot be uncomplicated. I do not believe that nostalgia is defeatist. A BBC Future article explains why nostalgia is actually good for you:
Constantine Sedikides suggest nostalgia may act as a resource that we can draw on to connect to other people and events, so that we can move forward with less fear and greater purpose. Sedikides was inspired by something called Terror Management Theory(TMT), which is approximately 8,000 times sexier than most theories in psychology, and posits that a primary psychological need for humans is to deal with the inevitability of our own deaths. 
To face mortality, people gain strength through nostalgia, art, culture, and society - an intricate system to help us achieve ersatz immortality. Maybe that's why I needed those clips at the beginning of this video.

In Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut describes an alien race Tralfamadore as having the ability to experience reality in four dimensions; meaning that they have total access to past, present, and future. They are able to perceive any point in time at will, and see their stories sideways - like being able to flip to any page in a book about their life:
There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.
In addition to seeing all the "marvelous moments", they know the exact time and place of their own annihilation. Yet they are powerless or reluctant to prevent it, as they believe that when a being dies, it continues to live in other times and places. Their famous response to death is, "So it goes."

Perhaps we also need a better relationship with the past, the present, the future, and all simultaneously, the end. 

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