The past and the presents

Kevin Fong on how Christmas nostalgia can help us buy the right gifts today

December 4, 2014

So there I was, with only 24 shopping days left before Christmas, in the Royal Institution’s Faraday Lecture Theatre. I was chairing the finals of a competition for schoolchildren to design smartphone apps that encourage healthy living.

There were some truly inspirational ideas: apps that could be used as personal fitness trainers, others that could monitor your mood state, a few that claimed to be able to help maintain it. This, I realised, was the future of everything: students cutting their teeth in a field of study that has yet to be properly invented, on their way to a discipline that doesn’t yet exist.

None of this did anything for my mood, however. It being the festive season, I had been hoping in vain that one of the teams might come up with an app to help me with my Christmas shopping. And so off I loped on to the front line once more, to resume a battle with retail that seems to get harder each year.

In times gone by you could mount a well-timed raid on the local CD megastore and the bookshop across the road in the dying moments of Christmas Eve and you were done. But these days finding stores that sell that stuff has itself become something of a quest. They’ve all disappeared. Books and music have become electronic affairs. And while it helps massively with the wrapping paper burden, leaving a couple of megabytes of data under the tree doesn’t quite nail it on Christmas morning.

Those winking, beeping games of the 1970s were the start of a digital revolution that is the reason everything around us is being reinvented at such an alarming rate

But I’ve hit upon a winning workaround. This Christmas, instead of trying to keep up with the latest trends, I’m going to go back in time. I’ve been online searching one of those sites that lets you buy second-hand goods, mostly at what appear to be first-hand prices. But once you get over the shock of the cost, the door is open to a world that lets you go back and carefully reconstruct the happy ghost of Christmas past, remembering everyone’s favourite gifts from yesteryear and buying them anew, fanning the flames of nostalgia.

This strategy is going to work well for pretty much everybody except for my own children, whose Christmas gift memories extend no further back than the late noughties. I did briefly consider including them in my retro extravaganza, but serving up a Peppa Pig soft toy to my nine-year-old as a reminder of the good old days of his infancy struck me as taking things a bit too far.

For me, it was electronic games that dominated my childhood wish list. Glowing, beeping brilliance, with 9-volt adaptors and stickers on them warning you not to leave them in direct sunlight. Games with buttons and joysticks, so free from ergonomic consideration that they provided me with my first, fondly remembered introduction to repetitive strain injury.

With a little effort, I thought, I could even recreate my 1970s living room, complete with a three-channel, analogue-tuning, black and white television that took about five minutes to warm up. I could buy the toys that featured on my childhood list but that Santa never saw fit to bring (Ricochet Racers, Palitoy, 1977), or the ones that I did get but quickly broke because I didn’t read the instructions properly (Super Flight Deck, Airfix, 1979).

At one point I went a bit retro crazy and almost bought a full-size coin-operated Space Invaders machine. Only at the last minute did I realise that it wouldn’t go down very well, standing upright in the living room, wrapped in about a hundred feet of wrapping paper with a bow and a label that said “Saw this and thought of you! Happy Xmas. From Me, to Me.”

We are all struggling (and ultimately failing) to keep up with a world that is changing far faster than our habits. At Christmas, it’s about trying to buy gifts that are no longer relevant on a high street that we no longer recognise. At work, it’s about models of teaching and learning that have no place in the 21st century, and scratching our heads over how to design courses that adequately prepare students for the future. The “retro everything” idea is, in the final analysis, quite rubbish. Retreating into the past, wishing things were the way that they used to be, doesn’t work.

But, reflecting on those students at the Royal Institution, I realised that the answer does lie somewhere in that 1970s childhood. Because those winking, beeping games were the start of a digital revolution that is the reason everything around us is being reinvented at such an alarming rate. That is the future we should be buying into: one in which the modern language that will best equip you in the workplace isn’t French or German or even Mandarin but Python.

For Christmas, I decided, I would buy my kids a computing platform such as an Arduino or a Raspberry Pi, and sign them up to learn programming with Code Academy. With any luck by next year they themselves would be able to design the Christmas shopping app I so badly needed.

But then I got home and realised that when it came to going retro with Christmas gifts my youngest son was way ahead of me. On the table was a brief but to-the-point letter from him to Father Christmas. There were only two items on it: “1. Real Dog. 2. Real Cat.”

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