Technostalgia and the Metaverse

Everyone has a smartphone. Everyone has a laptop. We are constantly connected with the world via our mobile devices. Digital natives only know a hyper-connected world, but previous generations had to adapt to working and living with computers, and later mobile phones and smartphones.

The New York-based artist Dev Harlan believes that technostalgia is a coping mechanism for the rapid and unrelenting acceleration of technology and social change. In his work, the depiction of computers or devices from the past is not intended as sentimentalism. Harlan is interested in flattening the timescale between technological artifacts, past and present, and considering them all as future fossils, literally flattened into the geological strata. A record of us in the world after us.

In conversation with Anika Meier, Harlan discusses technostalgia and retrofuturism, art and technology, and nature in the age of the metaverse.

Portrait of Dev Harlan.

Anika Meier: How much time do you spend on your mobile devices every day?

Dev Harlan: I ought to know. I don’t have screen time logging enabled on my phone, so I honestly can’t say exactly. I imagine it takes less time for people younger than myself. A couple hours on some days; on other days, almost none.

AM: I ask this question because computers and mobile devices are omnipresent in your work. As historic artifacts. Technological progress often overwhelms society. Is that why technostalgia is a topic in Web3? In a space where progress takes place at unprecedented speed.

DH: Yes, in recent work, I have been more literal with the representation of technology. The mobile device is at once the most identifiable and banal cultural symbol of the contemporary social condition. Everyone has one, and it is increasingly difficult to operate in modern society without one. This was not always the case.

I believe technostalgia is a coping mechanism for the rapid and unrelenting acceleration of technology and social change. Technostalgia is a varnish of familiarity over disorienting complexity, risk, and disruption. It also acts as a feel-good distraction from ethical and social issues that abound in Web3 and technological culture at large.

In my work, the depiction of computers or devices from the past is not intended as sentimentalism. I am interested in flattening the timescale between technological artifacts, past and present, and considering them all as future fossils, literally flattened into the geological strata. A record of us in the world after us.

Dev Harlan, Five Body Problems: Afterlives, Moving image, 2022.

AM: What can we learn from the past when looking at art and technology?

DH: Art, as a product of human societies, reveals the ideas and values of the society from which it comes. In this way, technology is also a cultural artifact, which can indirectly say a lot about the priorities of those who produced it. Art that uses (new) technology in its means of production must then consider this doubling in the ways in which it contributes to the cultural dialogue of which it is part.

When looking at prominent artists from the past who worked with technology, the most important lesson for me is that the artist has an idea or perspective that is bigger than any particular technology or approach. I take Nam June Paik as a favorite example. He did a lot of things with television sets (and later many other technologies), but his guiding vision was an idea of what the television represented in terms of mass media, both as a mechanism of social control and also as a tool in the hands of artists for social disruption and the popularization of radical ideas.

Another useful example for me is Sol Le Witt, who pioneered the idea of mechanical reproducibility of artwork. The guiding idea in many of his works was that an artwork could exist as a set of instructions for how it should be carried out. For this, he had in mind teams of artisans, but the idea could equally apply to computational artwork. Imagine that a collector buys a set of instructions for how an artwork should be executed and then has permission to reproduce that artwork at any time. Sound familiar?

AM: Yes. When did you get your first computer and mobile phone? And what did you use them for?

DH: In 1992, my parents were given a used IBM XT, which was already almost 10 years old at the time. That was my first computer. I mostly played simple ASCII games, but I also learned how to programme in Pascal. My first mobile phone was a clunky platinum-coloured flip phone from 1998. I still have it. I scanned it recently and put it in one of my videos.

Dev Harlan, Found Boulder, Palisades 1, Digital Render, 2021.

AM: Is nostalgia a feeling that you foster as an artist?

DH: Nostalgia comes in waves. I don’t court it; it follows me. In the past, I collected a lot of electronic junk that bordered on hoarding. Sometimes I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when I open an old box and find bubble-wrapped Apple II components or a dozen Atari joysticks. Nostalgia ad nausea. Why am I saving these things? Why can’t I get rid of them? When they show up in my work, it is a way to exorcise my own attachment. The thing has then fulfilled a purpose, and I can feel less guilt or dread about disposing of it. Not in the trash, of course; e-waste recycling! Or perhaps I’ll strip out the components and attempt again to chemically extract gold from the PCB etchings.

AM: When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

DH: I come from a nontraditional background and am primarily a self-taught artist. I was homeschooled in California and began attending community college at age fifteen in lieu of high school. I took a lot of art classes but then dropped out to go work in the nascent dot-com boom. It was in the late 90s that I was exposed to the SF Bay Area’s radical experimental video art and hacker subculture. I began making videos intuitively while teaching myself 3D animation, video programming, and circuit bending. But I wouldn’t say at that time that I knew that I wanted to be an artist, or even that I knew what that meant. I took a much more circuitous path.

I later moved to New York, where I worked for a few years in experiential design and VFX. It was after being exposed to the New York art world that I began to pursue an art practice more seriously. I began teaching myself to work in sculpture while brushing up on some of the theory that I had missed, eventually producing work that combined sculpture with my background in digital art. A few residency experiences were transformative for me and helped me grow my practice and my thinking. I spent time at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture in Scottsdale, AZ, the JTHAR program in Joshua Tree, CA, and the SVA Sculpture and New Media Fellowship in New York.

Life continues to be a circuitous journey, as I recently returned to school to study the physical sciences. My aim is to develop a practice in which art and science are commingled and can inform each other in meaningful ways.

Dev Harlan, Five Body Problems #1: A speculative rare earth mineral recovery model and the poetics of head bashing the steering wheel, Moving image, 2022.

AM: In your artist statement on your website, you write: "I often use technology to question itself and the narrative that human societies and technology are somehow separate from the natural world. Rather, I ask, how are they entangled and embedded within each other?" Why do you think this narrative exists?

DH: The narrative of a "civilized society" in opposition to "untamed nature" is a product of modernity and industrialized nations. This false binary exists because it is convenient. It privileges humans while providing implicit justification for colonization, exploitation, and control of natural resources.

A more nuanced view is that humans, as biological creatures, have always been deeply entangled with their biomes, reciprocating links and dependencies with other living creatures as well as with the Earth’s dynamic systems such as hydrology, atmosphere, and land masses. Even as hunter-gatherers, humans modified plant species through artificial selection or seed transport and were responsible for the extinction of North American ice age megafauna. There is no nature that is untouched.

With modern anthropogenic change taking place at unprecedented and perilous levels, we must abandon the myth of "man vs. nature". This hierarchical arrangement, which places humans at the top, is the type of thinking that has led to the current ecological predicament whereby human civilizations are no longer sustainable. To move beyond this shallow reflexivity, humanity requires a new optimism, one that rethinks its position within nature holistically, with humans in a rhizomatic and networked relation to all living things.

AM: In what ways are human societies and technology entangled with the natural world?

DH: One example that relates to my work is the relationship between technology and mineral extraction. The production of technology requires large amounts of metal ore and rare earth minerals. These must be mined from the earth, often through strip mining, a process that has deleterious effects on natural habitats. Loss of habitats affects animal populations and food chains, such as bird or bee species, which may then cause changes in the population of insects and pests that affect agriculture. Agricultural production must then use more chemical pesticides or modified crops (GMOs), which affect food supply, price, and quality of the food that humans must then eat.

There are a myriad of such circular dependencies between human and non-human life. The writing of Timothy Morton comes to mind, who thinks in an illuminating way about the ontology of objects and their embedded set of relationships. It’s a strategy towards non-anthropocentric thinking to consider the world as a set of objects in relation, collapsing the hierarchy that places homo sapiens at the top.

Dev Harlan, Five Body Problems #2: Lost and Found in the Wash, Moving image, 2022.

AM: Is that why you create 3D scans of your environment?

DH: In my work, I am often interested in presenting things that have a corollary in reality and then setting up these sorts of non-hierarchical relations between objects. The human, the non-human, the fantastic, and the mundane.

The 3D scan is a way to document actual places and things in a way that retains an indexical relationship to the thing. Functionally, a scan is similar to a photograph in the sense that it is not interpretive, like a painting or a sketch. The scan is a trace of reality that, to quote Susan Sontag, is directly stenciled off the real. When I bring these traces into a digital space, they can interact and commingle in a way that is imaginary, as they may be in my subconscious, but they remain tethered to a specific reality.

AM: How do you decide what you would like to scan? You’ve scanned among others a trash bag and offer it for sale as part of your series “AndOtherThingsYouCanBuyOnTheInternet.”

DH: Artists are inspired by what is around them. When I am in the city, I often scan things that are fleeting or ephemeral. A particularly large and colorful trash bag will be gone tomorrow. An exploded laser printer on the sidewalk will be gone in a few hours. Again, I consider it an expanded form of photography and a way to capture the ephemeral.

When I am in the desert, I scan rocks, boulders, and landscapes. In this case, it is my experience that is ephemeral. I am only visiting a place for a short time, and I may never return. A 3D scan is evidence of my subjective experience and a trace of my pathway through the landscape.

Dev Harlan, Found Rock 5, WYSIWYG, Installation, 2019.

AM: The subtitle of that series is “Like eBay, but for files.” What is your message?

DH: I suppose it is a tongue-in-cheek description of that collection of work and perhaps a reflection of my continued ambivalence around Web3 and blockchain in general. An auction platform like Ebay flattens the hierarchy of value by hosting the widest possible range of objects, from electronics and iPhone cases to antique furniture and rare coins. In a similar way, large NFT platforms have a flattening effect on art. Works of nearly any description—good, bad, hi, low, porn, memes, etc.—are all lumped together, with the only commonality being that they can be distributed as digital files and are listed for sale on the blockchain. The collection "AndOtherThingsYouCanBuyOnTheInternet" mirrors this lack of hierarchy by being a catch-all for a variety of working styles, formats, and themes in my own work.

AM: How do you define art in a time where everything can be sold in the form of a file on the Internet?

DH: Art is a cultural artifact that participates in a cultural dialog with other art and with society at large. For me, the mechanism by which art is commodified does not change the definition of this cultural role. Whether the artifact is a work on canvas, a generative series on the blockchain, or something that defies commodification completely, I believe the artistic intention to participate in this shared dialogue is what sets artmaking apart from other creative endeavors.

Dev Harlan, Hegemony Of Screensavers (Artifacts), Javascript/WebGL, 2023.

AM: Have NFTs changed your perspective on digital art and its history?

DH: The change of perspective for me has brought a new level of spontaneity as to what digital artwork can be. A sketch, work in progress, or even a screenshot can all have value in a way that they didn’t before. It often felt difficult to find credibility with a finished digital artwork, let alone a process study. My drives are littered with "unfinished" ideas that have never been seen.

It is also interesting to see the history of digital art being reformulated, re-excavated, and, in some respects, constructed anew. Digital art has perhaps been under-historicized, and it seems in search of new legacies and relevance found in artists and works that had been previously unrecognized. Often, histories and relevance are constructed in the present, for the present moment.

Are they all in the metaverse?

AM: Our mobile devices keep us occupied, and we spend less and less time away from the keyboard. What are your thoughts about nature in the age of the metaverse?

DH: Sometimes I play a game on the subway where I count how many people are on their phones. Usually it’s about 9 out of 10. Are they all in the metaverse? There is still considerable debate over what the metaverse actually is, or even if it is. But perhaps there is a colloquial understanding in the way the word metaverse has found its way into everyday vocabulary—it embodies the idea of the internet not as a repository of information but rather as an informationscape that we socially inhabit. Across a variety of platforms and media, from chat rooms to 3D environments, there is a multiplicity of metaverses.

Nature, as a place, is commonly understood as the domain of animals, plants, insects, rivers, and rocks—in essence, all that is not human or the product of humans. This nature can only exist outside of a metaverse because, by definition, it is not a product of humans. The more humans are consumed with a self-made simulacrum, the less time is spent experiencing or understanding physical nature, to the detriment of both. Humans need nature to appreciate multispecies relationships and interconnectedness. Nature needs humans to protect it. Its fate is increasingly at the whim of human societies.

Dev Harlan, Afterlives III, Moving image, 2023.

AM: What are your predictions for the future of art and technology?

DH: Technology will always change, but the fundamental role of (contemporary) art should not. My perspective on artmaking is that it should transcend any narrow categorization such as "technology art" and be about a larger cultural dialogue, independent of its method of production. What will an artwork in the future be able to communicate about its time and place?