Silicon Insider: Tech Kills Tower... and Nostalgia?

Farewell nostalgia.

I got an e-mail the other day from an old friend, Dan Fernandez, who these days lives in Seattle.

I first met Dan more than 20 years ago when he was working with my wife at a terrific Silicon Valley bookstore called A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books.

What I remember most about Dan at the time was that he seemed to spend most of his wages buying books from his employer. … And spending any money he had left on albums at Tower Records.

Perhaps it's not surprising then that Dan's e-mail contained a link to a Washington Post article on the death of Tower Records, with the comment, "Requiem to an icon of my youth."

I know what he meant.

I moved to California as a boy just about the time the first Tower Records store opened in Sacramento, and I watched the chain open store after store in the Bay Area.

To me, Tower represented not only records and music, but a whole way of life: shiny, neon buildings that seemed to capture the bright optimism of the early '60s on the outside, combined with noisy, messy and stoned (both clerks and customers) interiors perfectly attuned to the second half of that decade.

As the years passed, both got increasingly seedier -- once again the perfect analog for the age of metal, punk and then grunge.

Indeed, my memories of Tower Records are inevitably linked with the memory of the parking lots outside, which always seemed covered with a thick layer of wrappers, promotional fliers, cigarette butts, gum and spit.

Remembering the Role of the Tower Institution

I bought a lot of records at Tower, as well as a lot more at funky, little record shops around my community.

Those records were the core texts of my education in becoming a rock record critic.

I still have about 1,500 of those LPs tucked away in a closet and other corners of my house -- with bootlegs, rarities, and obscure one-shots mixed in with some multiplatinum classics. I occasionally take them out and play them, just to hear that beautiful warmth that only analog recording can provide.

Some of those records are worth a lot of money these days -- but tellingly, not for the records themselves, but for their album covers.

The records, whatever their advantages, are now essentially scrap, replaced now by not one, but three technology revolutions in turn -- first the audio cassette, then the CD, and now the digital mp3 file.

Tower managed to thrive on the first revolution and survive (barely) the second.

Because cassettes and CDs were still physical objects, with packaging and promotion, they could be inventoried and offered to consumers in a supermarket-style retail environment.

But the arrival of the consumer Web in the mid-'90s soon set record stores like Tower -- and for that matter, small bookstores such as ACWLPFB -- on the path to oblivion.

When you could one-click on for the hottest new book or CD, and have it delivered to your door in a couple days, why drive down to skuzzy Tower Records and either discover that it had sold out of the item or, if you were lucky, pay more money to have some surly clerk with a bone in his nose sneer at your musical taste as he rings up your order?

Thus, Tower Records and its lesser brethren were already reeling when Napster and the iPod completed the classic tech cycle of turning hardware into software.

In a few more years, a basic mp3 player will hold all of the songs that used to make up all of the records in the stock of a traditional Tower Records store.

That's the power of technology -- and in the face of that kind of change, no existing business model or business institution can survive.

Can Tech Change Emotion?

Dan's note also got me think about nostalgia itself. … And how technology is likely to change even that.

Though nostalgia in some form has doubtlessly been around as long as there have been human beings, especially among travelers, my sense is that the way we think of it is relatively new.

When you lived in a reality in which nothing much changed, there really wasn't much need for nostalgia.

I once interviewed for television the great Nobel poet Czeslaw Milosz.

He had devoted much of his life and work to recapturing and preserving the world of his youth -- the Lithuanian empire lost in the First World War, and the Poland destroyed in the second.

He told me that he could, in his mind's eye, walk down the street of his native village and remember every house and shop and tree.

But Milosz's nostalgia, beyond being that of a great artist, was also for a world that was essentially static and unchanging. He was remembering, and turning into art, what had been permanent and enduring -- right up until all hell broke loose.

But the technology revolution changed all of that.

Ours, I think, is a different kind of nostalgia, one that is reduced to longing for moving targets and the ephemeral.

For example, I'm just old enough to remember the 1950s, and though I was only a little boy, I can still feel the '50s, with its different pace, its optimism, its armies of children -- even its smells.

When I indulge in nostalgia about the '50s, though, it inevitably revolves around fads, consumer products and styles -- Davy Crockett hats, Brylcream commercials, and my old man's finned Chrysler.

This is a very different kind of nostalgia than Milosz's.

He longed for those essential things that made his lost world unique. I feel that sad shiver for the experiences of a world that hasn't really been lost, but only evolved away.

So, exactly what kind of nostalgia will my kids feel -- if they feel any nostalgia at all?

Thanks to the technology revolution, and the pace of Moore's Law, these days just about everything is experiencing rapid and perpetual change.

Indeed, with a few exceptions, everything is evolving so fast, it's hard to imagine exactly when you can stop, look around, and register in your heart and brain those images, sensations and emotions that you will one day look back upon fondly.

Television shows last for a few weeks, advertising fads seem to come and go in days, and new cultural institutions on the Web (MySpace, Facebook, YouTube) seem to change by the hour.

Will our kids really feel wistful when they remember their old PlayStations? For searching on Google? Their long-forgotten Nokia cell phone? Why should they? They were only replaced by something even better.

Technology Allows Us to Hold On to Experiences Forever

We've plundered history now so completely for everything -- from fashion to architecture -- that past and present have now all but fused.

Combine that with having almost of all of the information and images in the world at our fingertips, and it's hard to imagine just exactly what lost experiences we'll be pining for.

Reading about the end of Tower Records caused a brief burst of reminiscence in the media, but as I write this it is already evaporating.

And that was an institution that lasted more than 40 years and played a key role in many of our lives.

But then again, so did nostalgia itself.

Even though it had different targets, nostalgia was one of the few things that the Greatest Generation actually shared with its baby-boomer progeny.

And, it may be one of the few things that we boomers will not be able to inflict upon our own children.

Is it possible to live without nostalgia for the past? Oh, I think so, though I personally have a hard time imagining such a life. But then, most people who ever lived have managed to do so just fine.

The only difference is that our ancestors looked back and saw only stasis, and our descendents will look back and see only the white noise of endless change.

It may just prove to be liberating: no more shallow icons, and no more requiems.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michael S. Malone, once called the Boswell of Silicon Valley, is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury News, as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He was editor of Forbes ASAP, the world's largest-circulation business-tech magazine, at the height of the dot-com boom. Malone is best-known as the author or co-author of a dozen books, notably the best-selling "Virtual Corporation." Malone has also hosted three public television interview series, and most recently co-produced the celebrated PBS miniseries on social entrepreneurs, "The New Heroes." He has been the "Silicon Insider" columnist since 2000.