MSN messenger and Proust: what is the digital version of the madeleine cake?

3 min readMar 3, 2021

A few years ago I had my first memory flashback of a memory that didn’t happen in “in real life” or as my generation (elder millennials) like to say “away from keyboard”. A few days ago, it happened again.

It was 2018, and I was secluded in my home quite a lot. My only ventures outside of home and work were in virtual reality.

By chance I came across a VR experience demo called Spacedream.

In the experience, you are in space, and you can play a song from your computer which dictates the changes of colours and flashes from the glowing planets and mushrooms. I chose Anything But The Girl’s 90’s hit — Missing.

As I floated into the universe, falling into space, crashing into waves of clouds and lights and whales (!), I felt a sense of calm and euphoria. The kind of euphoria that doesn’t come very often.

I was in that experience for about an hour.

I came out of it more healed, grateful for life, happier than I had been in months.

A few days ago while sitting in the passanger seat of a car, looking out of the window that exact remix of Missing came on, and suddenly I recalled every little bit of the journey that I went on in VR. I recalled those same euphoric feelings, and vivid imagery.

I, like many who picked up Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Times, have pondered about what triggers memories. What captures lost times and stored memories.

It never occurred to me that digital ones could be formed, triggered, and cherished.

What is the olfactory bulb of the digital age?

Is it a font? A sound?

My experience of forming a VR memory is not the first time I’ve experienced a digital flashback.

I was one of those kids who preferred the digital world. While my schoolmates were outside sneaking out low alcohol ciders, smokes and made out in the park behind the playground, I was on MSN Messenger or on a WoW quest. My friends were online, scattered all over the globe.

It never occurred to me that those sessions, that time spent in front of the computer could be thought of as fond. That I might look back and remember, and feel a sense of gratitude and nostalgia.

But that is exactly what has happened.

A few years ago I played a narrative choose your own adventure game called “Emily is Gone”. It was a recreacion of an early MSN messenger. The sounds, images, fonts, sound of the keyboard as I played it on a stationary PC, all of it threw me back to a long since past digital age.

It brought me back to people I’ve met, stories I’ve heard and quests I’ve concurred.

No matter how, or through what, it’s what makes us happy that we remember. As we turn more towards digital worlds and artificial people, It gives me a sense of hope that at least happy memories will remain real.