There are times, I must confess, when I am tempted to indulge in a bit of merriment at the expense of those who have presided over our high-tech revolution. They are smart, no doubt about it, but how could they not have anticipated the Y2K bug? We liberal arts types, we who speak a language devoid of techno-jargon (and therefore seem to be relics of a simpler time) surely would not have committed such an oversight. We know that centuries, never mind decades, are but a blink of the eye. Why, I recall proudly informing one of my elementary school teachers, I can’t remember which one, that in a mere 35 years or so, we would see the year 2000! My classmates, many of them headed for employment in the computer sciences, were stunned that anybody could be thinking so far in advance. Why, it hadn’t occurred to them! Whereas yours truly, the devout student of history, knew full well that time was running out on the second millennium.
Recently, while doing battle with a company that seemed incapable of repairing a simple modem (I’m not sure what a modem is, but it sounds simple), I gave in to temptation. I allowed myself to wonder about these people who didn’t anticipate a day when the 1900’s would give way to the 2000’s. Look, if a 10-year-old in Tottenville, Staten Island, knew the new millennium was around the corner in 1965, well, how come big-shot systems analysts didn’t?
As I was luxuriating in such thoughts, I received my copy of this distinguished journal in the mail. The issue featured my very own column. And get a load of the title. Bear in mind, I’ve been writing this column only since...1996.
In my defense, all I can say is that Life in the 90’s sure did go by quickly.
The poor 90’s! They seem to have escaped reflection, what with millennium madness and centenary wrap-ups. I’m old enough to have explained two previous decades, the 80’s and 70’s, to no-doubt enraptured audiences. But this time around, nobody seems to be interested in what the last decade meant.
Maybe, like the television series that helped define its ethos, the decade was about nothing. That probably would be the view of more than a few postmodernists—a term that came into somewhat common usage in the 90’s. But surely great changes took place over the last 10 years, not the least of which was that liberal arts types like myself now use words like "modem" with at least some understanding of what we’re talking about. So, what about life in the 90’s, anyway?
We certainly became more aware of our differences over the last 10 years, and not simply the division (large though it is) between the technologists and the non-technologists. Beginning with the historic 1990 U.S. Census, which documented the effects of immigration reform in 1965, we learned that the United States is well on its way to becoming a multicultural society in ways few foresaw in the 1980’s. Indeed, the national conversation about diversity and multiculturalism dominated the decade and surely set the stage for one of the next century’s great national dramas.
Life in the 90’s approached life in the 20’s in terms of its affluence, its contempt for politics, its fear of anything serious and its weak or irrelevant leadership. To say the decade was about money, of course, hardly distinguishes it from many American decades, including the 1980’s. But in the 90’s we at least could see what all the new money was creating: infamous technology! Remember, one of the criticisms of the 1980’s boom was that the great riches went to those—lawyers, takeover kings, mergers and acquisitions specialists—who created nothing but paper and who, in fact, facilitated the loss of American industrial jobs. The 90’s were quite different in that regard, and even a Luddite like myself must admit as much.
It’s an open question how much of that 90’s money went to the poor and the middle class, but I suspect they benefitted more than some critics say, and less than some commercial cheerleaders insist. The middle class has a way of making its discontent known, and there have been few signs that they believe the great boom has passed them by. The poor, as ever, are not heard much in the debate. Life in the 90’s wasn’t so different from every other decade that came before it.
The culture became immensely more vulgar, and young people were subjected to greater pressure to conform to a youth culture invented and ruled over by middle-aged men and women on both coasts. More than ever before, adolescents are bombarded with messages instructing them to be hip, whatever that means, or else. And being hip in the 90’s meant many things, including smoking cigarettes!
Now, however, we must bid farewell to life in the 90’s, both the idea and the title, although not this space. I will resist the temptation to solicit readers’ input for a new column title. How many of us, after all, really know what to call our new decade, or even how we will refer to individual years. (Will you say, for example, two thousand and one for 2001? How about twenty-oh-one, as in the way we say 1901?)
Life in the ohs just doesn’t sound right, does it?