Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Noughts

It was the most eventful of times. It was the least eventful of times. Perhaps it is just a little early to start the retrospectives, but as the last spring of the decade dawns, I find myself wanting to look back over the last 10 years (or perhaps I have nothing better to write about this week).

On one hand, the world that we live in now would be to some degree unrecognizable to a traveler from the year 2000. I've been writing a blog for a little less than half the decade, yet at the dawn of the decade the word "blog" wasn't in my vocabulary. "Google" was in my vocabulary, but it meant a one with a thousand zeroes after it. "Youtube," "Wikipedia," and "Facebook" wouldn't have been recognizable words. Not many people had high-speed Internet in 2000, and "surfing the web" meant sitting through long waits while pages loaded. Despite being a college student and having fairly good access to the Web, I would sometimes go a couple of days without logging on. Now I can't imagine going a day without going on-line several times. Cell phones were a novelty in 2000, and even Steve Jobs would have looked at you funny if you asked him what was on his iPod.

But even without the shifts in technology that have literally changed the way we live, the geopolitical developments of the last 10 years have been staggering. As late as September 10, 2001, a large scale attack by foreign powers on American soil would have been unthinkable. The wars of this decade were likewise unthinkable in 2000, as was the economic collapse. And who on Earth would have predicted in the days following the prolonged 2000 presidential election that the next man to occupy the White House would be a black man named Barack?

Yet for all that, the world as we approach 2010 looks like the world of 2000. And this is all the more surprising given how much has changed. To illustrate what I'm talking about, consider this late 1990s Super Bowl commercial starring Britney Spears:

Though this commercial obviously does not attempt to accurately and realistically document evolution in public taste, we nevertheless recognize the portrayals as collectively agreed upon perceptions of the aesthetics of given eras. And these aesthetics shifted rapidly over a period of 12 years, followed by a much slower evolution over a period of 30 years. And now we have come to a grinding halt. The Pepsi Generation of 2000 literally looks like the Pepsi Generation of 2010 will (minus cellphones and earbuds).

And speaking of Britney Spears, guess who topped a list of Lycos search subjects in 2000 and Yahoo searches in 2008? Unlike the days when the likes of MC Hammer and New Kids on the Block enjoyed meteoric rises and crashing falls, once you are enshrined in the celebrity pantheon, you are likely to stay there.

Furthermore, this decade might be the first 10-year span since Elvis (and possibly before that) in which pop music sounds virtually unchanged. The changes in the music industry in the last 10 years have been well-documented, but whether those changes have anything to do with the lack of change in music itself is an open question. Just as 2009 looks like 2000, it sounds like 2000 (which is mostly unfortunate, as is the unwelcome news of a Limp Bizkit reunion this summer).

And along with a lack of meaningful development in music, other areas of pop culture also saw a period of stagnation over the last 10 years. Despite advances in special effects, cinema in the last 10 years has mostly plodded along, producing a large number of sequels and remakes. Unless you count the reality genre as an innovation, television of the last 10 years has been unmemorable--people still reference Friends and Seinfeld more often than they do shows in current runs.

And there is one more factor that argues for the last 10 years as a period of literal insignificance--it bears no name. Granted, our nomenclature for previous decades is lazy (e.g. "The '80s"). But given the developments of this decade, shouldn't it have some designation? Or are the technological and geopolitical developments obscuring the actual truth that nothing much has happened lately?


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