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Belated New Year's thoughts

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I spent a couple of minutes last night watching 'The Party's Over,' a documentary Philip Seymour Hoffman produced on the 2000 election. I say "a couple of minutes" because I couldn't stand it for long: Putting aside the achingly calamitous notion that there was no difference between the two parties, the film was shot through with a basic uncertainty about what politics was actually for. It's not that people didn't like Al Gore's positions on the issues, but that the issues didn't really enter into the equation, and when you removed them from the analysis, then Gore was just another rich white guy like George W. Bush. It's a reminder that when times are good, government seems almost vestigial, like a weekly psychiatry appointment that you keep even though you're feeling fine.

Times are not good right now, of course. And government seems really, really important because of it. Washington is counter-cyclical. But just as the assessments of the 90s wrongly de-emphasized the centrality of politics, my sense is that the grim verdicts on the Aughts are over-emphasizing the centrality of politics.

Most of the retrospectives I've read have been depressing processions of the decisive issues in (American) elections: Wars, financial crises, stagnating incomes, growing debts, bubbles, reality television, and more. In the grand sweep of history, however, I'd bet the Aughts will be remembered more as the age when the internet transformed everyday existence than anything else. It's the age of Google, of Wikipedia, of blogs and video on demand and YouTube and e-readers and GPS in our pockets and e-mail everywhere we go and online connectivity from airplanes and Christmas shopping from Amazon.

There's an impulse, I think, to downplay some of this. No one likes the starry-eyed techno-optimists. After all, the automobile was a revolution too, as was the television, and the radio. Most of us find our skins crawling a bit when people compare the current moment to Gutenberg inventing the printing press. It seems historically presumptuous, somehow. But the impulse to remain calm in the face of technological change is also an invitation to downplay the things that change our everyday lives the most. And for all that the decade's terror attacks and wars and bubbles did us terrible damage, none of them did nearly as much to transform the average American's everyday life as the rise of the net.

That said, the decade was economically and psychologically difficult. America learned to be afraid again, even if the worst-case scenarios -- Al Qaeda launching an attack with more lethal weaponry, or the financial system collapsing into a second Great Depression -- were averted. In the 90s, we didn't worry about such things. But that's not because those dangers didn't exist in the 90s. And it's not because they got so much worse in the Aughts.

My sense is that when all is said and done, just as the 1990s weren't quite as calm and meaningless as some believed, the events of the Aughts weren't quite as transformative as they seemed. Indeed, I'd much rather be alive in 2010 than in 2000. Technology has made this a better year to live in even as the intervening years have been bad ones for the country. Our future will have a lot more to do with the internet than with Iraq. At least, so I hope.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Craig Ruttle.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 1, 2010; 6:34 PM ET
 
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Comments

Maybe, but I suspect the future will look at the failure to do anything about climate change as more important than technology or the internet or anything else.

Posted by: eloomis20 | January 1, 2010 11:34 PM | Report abuse

Although the Internet is a great, and perhaps the greatest human invention, I think where you are in the life cycle colors your judgment of which decade was best.

I was young in the 70s but I remember those days as plagued by high inflation, junky cars, and gas rationing.

In the 80s there was a real fear of nuclear armageddon. It seemed like end of era as we lost Lennon and Sadat. Reagan was bad, but not as bad as the left remembers him today.

For me the 90s was the best because times were good economically and I partied the whole 10 years.

By 2000 Clinton's character flaws had overwhelmed his innate skill as a politician. I wasn't happy with Gore/Lieberman and I admit I voted for Nader. I'm in Cali so it didn't matter.

I remember the early part of this decade as kind of continuation of the 90s. I was still partying but it was starting to catch up with me. I got married and got sober just a few years before the country started to melt down, so the country's change of pace in 2008 kind of fit with where I was at personally.


The country to me feels like the 80s again, in that there is a real fear that we might be engulfed by wars and corporatism. It's not the best of times. It's not the worst of times. But the Internet keeps getting better.

Posted by: bmull | January 2, 2010 1:59 AM | Report abuse

"Indeed, I'd much rather be alive in 2010 than in 2000"

Oh, Ezra you are really young, and when it was 2000 I was slightly younger than your age now. That was an amazing time because everything seemed so full of promise and as far as that techonology stuff? I really resent the intrusion of technology into my life that wasn't there ten years ago, the hyper, go-go-go speed of contact and the constant barrage of information, I think most of what i know because of the 'net is a bunch of white noise data. I feel irritated and annoyed by techonology not bettered by it, especially with the expectations that I will be at everyone's beck and call due to twitter, facebook, e-mail, texting, cellphones, and on and on and on. It's maddening and it makes me a little sad. I'm only 32 and I'm already morning the days of my youth!

Posted by: silentbeep | January 2, 2010 4:36 AM | Report abuse

"Indeed, I'd much rather be alive in 2010 than in 2000"

that is the best possible thing that one could hear a young person say!
that they find the good, the hope and the promise in the present is what moves us all courageously forward.

i find it hard to tease apart the decades.
there is good and bad in the unintended consequences of every decade, and every action.
for me, the presidency of barack obama has represented the most hopeful shift in decades.
his leadership and presence, has added hope and inclusiveness, change and normalcy back into a period that seemed to be moving into the true spiritual dark ages.
as he walks through the valley, he fears no evil....and that is the best lesson he could help us move through the aughts with.
though there will always be forces of darkness assailing and attacking him from every side, he remains for me and others, a candle that dispels the terrible darkness that was befalling the whole world.
to me, he represents that even in an age that has been marked strangely by true evil caused by religious extremism, spiritual isolation and erosion of ethics....(which to me, best describes the aughts) it is still possible to be a person exemplifying love, equanimity, connection and hope that reaffirms itself, starting at the level of family and moving into his worldview.
barack obama has taken us in the aughts, from the cup being "half empty" to be spiritually "half-full."
and trying to lead all of us on that journey, braying, bucking, clucking....into a more enlightened and positive future....is no different than moses leading his caravan of disbelievers across the desert, in a journey to a better place that could have taken a far shorter time....but he still valiantly continues, coaxing us all along.
when i see the grace and stride and spontaneity and naturalness of obama's children as they walk with him, it gives me great hope for the future, and belief that we still have leadership into a brighter future, despite the extreme prevalence of madness and evil all around us.
that he can be calm in the face of extremism, terror and the constant pitch of hysteria all around him, it gives me hope that i can do the same.
and ezra, you keep feeling the positive energy and the goodness and joy and wonder of living too!
amen.

happy new year!

Posted by: jkaren | January 2, 2010 8:31 AM | Report abuse

I see the whole internet-digital thing as being analogous to the process of constructing neural pathways and nets that occurs in the developing brain. As a world, we might be said to have really developed eyes about the time that the astronauts began sending us pictures of Earth from space.

The social isolation and sensory deprivation of 60 years ago can be wonderful- but you can do that any time. And probably should once in a while.

I don't think Ezra really understands what's happening, though. For 60 years the US has essentially ruled the world, using our power to maintain dictatorships at one time or another in virtually every "free" nation. And that's coming to an end.

Historians of the future will be nowhere near as enchanted with the 'American Century' as we were at the time.

Posted by: serialcatowner | January 2, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

> Most of the retrospectives I've read have
> been depressing processions of the
> decisive issues in (American) elections:
> Wars, financial crises, stagnating
> incomes, growing debts, bubbles, reality
> television, and more. In the grand sweep
> of history, however, I'd bet the Aughts
> will be remembered more as the age when
> the internet transformed everyday
> existence than anything else.

Are you considering the history of the world/humanity in general, or of the United States? Given what is being done to history textbooks in Texas I wonder if any accurate history of this period will ever be written, but if there is an honest accounting in 2100 (say) I suspect that the actions of George Bush and Richard Cheney in 2000-2009 will be seen to have caused irreparable damage to the prosperity, standing, and ultimately the future of the United States.

sPh

Posted by: sphealey | January 2, 2010 10:45 AM | Report abuse

"America learned to be afraid again, even if the worst-case scenarios -- Al Qaeda launching an attack with more lethal weaponry, or the financial system collapsing into a second Great Depression -- were averted."

I think you fail to elaborate on the real source of our fears. The magnitude of the consequences Al Qaeda's attack is dwarfed by that of our ineptitude to remedy the situation. And the past decade of a series of ever more potent financial crises is a testament to our inability to do anything meaningful about them.

Posted by: pneogy | January 2, 2010 10:45 AM | Report abuse

I'd rather be alive in 2010 than 2000, too: for one thing it means I've survived the last 10 years, and that's something.

Actually, there's one more year to go in the decade, so I'll let you know later if "oh-ten" redeems the decade at all. I'm at least hopeful for an improved perspective by year-end.

Posted by: chinshihtang | January 2, 2010 11:47 AM | Report abuse

"The Zeroes" is a much better description of the decade than "the Aughts", which should be "the Naughts" to be correct.

It does seem much more like the 1980's, but I'd say that Reagan was very bad for the country, in ways we are still discovering. Bush is Reagan magnified, hence the astronomical debt and national security state, much worse than what Reagan did.

I also generally agree with Ezra about technology, but I am young enough to get lots of fun out of the internet and old enough to just skip Twitter, Facebook and the constant communication and loss of privacy. We lose a great deal when we have no time that is unplugged, unmediated and quiet. More, maybe, than most people appreciate. The door to understanding is within, though it ultimately leads outside ourselves. But you must be quiet and open to really hear anything.

Here's hoping the Teens are better.

Posted by: Mimikatz | January 2, 2010 12:33 PM | Report abuse

I call 'em "the pre-teens."

And given the level of hissy fits over the last ten years (witness Nader and Beck), I think that designation is particularly appropriate.

Posted by: pj_camp | January 2, 2010 1:48 PM | Report abuse

The changes to the Internet during the past decade strike me as more evolutionary than revolutionary. The invention of the Internet was a historical milestone, as was the decision to open it up to the general public. Possibly the invention of the World Wide Web is as significant as the invention of the printing press. Of the four web sites Ezra mentions, two (Google and Amazon) were founded in the 1990's, and two (YouTube and Wikipedia) were founded in the past decade. While the latter two are important sites, the Internet would be recognizable without them.

Posted by: KennethAlmquist | January 2, 2010 2:34 PM | Report abuse

Your notion of the aughts being the decade "when the internet transformed everyday existence" betrays your youth. It may be the decade where the internet transformed your career, however.

For many of us, the 90's were the decade when the internet transformed many aspects of our culture. And the 80's were the decade when the personal computer transformed our culture.

The PC's of the 80's ushered in the capacity of the 90's to build the internet. The internet allowed for a variety of uses to arise in the aughts. But while Facebook and tweeting may seem like revolutionary technologies to starry-eyed techno neophytes, to those of us who were programming Fortran in the 70's, chucking data and email across darpanet in the 80's, and building listserves, web and database servers in the 90's, Facebook, Wiki, Google, Amazon, et al. is very, let's say, cosmetic and peripheral.

The "the age of Google, of Wikipedia, of blogs and video on demand and YouTube and e-readers and GPS in our pockets and e-mail everywhere we go and online connectivity from airplanes and Christmas shopping from Amazon" is really meaningless. "Techno-optim[ism]" will always be prove inferior to real life, face-to-face, hand-shake relationships.

In fact, the case could be made that our reliance on technology has precipitated the decline of the interpersonal relationships needed to attack the major problems of our day.

And you miss the distinction between Gore and Bush. Which I can excuse for your being like 16 during the campaign.

Take the issues away, and Gore was a stiff, cold persona. Bush was a warm and genial, neighborly sort. Wealth and race were non-issues in the campaign. Style had everything to do with Bush's winning--particularly with his willingness to fight for a victory that he didn't deserve.

Gore's deference and unwillingness to ruthlessly pursue victory may have ultimately spared the country years of his brand of leadership--the brand of leadership that Obama is now exhibiting, and is proving to be problematic.

Posted by: jc263field | January 2, 2010 4:35 PM | Report abuse

"Maybe, but I suspect the future will look at the failure to do anything about climate change as more important than technology or the internet or anything else."

We can only hope that when we are living in underground climate-controlled bunkers we will love technology all the more for keeping us connected to the other underground climate-controlled bunkers.

Posted by: Castorp1 | January 2, 2010 4:47 PM | Report abuse

"my sense is that the grim verdicts on the Aughts are over-emphasizing the centrality of politics...I'd bet the Aughts will be remembered more as the age when the internet transformed everyday existence than anything else."

But Ezra, let's be very clear, technological advance is extremely dependent on good governance.

If you want technology, science, medicine to advance faster for the good of America and humankind, then it's extremely important to not vote Republican. The simple-minded soundbite dogmanomics of the Republicans refuses to understand the huge importance of a strong government role here. The free market has severe problems providing advance in basic science and medicine. It will grossly underspend on it (below the level that optimizes total utility for society), and what it spends will often be very inefficient. The free market problems include inability/impracticality to patent, giant economies of scale with zero marginal cost ideas and information (example: if the government decodes the human genome, it puts it freely on the internet and every scientist in the world utilizes that information; if a private company decodes it, it keeps it secret, only a tiny percentage of the worlds scientists use it; it's difficult for the private company to sell it because the info could leak out for free; then there's the price discrimination difficulty issue; if it charges 10 million dollars then every company and scientist who values it substantially, but at less than 10 million dollars does not get to use it, a big waste, because the information has zero marginal cost, then again there are transactions and secrecy issues and costs, and there are more problems than this with the free market decoding the human genome, unless perhaps the government pays with, yes, taxes, for the work, but hires a free market company to do it). There are also gigantic externalities, asymmetric information, and more.

The Republicans always want to spend far less on basic science and medicine than the Democrats, or slash it, so that there's more money for tax cuts for the rich. And they also want to spend less on education, infrastructure, and other very high social return investments of the kind the pure free market will grossly underprovide due to long established in economics free market problems like those already mentioned, externalities, asymmetric information, etc.

In a recent post of mine (that was in Mark Thoma's links – it's good) I note:

Suppose the entire Bush II tax cuts, 1.8 trillion, which went mostly to the wealthy and super-rich, were instead spent on basic scientific and medical research. This would have increased total government spending on R&D over the decade approximately three fold. It would have increased total R&D spending from all sources, government and non, by approximately 50%.

at: http://economistsview.blogspot.com/2009/10/economists-view-5-new-articles_19.html

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | January 2, 2010 4:48 PM | Report abuse

I should note that, in fact, a private company Celera, did decode much of the human genome, but then they tried to patent the genes, which would have caused them to be grossly underutilized by scientists (as well as caused gigantically costly legal nightmares in trying to determine for just about every new medical product how much of it came from looking at the human genome; thus, this is a great example of how impractical or impossible it can be to patent many important discoveries). In 2000, however, President Clinton ruled that the genes could not be patented, and were to be made freely available to any scientist or student in the world over the internet.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | January 2, 2010 4:58 PM | Report abuse

"Indeed, I'd much rather be alive in 2010 than in 2000"

You have a job.

Indeed, I think the last decade will be remembered as the time when decades of free market and free trade policies finally killed the 'Great American Jobs Machine'.

Posted by: mminka | January 2, 2010 6:51 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, I came to this country because I fell in love with Technology and Enterprising Culture of Silicon Valley way back. I scarified my parents, family members and friends for that love and expectation to make living. Myself and my wife live with a constant 'pain' of missing 'folks' back home.

I have benefited from the Dot Com Boom in a reasonable way as well as I have endured two 'gut wrenching' recessions in the same place. I am still in Technology Industry and will be there for a while too.

But what I have learned over this decade is not that Technology and Enterprise make this country great. Nah! if you want Technology, S. Korea is already a leader in many technologies, China and India are catching up too and the real thrilling combustible combination of business opportunities and innovation (the heart of Silicon Valley) that is there too in those countries now.

It may be the Apple of my city which may be humbling S. Korea or Sony of Japan. But America, the notion of America and what America stands for; it can never be some sum of Google, Cisco and Apple.

It is much bigger, much more profound and much more seminal to humanity. You just have to visit Andrew Sullivan's blog to understand the 'intellectual contours' this country is ready to engage into. Just look at the richness of discourse on your blog.

Again, I have my apprehensions about HCR, but in which country you are going to have 5 versions of HCR getting discussed in such thread bare manner and with honest efforts of holding our representatives accountable for that?

Yes, generations of people have given lives for this Freedom and Political vitality. (Imagine those 7 folks of CIA couple of days back....) This Political Maturity and Strength, despite all the faults of America, is not cheap. But we cannot undermine that.

At times I feel many Americans do not know how 'rich' their country is Politically. So no, I do not think it is the 'over engagement' which will characterize this decade.

If it all, whenever prosperity comes, this country like decadent Romans forgets Politics. Our discourse failed to bring difference between Al Gore and George Bush, we lost our way and the story of this decade is nothing but bearing consequences of that calamitous negligence by our political discourse in 1999 and 2000.

Posted by: umesh409 | January 3, 2010 12:37 AM | Report abuse

Anybody with some common sense knows new technologies can have good, bad or both uses. The internet has some positive features, but also some that are negative.

News on the internet tends to be superficial and politically polarized. Many, perhaps most young people, spend too much time using many new technologies. Perhaps in a few more decades books, especially those about serious subjects, will be considered quaint antiques.

Posted by: Aprogressiveindependent | January 3, 2010 1:43 AM | Report abuse

Reagan was one of the best presidents this country ever had. Lincoln and FDR are not even in the top 5. Come on you would have preferred Jimmy Carter over Reagan please. He is one of this country's worst presidents ever. Or maybe Fritz Mondale or Dukahis to Bush. Typical of leftist socialist who wants the govt to solve all their problems. I take Reagan over Comrade Barry any day.

And please Al Gore as prez. Only if you wanted tens of thousands of Americans dead as the result of terrorist attacks. If only Clinton had thought more about terrorism than blow jobs maybe he and his admin could have stopped this whole mess back in the 90's.

Sorry I ill not reduce my standard of living or pay more for good and services and in taxes when billions of Chinese and Indians are doing crap. Screw the rest of the world.

Leftists like Erza need to remember the folks in flyover territories are well armed. It maybe time for a third civl war. The rest of the country against overeducated urban dwellers.

Posted by: vaherder | January 3, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

"It's the age of Google, of Wikipedia, of blogs and video on demand and YouTube and e-readers and GPS in our pockets and e-mail everywhere we go and online connectivity from airplanes and Christmas shopping from Amazon."

The oughts will certainly be remembered for some of those things (as previous posters have pointed out, many of them are 90s innovations), but in sum, I think these are less transformative than you imply, Ezra. After all, most of these innovations are simply versions of what we could already do, only now either on a computer or a personal device. That's all pretty neat, but it's hardly paradigm shifting. Mostly it continues advances in communications that were taking place in the 80s and 90s.

Now, if you're looking for a paradigm-shifting technological moment of the decade that really will change society, my vote would be for social networking sites, which really could be changing the way this society conceives of personal relations.

Posted by: amoffett1 | January 3, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse

The Aughts will be remembered as the era where old media crushed new media. Talk radio hosts ie: Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Laura Ingram and Sean Hannity, dominated the narrative of Washington despite the fact that Dems took control of both houses of congress in 06 and the WH in 08. Regardless how outrageous their claims, the DC press corps repeats their baseless rants and asks progressive leaders for a response. Death Panels, birthers and tenthers were phrases that crowded out reasonable debate on healthcare, but were good for cable and talk radio ratings. Talk radio punked the democratic process, regardless how many tweets were tweated, or facebook friends were made.

The economic demise of commercial journalism is mirrored by news editors willng to write, and produce for broadcast, stories without fact checking. The death of journalism is the story of the Aughts.

WMD, check. Saddam and Al Qaeda, check. Medicare D passed in 2003 with an assist by Billy Tauzin's quest for big money and a government actuary muzzled, check. Global Warming deniers Inhofe and company allowed to spread misinformation unchallenged, check.

Journalism without fact checking leaves our democracy in a constant state of confusion. We got nothing, we got journalism based on nothing. Like one long, bad, Seinfeld episode.

Posted by: gregw571 | January 3, 2010 8:38 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, I think you're way too optimistic. The technology of the 2000s is almost entirely composed of refining things that were in widespread use in 1999. Even major refinements of existing technology (such as color TV) do not define a decade in the popular imagination.

The wars will stay with this decade forever. They are the only big things that happened, save the S11 attacks. But I doubt that will happen.Add in a weak economy and some supremely nasty and unproductive politics (think Bush vs.Gore)and there just isn't much that would make this decade stand out for good reasons in the popular imagination.

The best the 2000s can expect is being the new 70s. In that decade we almost impeached a President for real, lost a major war, had an extremely weak economy, etc.But since nobody wants to dwell on that stuff when people talk about the 70s they talk about pop culture.

As for your better to be alive comment I'll have to agree, given the alternatives.

Posted by: NickBenjamin | January 4, 2010 10:31 AM | Report abuse

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