What is the theme of 1990s America?

I Find Karma (adam@cs.caltech.edu)
Sat, 27 Jun 1998 05:14:17 -0700

I just FoRKposted my pseudo-realization about the Web's nature


but really this realization is just a small part of a bigger picture.
The picture of who we are, and where we're heading.

While he was in Seattle last week, Rohit would keep steering my
conversations with him in a Godwinesque way back to one particular

"What is the central theme of the 1990s in America?"

Or, what will we remember the 1990s for twenty or thirty years from now?

For example, we remember the 1960s as the "end of innocence" era with
the shootings of the Kennedies, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X;
the cul-de-sac diplomacies between the world's superpowers ranging from
the Berlin Wall's and the Bay of Pigs' threat of nuclear annihilation to
the escalation in Viet Nam; and the space race culminating in a moon
landing and the science and technology race quieting kicking off the
birth of the Internet.

Or, we remember the 1970s as a "breakdown of the status quo", with Nixon
resigning from office and Carter presiding over stagflation; the
beginning of true interconnectedness of the world's economies as we go
off the gold standard, open China to western trade, and watch gasoline
prices spin out of control; and the sexuality race -- people wearing
bell-bottoms and platform shoes as an excuse to get naked and/or do
drugs and/or get off the disco floor and/or have sex, culminating in the
dawn of the era of AIDS.

Or, we remember the 1980s as a "fables of the reconstruction" -- or is
it a "reconstruction of the fables"? -- with Reagan presiding over
terrible recession and then incredible economic boom; Gorbachev
presiding over the collapse of totalitarianism in several communist
countries, as the world watched the Berlin wall fall; Japan and Germany
looked as if they would own the world (or at least Rockefeller Center
and most of Hawaii); and culturally, we remained relatively homogenous
(who didn't see "E.T." or listen to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" or
watch "The Cosby Show" or wear blue jeans or get used to the idea that
the computer revolution was here?) but there were tensions indicating
that things would splinter like crazy in the next decade.

I feel like the separating moment between the 1980s and the 1990s was
the Gulf War. My 1980s interpretation of the Gulf War is, "We learned
from the 1970s; you're not going to send us into another gasoline
crisis; it is in our economic interest to fight you on this one."

But the 1990s are more about a "fables of the deconstruction" -- or is
it a "deconstruction of the fables"? -- manifested in that "delicate
interconnectedness of all things." So, my 1990s interpretation of the
Gulf War is, "Your setting up shop in Kuwait will have repercussions
throughout the world in many unexpected yet profound ways, therefore, it
is in everybody's economic and political and social and moral interest
for us to fight you on this one."

This interconnectedness has led to two PC evolutions. The first PC
evolution -- Political Correctness -- might have been too much, but it
did help a lot of people gain a lot of appreciation for cultures other
than their own. The other PC evolution -- Personal Computers -- might
also have been too much, but it has opened up communication channels
among people in many unforeseen, accelerated ways.

The appreciation of all cultures has caused a real shift away from the
homogeneity of artifacts in the 1990s: music and movies and books and
clothing and food and marketing and so on are all niched now. A pop
radio station in the 1980s would play most anything as long as it was
popular; a pop radio station in the 1998 can be specialized to the point
that it only plays gangsta rap from shaved-head, bandana-wearing males
born between 1965 and 1975 in the city of Compton, California. [You'd
be surprised how many there are...]

This shift away from homogeneity is no better realized than on the world
wide web, the emerging medium of the 1990s. Theoretically, anyone can
have a voice and have that voice heard, though attention spans being
what they are nowadays thins out the potential audience even more.
Broadcasts keep getting more and more segmented; an audience like the
76.3million people who tuned in for the finale of Seinfeld last month
may never again be assembled except for things like the Superbowl or the
World Cup...

So in addition to this trend toward narrowcasting, there is a trend
toward bigger, faster, harder, more. President Clinton tries his
hardest to be all things to all people. The stock market is
ever-forward-looking and has more and more direct and indirect
contributors, as if it believed that economic cycles are a fallen theory
and that sustained growth could be possible forever. The rich people in
1990 are now incredibly rich people in 1998. Titanic smashed all manner
of box office records, and companies are merging like they want to
converge toward a single, universal Syndicate for whom we all work and
to whom we will gladly give back all the money they pay us in exchange
for goods and services. Subtle manipulative devices intrude our
everyday lives as illustrated brilliantly in The Truman Show.

By the way, did anyone else catch the irony of my mentioning a movie
while talking about manipulative devices like mentioning a movie? We're
living in a post-deconstructivist age, and Baudrillard himself would be
proud: not only has the simulation become reality, but reality itself
has become (like Planet Earth in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to
the Galaxy) a massive simulation. It is now very difficult to discern
between the two. Reading Janet Maslin is sometimes more satisfying than
seeing the movie she's reviewing; I prefer Las Vegas' version of New
York to the real thing; and whereas once the medium was the message, now
the Web has rendered the message the medium rarely well-done. We are
experiencing the second coming of Noah's great flood -- only this flood
is a flood of information and partial information and misinformation and
disinformation, and we have no Ark to save us.

Has any of this accelerated culture brought us any closer to
understanding ourselves, our purpose for being, or the answers to the
questions of life, the universe, and everything? Sure, quantity of life
has improved, but what about quality? More isn't always better.

It was with startling clarity that I realized that Moore's Law isn't
about computing power doubling every 18 months. It's about the stock
prices of Intel, Cisco, Microsoft, et cetera, splitting every 18 months.
In all of the busy-ness and business of options, we've come to ignore
what our options really are. In learning about the costs of everything,
we now have to struggle to realize the value of anything.

Greg Bolcer's post


made me stop and think, and it's been a long time since I've stopped and
thought. What am I fighting for? Who am I struggling against? What in
the world is worth doing? Who is an enemy worth destroying? What is
worth dying for? What is worth living for?

And then Rohit's post


hit me like the Millipede game I just played for 120 minutes straight.
Why am I the way that I am? Who am I?

> This cube positions people's tendencies along spectra from R ("highly
> dependent on emotional supports and intimacy with others; highly
> sentimental; crying very easily; thin-skinned; industrious, ambitious
> overachiever who pushes himself to exhaustion; extremely sensitive to
> rejection from even the most minor slights, leading to reward-seeking
> behavior such as overeating; highly persistent in craving for
> gratification even when frustrated in attempts to obtain expecteed
> recognition or benefits") to r ("insensitive to rejection, socially
> detached, content to be alone").

r. Very content to be alone.

> H is "inhibition in the face of new people or situations; easy
> fatigability"; h is laid-back ("confident, carefree, optimistic,
> energetic, quick to recuperate, and calm in the face of unfamiliar or
> threatening circumstances")

h. Calm in the face of unfamiliar or threatening circumstances
because I really don't know any better.

> N is "Consistently seeks thrilling adventures and exploration and ins
> intolerant of structure and monotony" -- decide intuitively, act and
> spend impulsively, engage in a rpidly shifting series of interests and
> social relaitionships and take slef-destructive risks. n is orderly
> organized controlled analytical, frugal, loyal, stoical, and slow to
> change interests or attachments.

n. Very content to do nothing but slack 24/7.

I am in many, many ways Rohit's complete and utter opposite.

> The process of clustering, then taxonomizing, and finally
> orthogonalizing into causes, are key stages in the scientific literature
> to me. When we properly understand a certain domain of phenonmena, we
> can separate layers of abstraction. Adam and I are just beginning to go
> through this with notifications. It's a field where most analyses have
> just listed features, a few have sorted into affinity-buckets, but few
> have identified philosophical root-causes of why, say, the world splits
> into polling and interruption.

And the sad truth is, in this world of narrowcasting and information
overflow, no one appreciates a good orthogonalization anymore. Everyone
looks at the final result written up from an orthogonalization, and
dismisses such work as "completely obvious", when in fact to come up
with that set was soul-wrenching, time-consuming pain for weeks at a
time. Deep-down understanding is hard; proper orthogonalization is
very hard, and clueful knowledge management is incredibly hard.

And then, sitting down and articulating this understanding, this
orthogonalization, this knowledge acquired and managed through little
more than sheer force of will and profoundly deep thought...
sitting down and articulating this vision is mind-numbingly hard.

> Experts on human behavior have always tended to pick one or two dominant
> themes that control our actions. Sigmund Freud, the founder of
> psychoanalysis, believed were all driven by sex and aggression. Noted
> psychotherapist Carl Rogers picked the desire to reach our fullest
> potential as our driving force. Plato said it was curiosity and
> philosophy.

Maybe all this demographic narrowcasting indicates that different people
are truly motivated by different things. That human motivation is not
something that is readily classifiable. That the lack of motivation of
ambition that some of us manifest in our slacking ways is completely
rational, despite repeated admonishments from our wives, friends,
family, bosses, and advisors...

That the search for meaning in our lives precludes our ability to
actually find meaning in our lives, because searching consumes all
available resources, leaving no attention left for something like
identifying the end-goal when it is in plain view.

> One size doesnt fit all. Take sex, for example. Some people like sex
> so much they make exclamation marks on the questionnaire. Other people
> give you the lowest possible response, Reiss says. Howard Hughes bought
> a movie studio to be close to women, and he used his electronics
> companies to track as many as 167 women a day. And then you have
> somebody like the Unabomber who goes out into Montana and obviously is
> not pursuing the opposite sex at all.

Great, so just because I don't like sex, now I'm the Unabomber?
Deep down, you know, our motivations are all chemicals... so maybe
one day I'll be able to take a pill and be just like everybody else...

And now, for the great damning interconnected clustermuck of a

> Reiss believes we probably retain the same core values and desires
> throughout our lives, but age takes a toll. There is a massive lowering
> of desire in everything as people get older, Reiss says. Ambition goes
> down, sex goes down, everything goes down. Its more than just
> mellowing. As we get older, we just don't give a damn.

So now we know the truth about me and my motivations. I act like a
138-year-old. But I'm no different from our American society itself.
In the 1990s, we as a society are aged. And as a result, we really
have stopped giving a damn about a lot of things. What if media and
content and entertainment software and infrastructure really are all
merging, putting the subtle control of our lives in the hands of a very
small number of people? What if it were actually true? Would anybody
at this point give a damn enough to change it?

Who really thinks about how what they're doing fits into the big
picture? And if we did think about the big picture, would there
actually be anything we could do about it? If the wheels are in motion
to destroy or to control the world, would we recognize it? And if we
recognized it, could we stop it? Is the Y2K problem really just a
metaphor for a complete breakdown that is long overdue to a society that
keeps accelerating its culture and its memes without a thought to the
consequences of such acceleration, to the point where society itself is
gossamer and living in the ether? After all, one cannot dissect gossamer...

So as we sit here, 18 months from the year 2000, the world has truly
opened up at both the microscopic level (increasing narrowcasts and
smaller demographic preference groupings) and at the macroscopic level
(increasing amount of information available, with delicate
interconnections increasing with vigor and verve each passing day).
I think this is how the 1990s will be remembered. We still have the
tension of the potential for complete extinction, we still have the
tension of the potential for complete mind control, we still have the
tension of the potential for our creating the species that supplants us
on this planet, and we still have the tension of the potential for the
dawning of a new era of human understanding and enlightenment. This is
a fascinating crossroads at which we currently stand, on June 27, 1998.


.sig triple play!

Logically, all things are created by a combination of simpler, less
capable components. Therefore, a supreme being must be our _future_,
not our origin! What if "God" is the consciousness that will be
created when enough of us are connected by the Internet!!
-- Dogbert

It is not enough if you are busy. The question is, what are you busy
-- Henry David Thoreau

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how
they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really
do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.
That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and
synthesize new things.
-- Steve Jobs