Saturday, January 2, 2010

I Know What My Sin Is

Back in 2009, I wrote a post which detailed my disillusionment with the 21st century as it had unfolded up to that point, and looked at the end of the decade as a pessimistic counterweight to the 1990s and 1980s, both of which struck me as more optimistic times - although, being that I'm just 27, my knowledge of the '80s zeitgeist derives mostly from what was written and produced at the time.

Apparently I'm wrong. Noel Maurer left a comment taking me to task for projecting my own view onto the spirit of the times in the late '80s and early '90s, and while I take issue with his assertion that the early 1990s recession was worse than the one we're in now - I haven't been able, personally, to find anything that suggests our current economic malaise comes in second place to anything but the Great Depression - he's got a point.

I've also picked up a "declinist" vibe from some works of the period, but in the grand scheme I thought those were outliers. Things like 1991's Fallen Angels by Niven, Pournelle, and Flynn, which also reflects a general attitude towards climate change when it was still popularly considered only as the Greenhouse Effect, or James P. Hogan's 1992 The Multiplex Man, feed into the "end of the West" concept - and while Fallen Angels mires the entire world in radical technophobic ultra-environmentalism, The Multiplex Man goes one further and has the former Eastern Bloc become the new center of technological and economic growth. As for the hope of cold fusion as "one of the big game-changers," S.M. Stirling's 1989 short story "Roachstompers" - despite the other qualities which struck me as somewhat disturbing - looks at the negative consequences of the game being changed in such a big way.

So I was wrong about the nature of the time - but that got me thinking. My conception of the past was greatly colored by the attitudes of the works created during them. How, in twenty or thirty years, will the '00s be seen by those who haven't been born yet or are still too young to have any understanding of the decade?

Historical events, or the lack of them, may have something to do with that. Part of my conception of the late 1980s as an optimistic time came from the historical awareness there - the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, and in 1991 the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. From where I stand, it seemed as simple as "the threat of nuclear war that you've lived with for forty-five years is over! Why the hell wouldn't you idiots be optimistic?"

I can't think of any equivalent historical events for the '00s that would similarly mislead an observer in, say, 2029. Personally, when I sat back to think of positive historically-significant events of the last ten years, the only one I can think of that might qualify is the inauguration of Barack Obama. Even then, the nature of how the remainder of his term unfolds will color the perceptions of future observers. Until at least 2012, we'll only have speculation.

I would love for the things we worry about today, like deficits in democracy or environmental damage, to look as quaint in 2030 as 1990's fears of "crime and racial tension." Personally, I don't believe we have that luxury.

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