The ’90s as a Golden Age

Remember the golden days, when we had “just enough internet”?

Well, everyone knows that the ’80s were the best decade. What this recent Ross Douthat article presupposes is… maybe it was the ’90s.

If you were born around 1980, you grew up in a space happily between — between eras of existential threat (Cold War/War on Terror, or Cold War/climate change), between foreign policy debacles (Vietnam/Iraq), between epidemics (crack and AIDS/opioids and suicide), and between two different periods of economic stagnation (the ’70s and early Aughts). If you were born later, you experienced slow growth followed by financial crisis followed by a recovery that’s only lately returned us to the median-income and unemployment stats of … 1999.


But perhaps the best way to understand the lost world of 20 years ago is that it was the just-enough-internet era. There was just enough internet to boost economic productivity (the Facebook-Amazon era has not had a similar effect), just enough to encourage subcultural ferment, just enough to challenge cultural gatekeepers and give lonely teenagers succor. It was the early blogosphere instead of Twitter mobs, serendipity instead of ruthless curation, geek culture as an insurgency rather than a corporate establishment, online as an escape for eccentrics rather than an addictive dystopia for everyone.

That last paragraph there seems pretty salient in light of the ongoing mess that the internet has become thanks to any number of privacy-related debacles, not to mention hate speech, trolling and bullying, revenge porn, conspiracy theories, YA Twitter, and of course, YouTube comments.

Back in the ’90s, however, there was a quasi-utopian air about the internet and online culture. It still felt magical and special, not because it was elitist and rarefied, but because it allowed anyone to have a voice. In the ’90s, that seemed like a Very Good Thing, but recent years have borne out the dark side of that same openness.

But I do miss that utopian sense even as I doubt we’ll ever experience it again, not without dramatically re-thinking how the internet fits into our lives and how we “live” on it, anyway.