Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The 00s: Clinging to the Past

With hours to go before the decade is over, it is about time for me to try to sum up the decade of the 2000s. As I do so, I don‘t have any hesitation about the key theme of the decade. It was often a frustrating period for a future-oriented person such as myself because institutions and people in power spent so much of the time clinging to the past. This is easy to see if you just look at what people expected for this decade when it got started, and compare that to the way it turned out.

Just a few quick examples:

  • In the book industry: We went into the decade talking about digital presses and electronic books. As the decade is ending, we are still fiddling around with those ideas — and we find ourselves asking when we can finally get the industry to communicate by a more modern medium than the fax machine.
  • Solar panels: This would be the decade when generating electricity from sunlight would go mainstream. Not. We entered the decade with a chronic shortage of solar manufacturing capacity, and as the decade ends, the shortage has not only persisted, it has become more acute.
  • Digital music downloads: What more advanced file format would replace the MP3 in the 00s? None! It’s not that better file formats aren’t available. People just aren’t using them very much. In fact, as the decade ends, lawyers are still mopping up after the lawsuits against Apple — it was unfair competition, competitors and government regulators said, that Apple allowed its music players to play other file formats in addition to MP3!
  • Clothing: This was the decade in which the fashion industry just about died. It started out with people becoming nervous about being seen in new clothing styles. It ended up in a year in which most people didn’t buy any new clothing at all. I defy anyone to tell apart scenes from 2000 and from 2009 by the clothing in the photos. You can’t do it, because for the first time in more than a century, clothing styles at street level didn’t shift perceptibly in any direction over the course of the decade.

As widespread as this nostalgia and resistance to change was during the 00s, it didn‘t stop progress. It only dictated that the most rapid progress would occur in areas where people weren’t paying attention or didn’t understand what was going on. Much of the most important progress over the course of the decade took the form of a simplification of something people were already doing. The perfect example of this in the 00s, in my opinion, is Unicode. Most people probably never stopped to think about the fact that web pages gradually started to display characters with accent marks or that some YouTube videos were captioned in traditional Chinese. That became possible because the world decided to mostly use one character set, in place of the 200 or so that computers used at the beginning of the decade. This transition might not seem so important, especially if this is the first time you are hearing about it, but it is this kind of simplification that sets the stage for further progress.