The past 876,600 hours have perhaps been the most progressive in human history, which is saying a great deal. You could argue that the 1400s did more for humankind than did the 1900s, and that the explorers of the 1400s and the founding of North America (by Europeans anyway) will always be more significant in the history books than will the past 100 years. However past centuries compare to the 1900s, though, the 1900s will always be the first entirely recorded century in our history.
Almost every important moment of the 1900s is captured on photographs, on audio tapes, or on video. From the assassination of John F. Kennedy to kamikaze planes crippling U.S. battleships off the Pacific Islands; from the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana to the resignation and much-later funeral of Nixon; from great storms lashing lush islands and coasts to mass starvation on a dry, landlocked continent. Recorded celebrations abound, too, along with their counterparts: Jesse Owens's victory at the 1936 Berlin Olympics; Hitler's chilling speech in that same stadium. The homecoming of American hostages from Iran; a failed helicopter rescue. Clinton's acceptance speech in 1992; Clinton later staring into a camera and addressing all American people -- "I did not...." (Did you forget that Clinton was impeached this year? What a year of events, indeed.)
Music has been recorded this century, enough music to fill every moment that took place, a song to go with every scene. Books are filled with photographs, quotes, and countless stories. The past 100 years created more media than all of history combined. Despite the obvious benefit of our record-keeping to historians, without the Internet, the records that we keep may not serve much benefit to people living decades from now. Without the Internet, where could 100 years of media (and growing) be conveniently stored for the masses? How could it be accessed by everyone, from anywhere? Ten years ago, there wasn't an obvious answer to these questions. Today, you are using the "answer" to read this column. The Internet is quickly becoming the world's largest history book, reference guide, community, place of business -- it is a living, moving record of ourselves and our actions.
With the Internet, distance no longer matters, and in a sense, neither does time. With proper archiving, in the year 2099, the year 1999 will be as close as a mouse-click away. Sites will archive every year and every important event, with video clips, audio clips, written columns, and the community's response to every event (your post could be read 100 years later). All of this will be recallable to anyone in an instant.
The thought of this is so powerful that the Internet may take the mystery out of history; it may remove the romance that time usually stamps onto something that took place long ago. The world will be compressed, all of it in one place sharing "one endless moment" online. The Internet may make it seem that history didn't take place very long ago. Just hit your browser's "back" button and you can find history.
The end of a stunning decade and a baffling century (in the midst of great progress, we fought more than ever) has been overshadowed by the approach of a new millennium. The 1990s and the 1900s have taken a backseat to the mere fact that we're entering 2000. Buried in the embarrassing gossip surrounding Y2K bugs, we seem to have forgotten that we began the 1900s without widespread electricity or telephones, without cars or airplanes. We are ending the 1900s with wireless technology, satellites, jumbo jets, and space shuttles. Take a quick breeze through some main events from the past 876,600 hours:
1903 Wright brothers' flight
1908 Model T Ford
1918 WW I ends
1920 First radio station
1927 First large television demonstration
1929 Stock market crashes, Great Depression starts
1934 Commercial airplane flights popularized
1941 U.S. enters WW II
1945 First Atomic bomb exploded
1946 Televisions mass-produced
1951 First color television broadcast
1953 Computers first mass-produced
1958 First silicon chip
1969 Armstrong walks on the moon
1971 Nasdaq introduced
1978 Airlines deregulated
1980 Personal computers enter the picture
1981 Intel enters the CPU industry
1983 CD players introduced
1986 Microsoft goes public
1989 The Berlin Wall falls
1990 Soviet Union collapsing
1991 Consumer Internet "begins" with Mosaic
Eastern Europe opening up
Persian Gulf War
1994 The Motley Fool goes online
1996 Stock market begins a record four-year rise
1997 Amazon.com goes public
1999 Jeff Bezos named Time's "Man of the Year"
(By the way, Bezos will be a guest on this weekend's "Motley Fool Radio Show." Check it out here.)
Obviously, so many things are excluded from the list, one being our advances in life science and medicine. Penicillin. Antibiotics. Advanced surgery. Chemotherapy. Amgen's Epogen and Neupogen. A sheep, Dolly, was cloned. The human genome may be mapped before 2001. The quickening speed of information technology has finally given biotechnology awesome potential. If the human body can be broken down into digitized sequences that computers can piece together in a way that explains disease, aging, human characteristics, and traits... if computers can do this, what does it mean about us as a race, and where are we going?
What Happens Next?
Do you want your children to "build" their children with the aid of computer-generated genetic information, or do you want your children to have children the old-fashioned way, that is, naturally? But then, what is "natural"? Couldn't genetic engineering come to be seen as natural in the future? The word "natural," like all words, is merely a convention. It can come to mean new things, just as it has in this past decade ("naturally raised farm fish").
Whatever happens to our conventions, the past can't possibly compete with where we are headed. But where are we headed? What predictions can we make? We need only look back for answers.
In 1899, who could have predicted the rise of automobiles and the spread of suburbs and shopping malls? In 1899, who would have predicted that millions of people would fly around the world annually by the end of the century? Or that we'd put a man on the moon? Or that the world would suffer two wars called "World Wars" only 20 years apart, and still progress forward quicker than ever? Who predicted in 1899 that America, the youngest large country in the world, would become the strongest? In 1899, could anyone have predicted that personal computers would become an essential part of daily life? How about predicting that a network of computers would link the world together in a relatively cheap and easy fashion? For that matter, who predicted microwaves, radio, and television?
As 1999 slips neatly into history books alongside a whole century of other years that began with "19," and caps an entire millennium beginning with "1" (even though our dates are only conventions, too), who here can predict where the "2's" will now take us?
Of course, nobody can. That's what makes it all so interesting. We must discover it day by day.
Turn Out the Lights
A block of time has come and gone, day by day -- a time that none of us can ever experience again. I suspect that one day many of us will stand on the brink of the year 2020 and remember the 1990s as the long-ago end of many things and the start of something immense. This decade brought the end of distances in North America and around the world. Radio, phone, and television could only do so much. The Internet closed the gaps. When you go "away" now, you are no longer "away" -- unless you vow to not check e-mail (or carry your cell phone). We are all just a few keystrokes apart from one another.
This decade was also the end, perhaps, of a slower and more reflective way of life. Rather than reflect on important events after they happen, the impulse now is to quickly go online and see what others are saying, and then maybe add your thoughts to the discussion (thoughts that have already been impacted by the thoughts of others). The 1990s also represent the beginning of an entirely new freedom, however, a freedom that we're only now beginning to realize -- if we have indeed begun to realize it yet at all. Perhaps we haven't.
So, as you leave, please turn out the lights for 1999, for the 1990s, for the 1900s, and finally for all of the 1000s. We have much brighter worlds to discover, and if not discover, to create.
--Jeff Fischer, December 31, 1999