2000 - 2010: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly.

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I grew up in the 80s and 90s—two decades that are probably still fighting with each other over which was the better future. In the 80s electronic music started to hit the mainstream in a huge way. Synthesizers replaced all else, and androgynous guys with badass haircuts rocked out on keytars. Also, there was a fog machine, somewhere. In the 90s, or as I like to call it, The Time of the Hammer (think about it), the personal computer really took off, the cellular telephone system turned from a joke rich people told each other to an essential communications backbone. The Internet began its grand transition from a series of interconnected military and university nodes to a conduit for pornography and adorable photos of cats. The future was starting then, but in the 2000s the future arrived, for better or worse.

The Good

The world became a whole lot smaller in the last decade. A lot smaller. The Internet was around in the 90s but it really wasn't there 100%. Not everything was hooked up. The 90s ushered in the concept of a world wide web but the 2000s was a continuous, inexorable process of absolutely everything being connected to absolutely everything else. Broadband internet access went from a useless affectation of the very wealthy to being pervasive, just as essential in your pocket as on your desk at home. Portable computing made huge leaps and bounds—the best top of the line supercomputers that existed in 1995 were less powerful than one core of my dual-core laptop, and the desktop computer my family had in high school wasn't nearly as powerful as the phone I carry in my pocket every day today. Think about that for a minute; I'll wait....

Pretty amazing, no? By far the best thing about the 2000s is that the future started to happen. In the 80s and 90s we saw a glimpse of what would be, but not only did those predictions still have that same neofuturist patina the predictions of the 50s had, but most people didn't think we'd be here until the 2020s or the 2030s. If I could take my iPhone back in time with me and show my high school self, I think he'd shit his pants, and I'd be forever haunted by the memory of Future Max making me soil myself in high school. Horrifying. Seriously though look at any aspect of technology—particularly computer engineering—and note that everything is ten times better than we all thought it would be. In The Singularity is Near, Ray Kurzweil asserts this is because technology progresses in a doubly exponential manner, when we intuitively view its progress linearly as humans. That makes sense. I still think I could use an iPhone to make past-Max shit his past-pants in the past. Really.

The last century saw the telegraph get slowly replaced by the telephone. We kicked this century off by all but completely phasing out land line telephones within the first few years, and all but completely doing away with dead tree technologies for communication (when was the last time you actually wrote a letter, put it in an envelope, and sent it to someone as personal correspondence?). The future arrived and became so widespread even my grandparents use email and the internet. Hell they might even be reading this right now.

The Bad

It wasn't all good. We kicked this century off here in America with the deadliest attack on U.S. soil, a little skirmish you might remember as "9/11". Even though I was living in Georgia at the time, I remember that morning vividly. I had just woken up and was in the shower when my mom interrupted me to tell me that planes had crashed into the World Trade Centre towers, then I was glued to the television and CNN while the third crashed into the Pentagon and the fourth crashed somewhere in the middle of nowhere. I didn't lose anyone in the attacks but it was still devastating. As long as I live I will never be able to forget the image of the two towers, burning, with little specks that deep down I knew were people jumping out of them to their deaths. I don't think I can call that the worst of the 2000s though, tempting as it is.

The worst was what happened afterward. It was bad enough that we were attacked by terrorists but that wasn't new, really. The World Trade Centre had been attacked in the 90s and I, of course, still remembered the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing and those halcyon days when the Unabomber was so passé he became a late night punchline. None of these had a four-digit body count, but even the 9/11 attacks didn't kill anywhere near as many people as the two wars begun by George W. Bush during the 2000s.

The Afghanistan conflict I understood. They had harboured the people who had attacked us and I think everyone in this country had the same kind of knee jerk reaction that we should unleash all manner of Hell upon them, but it was at this point—or maybe sooner, and I just didn't notice it—that the Bush administration learned that if they kept everyone scared they could do whatever they wanted. I remember Bush's rhetoric at the time, that we would find these people and bring them to justice, and I thought that though it would be hard, we were the U.S. of A. and we couldn't fail. We didn't fail, exactly, but the administration took their eye off the ball, and we inexplicably entered an extremely bloody and unwinnable conflict in Iraq, which the more astute among you will notice is not the same country as Afghanistan. Over the next seven years we would pour all of our military dollars (which is a significant portion of our overall supply of dollars) into Iraq, which only seemed to get worse and worse over the years thereafter, and almost nothing into Afghanistan, which slowly deteriorated to worse than the state in which we found it. Thousands of Americans lost their lives in both conflicts—and continue to lose them with no end in sight for either—and I cannot honestly say they died for a good cause. Yes we got rid of Saddam Hussein, but we totally lost sight of our original antagonist, Osama bin Laden, who despite years of conflict is still a free man. We were attacked with impunity, and the architect of those attacks is still free, and we've lost thousands of our own—in addition to the thousands of Iraqis and Afghans that aren't even being reliably counted—in what I am going to call an Arabian misadventure of epic proportions, and I have to consider that the worst thing about the 2000s.

The ugly

In part because Bush let go of the handlebars of the US economy and in part because of the efforts of others before him (I'm looking at y'all, Reagan, Bush Sr. and to a lesser degree Clinton), Wall Street experienced incredible gains during the 2000s but our deficit ballooned out of control and the rest of the country just got repeatedly screwed by the economy. The gains were so incredible because, when seen from Main Street, they appeared invisible. The disparity between rich and poor has never as long as I've lived been greater than it is now at the end of the decade. Only a couple of years ago I was reading about hedge fund managers who were making money that could actually be measured in metric tonnes, but simultaneously I was seeing high-paying blue collar manufacturing jobs in the US evaporate and condense like dew on China. I saw the agricultural and automotive industries in the US start to falter in a huge way. Wall Street went up up up but the rest of the country just got worse and worse as all of the money concentrated so heavily on the privileged few that there wasn't any left for everyone else. Though Wall Street's performance for the better part of the decade could be called "meteoric", overall average income and the quantity of jobs available declined or stayed the same; for this reason people are already starting to call the 2000s the "Lost Decade".

That probably should have gone under "The bad", because by far the ugliest thing about the 2000s was the 2008 elections. It looked like either way, the first woman or the first black man was going to be the Democratic candidate for president, and that was pretty exciting. The whole country lost its shit though, and the GOP fronted the worst presidential ticket in decades: John McCain and Sarah Palin. Don't get me wrong, I used to like McCain a lot back in 1999 and 2000. When he was running against George W. Bush in the 2000 primary, I hoped he would win so that no matter what we would get a good president in office (can you imagine how different this entry would be if Al Gore had been elected?). He was a Republican but he was also very independent and had enough street cred within his party to go against the flow when his conscience dictated; I liked that. By 2008 though he was a much older and more desperate man, and for some reason saw fit to choose who I would consider one of the worst VP candidates of all time, Sarah fucking Palin. I don't need to go over this again, but the 2008 election was by far the ugliest I'd ever seen. I'd witnessed some muckraking in my day, but I had never seen an entire national political party go completely off the tracks, set loose from the boundaries of reality, and go far beyond mere policy disagreements to instead argue for a completely alternate reality with no ties to this one. Political discourse went from differing opinions on nuanced issues to arguing about which version of reality was the best one. Religious fundamentalism played a major part, and the GOP started to shift dramatically towards the right. I remember the GOP primary battles, and this one terrifying moment during a big debate with 7 or 8 candidates when they were asked which ones believed Charles Darwin's principle of natural selection (evolution) to be an accurate portrayal of the world around us, when nobody raised their hand. We didn't have a single republican candidate who wanted to admit—even without ditching religion by the roadside like a broken cassette tape—that the science taught in every reputable school in the country was accurate. I don't begrudge people their religious beliefs, but you have to be able to reconcile those with the realities you see around you every day, and you have to respect the peer-reviewed conclusions of real scientists. Truly, during the 2000s, ignorance became fashionable at least for a certain subset of the US population.

In between November 2008 and December 2009, fringe nutjobs like Orly Taitz started appearing on national television and, even worse, started being taken seriously. Republicans would stand idly by while town hall audience members accused the president of all manner of subterfuge including the baffling accusation that he was secretly a Muslim (what, muslims can't be elected president?), but in 2002 anyone who said anything negative—no matter how true—about then-President Bush would be hogtied and run out of town on a rail by angry idiots filled with pseudopatriotic rage. My how times have changed.

The future

Despite all that terrifies me about what's going on in the world, and also in spite of my apprehensions about the 2010 and 2012 elections (I know I've said this for three presidential elections in a row now, but seriously if Sarah Palin gets elected I'm hopping off this sinking ship like a man on fire), I am excited about the future. Now that the Bush era is over we can finally get started on some stem cell research, nanotechnology can start to be developed in earnest, and we might finally get around to solving the problems the last century left us with, like global warming, greenhouse gas buildup, and worldwide hunger and poverty. Even though this decade has left me feeling downtrodden and hopeless at times, I am still optimistic that if we can begin to take our problems seriously as real problems rather than just leaving everything alone and waiting for the Rapture to fix everything, we can in my lifetime make this a better world. This decade doesn't have to be lost if we learn the right lessons from it, and build our future from a positive knowledge of the mistakes of our past. With attention spans at an all time low and apathy at an all time high, I don't know if that will happen, but I have a certain faith it might.

Until then, space cadets.