1995: The Year the Future Began
W. Joseph Campbell
The 20th century is studded with iconic years, some of worldwide signiﬁcance—human history really did take a wrenching turn in 1914—and others (1967, Canada’s Centennial year) of more localized importance. What Campbell, a professor in the school of communication at Washington’s American University, wants to make of 1995, a year that hardly stands out anywhere, is revealed by his subtitle—more like 1914 than 1967. Some of his evidence is less than persuasive—does it really matter when U.S. president Bill Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky met?—but he does have the makings of a case when it comes to key moments in the history of technology.
Much of the core structure of the World Wide Web was already in place before 1995, when the American Dialect Society declared those three words “the phrase of the year,” and much of what is now dominant in the digital world, from social media to smartphones, are 21st-century developments. But 1995 was clearly a critical mass year.
Highlights include: Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page meeting at Stanford University (they didn’t much like each other to start); 28-year-old computer programmer Pierre Omidyar holing up in his California office over the Labour Day weekend to write the code for a site he called AuctionWeb (three years later, he became a billionaire when the site went public as eBay); Amazon.com, the Internet’s greatest commercial success story, going online; and the birth of the wiki—allowing Internet collaboration across distances.
There’s no comparison between the tech developments, and their implications for how we would learn to live and work, and one of the Oval Office’s more sordid moments. Or, for that matter, any equivalency with the rest of Campbell’s focal points: the Oklahoma City bombing, the Dayton peace accord that ended the wars in the Balkans, and the O.J. Simpson trial. The trial may have marked a stage in 24/7 media obsession with celebrities—although that’s debatable—but the diametrically opposed reactions of black and white Americans to the verdict was no signal of change in racial politics. It was just more of the same, as demonstrated by similar fault lines, many years later, in the response to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
An eventful year, then, 1995, and one instructive to look back upon. But if the true measure of an iconic year is whether people at the time felt the earth had moved, and believed the date would live on as a short-form summary of something vitally important—the way 9/11 does—1995 just doesn’t cut it.