In 1997, when things could only get better, Wired magazine gave over an issue to the raw optimism of the age: we should look forward to 20 solid years of peace, prosperity and progress, as a new age of consensus politics and technological advance smoothed away the rough edges of the warlike beings we once were. Tucked away in this panacea was a little list: 10 things that could go wrong, and dim the otherwise glittering brightness of the future. It’s like looking in a goddamn mirror.
“Tensions between China and the US could escalate into a new cold war,” they said. Can I tell you what our collective 90s consciousness thought about that? Meh. Cold wars are fine. We did the last one no problem.
“New technologies turn out to be a bust. They don’t bring the expected productivity increases or the big economic boosts.” This is probably the least insightful prediction, since even though it turned out to be precisely true, it didn’t touch the sides of what else would happen – the inexorable concentration of wealth into the hands of new-tech evil geniuses, or the fact that we would all instantly surrender everything meaningful in our lives to ping-pong between emailing and doom scrolling. But just because we mainly didn’t anticipate surveillance capitalism doesn’t mean we were fancy-free. We were very worried about Y2K, and I know that because my mother stockpiled a load of bottled water against the eventuality of the computers breaking down in the water-processing plants. She still has it.
European integration might stall, they said, and the entire European project might break apart. So, phew, at least that didn’t happen. One obstructive and obstreperous nation crashed out of it, and the rest seem, if anything, more solid. I can’t speak for the whole 90s here, only for myself; my one worry about Europe in 1997 was that they might all regret joining the euro because their previous currencies were so pretty and melodramatic, particularly the lira. I want to be clear: I wasn’t nine, I was 24.
Climate change, terrorism and pollution could all have potentially destabilising effects, and here there is a tiny glimmer of success: our main concern in the 90s was that it would take so long to reach agreement on whether climate change existed at all that we would all perish while still arguing. It’s true that we may yet perish while arguing about something else, but at least we have reached consensus on this. We weren’t, so far as I remember, all that worried about terrorism, since the looming story then was the Unabomber attack of 96. Since there was no hard-right-funded propaganda machine spreading fear of unhinged white men, it didn’t feel like a daily concern.
Energy prices could go through the roof, and there might be a social and cultural backlash from people who simply don’t want change: both good points, though the energy one is particularly salient right now. You want to know what we talked about a lot in the 90s? Whether or not wind farms killed birds. I’m not minimising the problems attached to being a bird. But it does suggest that we weren’t really thinking ahead.
And finally: “An uncontrollable plague – a modern-day influenza epidemic or its equivalent – takes off like wildfire, killing upward of 200 million people.” In fact, there was no shortage of cultural anxiety around pandemics; there were BBC mini-dramas about a modern smallpox, and feature films. Danny Boyle’s magisterial post-apocalyptic 28 Days Later was released in 2002. One of the many lessons of recent times is that it doesn’t help very much, pandemic-wise, for the private citizen to worry. What you want is for the government to worry, and maybe do some contingency planning.
In that carefree decade, there was one concern we did talk about: fin de siecle anxiety; the worry that this completely abstract thing, the century, would come to an end, which it was definitely going to, and that might be bad.
Honestly, we don’t deserve foresight; we use it for such daft things (except the people who work at Wired).
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