1995: The year the future began
The passing of 20 years illuminates how 1995 was a watershed year — a time of maturing technologies and converging trajectories, a hinge moment at the cusp of the millennium.
It was a year of five critical turning points, each of which is explored in my latest book, 1995: The Year the Future Began. The book’s official publication date is January 2, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the start of 1995.
The book describes how 1995 was “the year of the Internet” — when the World Wide Web entered the mainstream of American life, when now-familiar mainstays of the digital world such as Amazon.com, eBay, Craigslist, and Match.com established their presence online. It was when the founders of Google first met, on the campus of Stanford University. It was when Netscape Communications, the upstart maker of an eponymous and highly popular Web browser, illuminated the Internet for millions of people with its eye-popping IPO in August 1995. It was the year Bill Gates declared in an internal memorandum to Microsoft executives: “The Internet is a tidal wave. It changes the rules.”
It was the year of the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history — a massive truck-bombing that destroyed the federal building in Oklahoma City and killed 168 people, including 19 children. The attack was planned and carried out by a veteran of the Gulf War, a misfit named Timothy McVeigh who thought he was teaching a grievous lesson to a government he regarded as meddlesome and dangerous. The surprise attack in the American heartland stirred shock and revulsion — and a deepening national preoccupation with terrorism. The bombing signaled the rise of security-related restrictions that since 1995 have become more commonplace, more stringent, and more intrusive.
It was the year of “The Trial of the Century,” when O.J. Simpson answered charges that he had slashed to death his former wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ron Goldman, outside her condominium in Los Angeles. The trial fascinated as much as it repelled. It was called “a Bayeux tapestry of contemporary American culture” and “the Othello of the 20th Century.” It stretched like a stain across much of the year, ending in October with Simpson’s controversial but probably inevitable acquittal. Ironically, the trial’s most tedious stretches produced its most lasting consequences: The Simpson case introduced into popular consciousness the decisive potential of forensic DNA in criminal investigations and legal proceedings. And it anticipated the rise of popular CSI-type programming on television.
It was the year when the United States hit its post-Cold War stride in brokering peace accords that ended the war in Bosnia, the deadliest and most vicious conflict in Europe since the time of the Nazis. The accords were crafted halfway round the world from the Balkans — at Wright-Patterson Air Force base near Dayton, Ohio, an improbable yet inspired venue that bristled with inescapable reminders of U.S. military might. The success at Dayton promoted a muscularity in U.S. foreign affairs and placed America on a trajectory of increasingly forceful interventions abroad which, in turn, gave rise to what has been called a “hubris bubble.” The “hubris bubble” grew and expanded until it burst in the lethal insurgency that arose following the U.S.-led invasion Iraq.
And 1995 was the year President Bill Clinton began a clandestine affair with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern 27 years his junior. The first of their several furtive sexual encounters took place in November 1995, during a partial shutdown of the federal government orchestrated by Republican leaders in Congress. The shutdown brought the temporary furlough of 800,000 federal workers, including most fulltime White House staffers. Into the breach stepped unpaid White House interns, some of whom, like Lewinsky, worked for a time in proximity to senior administration officials. The Clinton-Lewinsky dalliance ultimately erupted in a sex-and-lies scandal that rocked the U.S. government — and in 1998 brought about the first-ever impeachment of an elected American president.
The major developments of 1995 — the emergence of the Internet, the deadliest spasm of homegrown terrorism on U.S. soil, the grueling yet mesmerizing “Trial of the Century,” the rise of a muscular U.S. foreign policy, and the origins of a sex scandal at the highest reaches of American government — all were decisive turns.
As I write in 1995, the year in many and important ways “effectively marked the close of the one century, and the start of another.”
And like all decisive years, the watershed moments of 1995 live on, exerting influence in many ways and with varying intensity. To look back to 1995 is to find insight into contemporary issues and preoccupations.
The Web’s centrality in digital life is reconfirmed every day. An obsession with terrorism remains inescapable, even if at low levels, in daily American life. The Simpson trial remains a standard against which all subsequent and sensational murder trials are judged, and invariably found wanting. The post-Dayton “hubris bubble” burst in the sands of Iraq and the United States seems content these days in trying to lead from behind, to sidestep a preeminent role in international affairs. The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal remains a source of fascination, as if there remains more to know about why the president took the risks he did, trysting with an intern barely 22-years-old.
Given the detachment and critical distance allowed by the passing of two decades, it is clear that 1995 was a time of exceptional intensity and of enduring importance. It is well that the year be recognized as such, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of 1995.
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