1995: The year the future began
USA Today, for example, posted a giddy look back discussing “some things that have dramatically changed since Clueless — and some things that shockingly have stayed the same.”
Among USA Today’s observations:
“It’s crazy to think that 20 years ago, there were no cell phones with cameras and the selfie (and selfie-stick) were inventions of the far future.”
“One of the most simultaneously dated and timeless scenes in Clueless happens when Cher [in the lead role, played by Alicia Silverstone] is eating dinner with her dad and her college-aged ex-stepbrother, Josh [Paul Rudd]. A cell phone rings and they all scramble to pick up their respective devices. All you’d need to update that scene would be to replace the voice calls (gross) with texts or Snapchats.”
While it was hardly the best or most imaginative motion picture of 1995, Clueless at 20 does offer unintended insight about challenges that confront researchers who explore the recent past. After all, as the scholar Renee Romano has observed, the recent past is not “a dead past”; it is “still breathing and very much in living memory.”
What gives the recent past legitimacy as history is demonstrating that the period under investigation is quite unlike the present — that however close at hand, it is, as Romano has written, “different enough” from contemporary life. That distinction — the clear foreignness of the recent past — is crucial in conducting meaningful research and in drawing revealing interpretations.
Such considerations were important in my researching 1995: The Year the Future Began: Was 1995 different enough from the present? Had the passage of 20 years brought about ample change to take the measure of the year, to assess at some remove what struck me as the watershed qualities of 1995?
While it is important not to take the frothy Clueless too seriously, the 20th anniversary of the movie’s box office release was a useful and even amusing moment for considering the distances that have opened up since 1995.
Entertainment Weekly contemplated in a post yesterday how different Clueless would be, were it to be made today.
Those differences were many and some were striking: Teen slang popular in 1995 would be unrecognizable today; Cher would eschew Polaroid photos for selfies in assessing her outfits; GPS would make nearly impossible the inadvertent trip on the freeway that terrified Cher and her friends, and social media would figure prominently in Cher’s sharing her thoughts and epiphanies.
Its enduring popularity notwithstanding, Clueless offers plenty of evidence that 1995 was quite a different time.
Other evidence of the distance of 1995 is not hard to find.
Back then, the Chronicle said, “most homes [that were online] shared the joy of a 14.4k dial-up modem, which tied up your phone and connected to the Internet at least 2,000 times slower than most broadband today.”
Moreover, the Chronicle also noted, the “Web of 1995 wasn’t exactly captivating, either. If you could have done a tweet with two emojis, that would have been a showstopper. Like Amazon, most sites had at most a small logo and were dominated by type. Creativity was locked in a bandwidth prison.”
So, yes, sure — the Web of 1995 was very different. Crude, by contemporary standards.
But to think of it that way is to fail to consider the digital past on its own terms.
Even 20 years ago, the Web’s architecture it was good enough for Amazon to start selling books online, good enough for Match.com to launch its online dating service. Good enough, too, for online auctions run by the predecessor of eBay. Good enough for CNN Interactive, RealAudio, Salon, USAToday, Le Monde, and the many other entities that did more than just toe-dip online.
In 1995, I note, “the Internet and the World Wide Web moved from the obscure realm of technophiles and academic researchers to become a household word, [it was] the year when the Web went from vague and distant curiosity to a phenomenon that would change the way people work, shop, learn, communicate, and interact.”
Newsweek observed in December 1995 that navigating the early Web was akin to “a journey to a rugged, exotic destination — the pleasures are exquisite, but you need some stamina.”
The “pleasures are exquisite”: Not many people speak about the Internet in such terms these days.
More common are laments about how tedious it all can seem.
Take, for example, a commentary posted last week at the tech-news site, Re/Code, that declared: “Some 20 years after its launch, the consumer Internet has reached a creativity plateau, with the same websites now being created by the thousands from the same content-management systems every day. …
“In a word,” the Re/Code commentary said, “the Internet has become boring. When it went mass market in the mid-’90s, the Web was promised as a place of open exploration and creativity. Now, instead, it restricts our activity at nearly every turn. This doesn’t just constrain us as people, but threatens to impede the very inventiveness that the Internet industry depends on to continue thriving.”
Now that may be altogether too dire. But it is true that the Internet of 1995 offered a tantalizing sense of tapping into the unknown and the unexpected, a sense that does seem absent today.
So, voilà — further testimony to the remoteness of the recent past.
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