1995: The year the future began
Over the past 12 months, The 1995 Blog revisited the watershed year in varied and searching ways. Here is a look back at a seven posts that notably recalled the richness, the quirkiness, the surprises, and the lasting importance of 1995, the year that is the subject of my latest book:
■ The quaint early efforts to describe the emergent Web (posted January 18): In 1995, the World Wide Web became “a full-fledged media star, hailed and hyped.” That, at least, was the characterization of the New York Times near the close of the year.
As that observation suggested, describing the Web to uninitiated audiences in 1995 was no small challenge for traditional media outlets. Early in the year, for example, the Times referred to the Web as “a section of the Internet overflowing with sights and sounds.” It said the Web was “the place to be in 1995” for “anyone with a computer, modem and so-called browser software.”
Such descriptions weren’t wrong, but they certainly seem quaint, 20 years on.
The intent in revisiting such descriptions, I wrote in the blog post January 18, wasn’t “to ridicule the efforts to define the lexicon of the early Web. Rather, looking back offers reminders about how embryonic and shifting the Web vernacular was in 1995,” when the Internet was entering the mainstream consciousness.
“As with all truly great communications tools, including the printing press, the television, the telephone and the personal computer, the Internet’s World Wide Web is both a dynamic information source and a prodigious productivity waster.”
■ Media fail: Remembering Oklahoma City bombing coverage (posted April 19): Few events of 1995 were as improbable and as shattering as the terrorist bombing that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
The attack took place April 19, 1995, at a little after 9 a.m., when a disgruntled, 26-year-old Army veteran named Timothy McVeigh drove a rented Ryder truck, packed with 7,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, to a sidewalk cutout in front the building. He parked, locked the truck’s cab, and walked away, fuses burning into the cargo hold.
A few minutes later, and without warning, McVeigh’s bomb detonated in a terrifying roar heard for miles.
The attacked killed 168 people and injured more than 680 others. Today, the site of the Murrah Building is a solemn, open-air memorial called the Field of Empty Chairs (see photo, right). There, 168 glass, bronze, and stone chairs offer silent testimony to irretrievable loss.
In the bombing’s immediate aftermath, and before McVeigh was charged in the attack, journalists pressed a flawed narrative that the attack was the work of Middle East terrorists.
Among them was Connie Chung, then a co-anchor for CBS Evening News. “This is the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil ever,” she declared on the night of the bombing. “A U.S. government source has told CBS News that it has Middle East terrorism written all over it.”
On ABC News, John McWethy, the network’s national security correspondent, reported that “if you talk to intelligence sources and to law enforcement officials, they all say . . . that this particular bombing probably has roots in the Middle East.”
The news media leaned hard on what proved to be an erroneous presumption. And the flawed reporting of the bombing’s aftermath lives on as a telling reminder about how early news accounts of a major disaster tend to be off-base and in error.
“It is,” I write in my book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, “a vulnerability the news media seldom seem to anticipate, or to learn from.”
■ Bill Clinton and the persistent shadow of sex scandal (posted March 5): The improbable sexual dalliance between President Bill Clinton and a nominal White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, began in mid-November 1995, during a partial shutdown of the federal government. The affair between the president and a woman 27 years his junior continued intermittently until March 1997.
The affair, and a special prosecutor’s related investigation of Clinton for suspected perjury and obstruction of justice, electrified Washington when the news of Clinton’s misconduct broke in January 1998. The president was impeached late that year but acquitted in February 1999.
The astonishing and tawdry scandal was rooted in 1995, and reverberates still. In March 2015, the artist of a portrait of Clinton disclosed that he had slyly incorporated into the painting a shadowy reminder of the president’s dalliance with Lewinsky. The painting, in which Clinton looks a bit like a pudgy Ted Koppel, was unveiled in 2006 at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.
“If you look at the left-hand side of [the portrait,] there’s a mantle in the Oval Office and I put a shadow coming into the painting and it does two things,”. “It actually literally represents a shadow from a blue dress that I had on a mannequin, that I had there while I was painting it, but not when he was there.
“It is also a bit of a metaphor in that it represents a shadow on the office he held, or on him.”
The “blue dress” refers to a garment Lewinsky wore, and kept, that contained trace amounts of Clinton’s semen. It was evidence that put lie to Clinton’s angry claim in January 1998 that he had not had sexual relations with Lewinsky, to whom he referred as “that woman.”
Shanks’ remarks about the shadow in the portrait underscored the tenacity of the Clinton-Lewinsky sex-and-lies scandal: Reminders of the affair do keep popping up. In January 2015, for example, a lengthy article Lewinsky wrote for Vanity Fair was named a finalist for a National Magazine Award. Lewinsky didn’t win, but finalist’s designation turned fresh attention to the article, which lamented the unending notoriety of her dalliance with Clinton.
■ Amazon showing an unlikable side, 20 years after its launch (posted July 14): The Web’s greatest commercial success story, inarguably, is Amazon.com. From its obscure launch as an online bookseller in July 1995, Amazon has become a behemoth–a behemoth that reaches far beyond retail to offering cloud computing services, to making and selling Kindle e-readers, and to creating digital content for video customers. All the while, Amazon has remained a company admired by customers.
But 20 years after its online launch, Amazon has been showing an unlikable side. The multibillion dollar multinational, I wrote July 14, “has grown into a not especially friendly company that projects an air of arrogance and distance.”
Reports about the harshness and haughtiness of the multinational company led by founder-CEO Jeff Bezos are not new. But they became more vivid in 2015, notably in accounts of Amazon’s bullying publishers and authors and in a lengthy article in the New York Times that told of the company’s bruising treatment of employes.
Bezos, who is notorious for giving the news media the brushoff, responded with a letter to employes that described the Times article as depicting “a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard. … I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either.”
■ Race, DNA, and the lasting legacy of the O.J. Simpson trial (posted October 3): Twenty years after verdicts were reached in an extraordinary trial that stretched across much of 1995, legacies of the O.J.Simpson murder case are still contested.
The clash of reactions to Simpson’s acquittal at trial in Superior Court in Los Angeles were widely seen as representing a pronounced racial divide in the United States: Many African Americans reacted jubilantly to the verdicts while many white Americans were left in head-shaking disbelief that he was not convicted of the slashing deaths of his former wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. Simpson is a black former pro football star; the victims were white.
In the trial’s immediate aftermath in October 1995, analysts were quick to interpret the reactions as marking a setback for race relations in America, a view that endures, even though a majority of black and white Americans believe Simpson was guilty of double murder.
Colbert King, a columnist for the Washington Post, wrote a few days after the verdicts: “The national reaction to the ‘trial of the century’ was as electric as it was divided along racial lines. But that dismaying split reflects America as it really is, two nations–one black, one white, and each seriously out of sorts with the other.”
But as I note in 1995, the “lasting effects of the Simpson trial on race relations in the United States proved to be less dramatic and more nuanced than they seemed in October 1995. While it is undeniable that whites and blacks largely held conflicting opinions about Simpson’s guilt, the … outcome of the Simpson case dented but did not reverse the trajectory of gradually improving relations among blacks and whites in America.”
A more nuanced and more revealing explanation for the sharply clashing reactions to the verdicts 20 years ago was that they reflected deep —and persistent—disparities in views about the fairness of the American criminal justice system. Such views offer a revealing explanation for the vivid, clashing interpretations that greeted news of the Simpson verdicts.
The most important legacy of Simpson’s televised trial–a point I argue in 1995–rests in the introduction to the American public of DNA evidence and its decisive properties.
“Through the Simpson case,” I write in the book, “the American public gained a measure of familiarity with forensic DNA testing,” a familiarity that has deepened in the years since 1995.
At the Simpson trial, I further note, “DNA testing was on display as never before.” The proceedings “helped to settle disputes about the value and validity of DNA evidence” and anticipated what has become broad popular interest in the potency of forensic DNA.
■ Predator drone down–in Bosnia, August 1995 (posted August 12): “Firsts” do not necessarily make for a watershed year. But they can fortify the recognition of the year’s exceptionality.
So it was with 1995, the year of the confirmed discovery of the first exoplanet, a body revolving around a sunlike star. It also was the year of the release of Toy Story, the first feature-length computer-generated animated film.
And 1995 was the year when reconnaissance drones were deployed over a battlefield for the first time, as I discussed in a post on August 12.
The Predators, developed by the military contractor General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, were propellor-driven, unarmed, but video-equipped.
They were used principally for surveillance and intelligence-gathering, tracking movements of Bosnia Serb military which, early in the Bosnian War, had seized large swaths of territory and laid siege to the capital, Sarajevo.
The Predators were operated from a ground base in Albania and their missions over Bosnia became frequent enough in July and August 1995 that “the Serbs began to realize that when they heard something like a loud mosquito buzzing overhead they were being watched,” as Richard Whittle noted in his book, Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution. “Soon they began gunning for Predator.”
On August 11, 1995, “Serb troops finally bagged one,” Whittle wrote.
The ill-fated drone was flying low over a military convoy went it was shot down. Three days later, another Predator was lost over Bosnia. This time, according to Whittle’s book, the aircraft’s engine quit and its operator-pilot sent the device diving into a mountain, “trying to smash it into bits too small to matter if the Serbs found them.”
The losses represented half of the Predator force deployed over Bosnia in 1995.
Despite the inauspicious debut, the deployment was “a testing ground” for features still in use on drones, including live video feeds “and the ability to fly at great altitude for long stretches of time,” as Arthur Holland noted in 2013 in an essay for the Center of the Study of the Drone at Bard College.
“In short,” Holland wrote, “when we look at the current drone operations in Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, and east Africa, we are looking at a model of warfare which was first tested in Bosnia.” In 2002, the Predators were weaponized with Hellfire missiles fired by operators guiding the drones at great distances.
■ Internet ‘will soon go spectacularly supernova’: Blown prediction of the year, 1995 (posted December 3): No watershed year is without its memorably blown predictions. Take, for example, those offered by Clifford Stoll in his 1995 book, Silicon Snake Oil. Among other howlers about the emergent digital landscape, Stoll wrote:
“I don’t believe that phone books, newspapers, magazines, or corner video stores will disappear as computer networks spread. Nor do I think that my telephone will merge with my computer, to become some sort of information appliance.”
Stoll also predicted:
“I suspect Big Brother won’t have an easy time tracing us. … Our privacy will be protected, as it always has been, by simple obscurity and the high cost of uncovering information about us.”
But the blown prediction of 1995 was that of Bob Metcalfe, the multimillionaire inventor of Ethernet technology and a founder of 3Com Corporation. He also was publisher of InfoWorld, for which he wrote a weekly column called “From the Ether.”
In the issue of Infoworld dated December 4, 1995, Metcalfe declared in his column that the Internet “will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 will collapse.”
Metcalfe upped the stakes in a subsequent commentary, promising to eat his Internet-collapse column should the “supernova” prediction prove wrong.
It did, of course.
And in 1997, in what Wired magazine described as “highly theatrical public penance,” Metcalfe made good on his pledge and, on stage at a Web conference in California, slurped down a liquified version of his column.
But Metcalfe’s errant prediction wasn’t the most eye-popping moment in new media technology in 1995. That moment came on August 9, 1995, when Netscape Communications Corporation, a 14-month-old startup, stunned Wall Street and the tech world with an electrifying IPO, the initial public offering of shares.
For nearly two hours that morning, an order imbalance kept Netscape’s shares from being traded: Demand was that strong. Finally, the stock opened—at $71 per share. It climbed as high as $74.75 a share before settling at day’s end to $58.25.
As the Wall Street Journal noted the next day, “it had taken General Dynamics 43 years to become a corporation worth $2.7 billion in the stock market. It had taken Netscape “about a minute.”
Netscape was the maker of the graphical browser that introduced millions of people to the Web, and its IPO illuminated the Web for many more who were only vaguely familiar with the Internet in 1995. The IPO also stimulated the dot.com boom of the late 1990s and it has come to be called the “big bang” moment of the Internet.
More from The 1995 Blog: Other memorable posts of 2015: