Totally wildly unprecedented change … and its precedents

Posted by Rob Walker on December 17, 2007
Posted Under: America,Olde News

For whatever reason, I’ve been pondering the big/huge/massive changes that have occurred in my lifetime. Seems like pretty much conventional wisdom that this is the changiest era ever, and often I think it does feel that way.

On the other hand, not all change is created equal. The Web is a big change. Twitter isn’t. Etc. Sometimes it’s hard to keep clear the difference, there’s so much hype about every new new thing these days.

So, as an exercise, I considered the last 25 years. I was around, and relatively aware, in 1982. What are the things that have happened since then that were really, truly, before-and-after, big? The stuff that hardly anybody in 1982 could have seen coming? The things that would really surprise and be outside the imagination of my 1982 self?

I settled on these (in no particular order):

  • The World Wide Web. (Is it missing something to just make this a single entry, lumping everything from Google to Facebook to blogs to … everything else into one entry? How big a deal is any single Web-enabled development? And should email be part of this, or separate?)
  • The end of the Cold War/collapse of Communism.
  • AIDS
  • Hip hop (technically existed prior to 1982 but became a giant cultural force after)
  • Mobile communications. I’m not sure if this one counts or not. Probably though, right?
  • September 11 / “war on terror”

Okay. That’s some stuff, some big & changy stuff. But what about the 25 years prior to that? What could you show to a citizen of 1956 from the vantage point of 1981, that would seem like Big Changes? What about earlier periods?

I decided to make some tentative lists of big changes. I stuck with things that had some sort of public dimension, in the sense that their impact was obvious, not subtle. So for instance, I wouldn’t include something like air conditioning, which I’m sure somebody could make the case has massively changed the way we live etc., but which doesn’t have that sort of public-culture dimension that I’m interested in.

  • Vietnam
  • Watergate
  • Rock music (again, it existed in 1956, but think of the Beatles and Woodstock etc. — it’s a lot)
  • The assassinations and riots of the 1960s
  • The sexual revolution
  • Civil Rights
  • Oil shocks/gas rationing etc. of the 1970s (I’m on the fence about this one)

Okay, I kept going. How about 1930 to 1955?

  • The Depression
  • The Holocaust
  • The atomic bomb
  • Television

And finally: 1904 to 1929

  • World War I
  • Jazz
  • Radio
  • The car
  • The airplane
  • The movies

So that’s my tentative list at the moment. In some ways I’m now not sure if the most intense 25-year period of change through might have actually been the 1930 to 1955 stretch. The examples there are all pretty massive. Think of a person from 1930 looking at the world of 1955. Isn’t the difference there a lot bigger than 1982 to 2007? Maybe, maybe not.

I’m sure I’m leaving stuff out, and maybe in some cases my picks don’t make sense. This isn’t an intensely researched project, just something I’ve been pondering.


Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

I wonder how this list would differ if you wrote it from the perspective of someone in China? Russia? India?

I’ll throw “the transistor” (although you’ve got radio and TV) and “the microprocessor”; maybe “the home PC” but it raises the question about what granularity one includes.

Sputnik is often cited as a moment of change in popular literature. That kind of leads to the moon landing. Maybe “space race” – I dunno.

Written By Steve Portigal on December 17th, 2007 @ 6:24 pm

Those are all excellent comments.

I wasn’t sure which slot to put “the computer” in (pre or post 82) and now I realize I just didn’t include it. Doh! It, or microprocessor, or home computer, should be in there.

So should Sputnik or maybe the moon landing or something that encompasses both.

The transistor is a good point too.

I’m also realizing I’m not sure how I’m going to deal with correcting or updating this.

Anyway, thanks, these are all great, as is your point about other countries. On that I have to admit I’m just such an American… Sad but true…

Written By murketing on December 17th, 2007 @ 6:32 pm

When I was a kid in the 1970s, there was no cable TV (at least where I lived) and no VCR. Movies like “Wizard of Oz” came around once a year and the whole family watched it. Also, I remember kids bragging about seeing “Star Wars” a dozen times (in the theater), which seemed insane to me; now, of course, kids can watch “Star Wars,” or just the parts they like best, hundreds of times.

Written By Joshua Glenn on December 18th, 2007 @ 12:16 am

love it, or leave it, pal.

Written By cousin lymon on December 18th, 2007 @ 12:21 am

Lymon — be nice.

Josh — I pondered both cable and the VCR. We didn’t have cable either, but lived close enough to suburbs where friends had it, and it certainly seemed like a big deal to me. Especially MTV, though I guess that was just my age at the time. Maybe cable/vcr should be rolled into a “media choice” notion. Hmm…

Written By murketing on December 18th, 2007 @ 9:04 am

I’d include satellites? Think of all the things we (in the developed world) rely on like weather data, communications, GPS, oil exploration, etc that use satellites. That’s more important, in terms of space development, than Sputnik (precursor, yes) or landing on the moon. More akin to “the Web” in terms of a system of change rather than a individual instance.

Written By Todd W. on December 18th, 2007 @ 12:14 pm

what about birth control pills? sure it’s part of the sexual revolution, but arguably it is a huge catalyst of that revolution.

Written By sara on December 18th, 2007 @ 12:41 pm

Perhaps it would be better to rewrite the list to specifically focus on technological leaps over time. Or technologies which pushed a given cultural shift. So instead of sexual revolution, – the pill, etc

Written By ian on December 18th, 2007 @ 4:22 pm

Good point about birth control pills. And interesting about satellites, I have to think about that. I think you’re right about its importance, but it kind of seems like one of those things like air conditioning that people don’t actually think about, they just think about certain effects thereof.

I guess I’m hesitant to shift the whole focus to technologies for exactly this reason. It’s not always just about technology — I think that’s a bias of our current era — but about culture, too. Or I think so, anyway. I guess you could reduce “rock” to “the electric guitar” or similar, but I feel like that kind of a list wouldn’t exactly get at what I’m interested in, which is more about how life … feels … for lack of a better word…

Written By murketing on December 18th, 2007 @ 6:03 pm

I found this to be a really neat post!

I think you should include things that change how you feel about your world. Not political stuff, but stuff that touches your life or how you’d feel about things in your immediate air space.

That’s why space exploration is not really there… Watergate doesn’t register for me either. (Maybe I’m not old enough – only 30.)

But atomic bomb? Definite yes. My world would feel very vulnerable/scary. I’d probably change my behavior to a certain extent. Companies would change certain things. Trust would carry a whole different meaning.

So is the Pill and the whole era-changing attitudes of the 60’s. Big paradigm shift there – so yes, that’s also a big change that affects someone’s personal ‘air space’.

Technology has done that in the last 10-15 years. Computers and the Web are two distinct, powerful society changers. These have absolutely changed everything on this planet. Wireless connectivity is part of the web-effect, but distinct and important in its own way.

The bombing of the twin towers rocked my world. I can still think about That Day and get a lump in my throat (also having lived in NY and been inside the Towers on many occasions). The world is not the same – at least the US, where I live is not the same innocently optimistic landscape I remember as a child in the 80’s.

Ok – had my piece.

Written By Yael on December 18th, 2007 @ 9:28 pm

Hi Rob: I am a little older than you and quite a bit older than some of the responders above. So I will try with what I know. I was born in 1940. So I will start with WW2.
However, I read somewhere long ago that the preiod of greatest CHANGE was from 1900 to 1950. I won’t list the changes since you have listed most of them.
In my 67 years I think WW2 was the biggest event of my life. Watch the Ken Burns movie called THE WAR for all the reasons. Ending with one of the BIG TWO. The Artomic Bomb.
Then came Rock and Roll with Elvis in 1956. Please do no forget the roll. Your period called in just ROCK but at one time it had ROLL.
Then the big events of the 1960s. From the assassination of JFK and all the others to the Civil Rights Era.
Do not underestimate the other one of the BIG TWO. Birth Control Pills. Believe me that really changed the world as musch as the atomic bomb.
Yes to the 9-ll attack and destructiopn of the World Trade Center towers. That day is the only day I have seen Americans actually afraid. You could really see fear on their faces here in Washington, D.C.
Watergate and other scandals in DC are no big deal. They happen all the time.
Vietnam was a big deal for 10 years.
The jump from black and white tv to color tv was a big jump. Now the jump from old tv to HDtv is another big jump.
The world wide web for sure. Things like Ebay,and YouTube and really bringing the world together in many many ways. I have met and become friends with European jazz musicians because of YouTube.
Great important strides in medicine and medical treatment. WW2 brought on many of these new drugs. LSD must be mentioned as a big deal in the 1960s.
There are so many other things. The above is just what comes to my mind at this moment. For a real list of inventions just google the ones invented by Thomas Edison.

Written By joebstewart on December 23rd, 2007 @ 9:09 pm

Sorry for the misspellings in the above post which were really just typos.
Here is some really good information on Thomas Edison including some film and audio clips of him.
I think you should include air conditioning and not under rate its importance in the South. Much of the Southland’s new found popularity is because A/C has made it habitable. I know growing up in the Deep South ac had a big effect on me and my brother. To escape the terrible heat and humidity we would often go to two double features a day at the movies. As I often say “Air Conditioning saved the South”.
No single invention has changed the way we live for the better and the worse than the automobile.

Written By joebstewart on December 24th, 2007 @ 12:35 pm

What about Prohibition and it’s repeal, women’s suffrage, the Flapper dress (freedom from the bodice and societal strictures). I would argue (and I’m biased because I wrote an entire thesis on this) that birth control and so-called second-wave feminism wasn’t possible without the crazy drunken antics of the free-flowing flappers like Zelda Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker and the entire suffragette movement. Some people even equate women’s suffrage as the last bastion of equality that would lead to the ERA.

I’m sure we could play this game for hours and say that everything is ultimately dependent on the invention of something before it; the cotton gin, the printing press, the bible, the wheel, fire, etc. It’s a fun exercise, nonetheless.

Written By Dara on January 9th, 2008 @ 11:34 am