Ten years ago, I speculated on what this first decade of the 21st centuryought to be called. The choice wasn't obvious, and the alternatives weren't very appealing. I used this conundrum as a way to talk about purpose: would this be the decade of zeros--the postmodern, consumer society, corporate dominated nothingness-- or the decade of the Oughts--when we assumed responsibility for what we ought to do, our responsibility for the future?
So how did that work out?
Here's part of what I wrote:
For as smugly or dazedly blank as we might feel and the future might seem, we hear convincing voices suggesting that the early decades of the twenty-first century will be crucial and defining. If humankind really sees its duty to the planet and does the right things, it may survive intact (but not unchanged) and continue without serious setback (though with altered course), in concert with the natural world that nurtures all life. If this duty towards this living planet is not met and the right things are not done, the coming century could be more cataclysmic than any previous one, taking us to the tipping point of an inevitable downward spiral.
That’s perhaps hard to believe when according to conventional wisdom we’ve solved the problem of perpetual prosperity. By this logic we should do nothing different, and so the name of the nothings, the zeros, would be fitting in more ways that one, for it would indicate just how clueless and gutless we are.
The alternative I proposed was the double meaning of "the Oughts," reviving a word for o's or zeros, while stating a purpose for the decade:
"Perhaps this is the Ought that we ought to be concentrating on as we begin the 21st century. Instead of buzzing about the profit opportunities of globalization, we ought to be attending to our duty to the globe...But if we revive the old meaning and give it a twenty-first century twist, we might give ourselves a goal and a guide as well as the decade a name. Maybe we ought to call them the Oughts."
As it turns out, the problem of what to call the decade was solved by ignoring it, which pretty much sums up how that responsibility idea went. How the decade turned out, according to Paul Krugman, is the alternative:the Big Zero:
"Maybe we knew, at some unconscious, instinctive level, that it would be an era best forgotten. Whatever the reason, we got through the first decade of the new millennium without ever agreeing on what to call it. The aughts? The naughties? Whatever."
In terms of economics, he writes, this was "the decade in which we achieved nothing and learned nothing."
My 1999 piece questions the whole enterprise of dividing experience into decades with their defining characteristics. At best, it's shorthand for an image, a mood. Mostly it's advertising.
It may be a matter of age, but while I can locate a complex of feelings and images for "the 50s" or "the 60s" which more or less correlate to those decades (give or take a few years on each end), when it comes to the decade we're now leaving, I've got nothing.
I have images and memories, of course. But nothing defining. This decade for me is nameless because it is incoherent, without defining characteristics. Except perhaps for the cell phone. That's not much to hang a decade on.
It wasn't bland. It was extreme, but in every direction. How can you define a decade that began with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and ends with Barack Obama?
If you figure this decade really began on 9/11, you might say this decade was about American response to terrorism, and again, "we achieved nothing and learned nothing," or very little. We're going through the same irrational responses now as we did 9 years ago.
But in a larger perspective, this may be remembered as the decade of lost opportunity, of too late a start, of fatal delay and suicidal strangeness. Or maybe it will be remembered for a glimmer of hope near the end, beginning in 2008.
Of course people who grew up, got married, etc. in this decade will always remember its textures. But apart from what began in 2008, the best thing for this nameless decade may be to remain nameless. And that the next one is very different.