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James Ferragut, Published December 27 2009

Ferragut: Decades left their imprints

It didn’t dawn on me until I noticed the first “Looking back at the first decade of the 21st century” that I realized the decade is over. The decade that began in 1998 with the fear that Y2K was going to be the end of civilization as we knew it. This month, every newspaper, magazine, news URL, blog, television network and radio show is recapping the top (fill in the blank) of the decade.

The lists can be entertaining (the decade’s 10 best films), profound (the 10 events that changed the world … remember Sept. 11, 2001) or simply inane (the top 10 celebrity meltdowns).

And as I started thinking about this past decade, I’m stunned with the speed in which it passed. These 10 years have zipped by at warp speed because of how information and communications have accelerated.

If you think about the 1950s, the one big transformational cultural event was the introduction of television. That one invention changed the way that we received news, entertainment and advertising. The 1960s codified television’s importance when it became the focal point and gathering place for families across America. It was Nov. 22, 1963, when the entire country was glued to the TV for three somber days trying to make sense of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

It’s difficult to pin down the pivotal event or invention that transformed anything during the bland 1970s. That decade was a hodgepodge of meaningless fads, simple gadgets and lame trends like disco, CB radios and the boombox. But there was one appliance that was subtle in its transformative influence: the microwave. We slowly and ever-so-slightly accelerated the way we conducted our lives. The 45-minute baked potato only took six minutes, and that left us with 39 extra minutes to do other stuff. It gave us more time to think about “me.” Oh yeah, the 1970s: the “me” decade.

Then TV changed us again in the ’80s. Cable became the norm. We didn’t have four stations to choose from any more, we had 40. We had all-news channels, all-sports channels, all-movie channels, and we had the cultural changing kingpin: MTV. “I want my, I want my, I want my MTV … !” The advent of specialized programming disassembled the family unit, segregated us into niche viewers – separate but equal consumers. When television’s little brother, the personal computer, joined the family our fate was sealed.

The 1990s refined niche consumerism. The cracks in the family unit that appeared in the ’70s and ’80s were wide enough to insert the permanent wedges of “I. Me. Mine.” The 1980s saw the CD and decline of tapes.

In the ’90s we all got connected. Each family had at least one cell phone, and it was usually the parent because we couldn’t imagine turning over something so expensive and technical to a kid. (My first cell phone plan in 1991 was a shared plan that cost me $40 a month for one hour of cell time per week.)

The Internet was finally available at home with a slug-slow dial-up connection.

Ferragut, a regular contributor to The Forum’s commentary pages, is with a Fargo advertising firm.