The decade of 'Seinfeld' and cyber-everything
It is a decade that has given rise to a host of trends and changes: grunge rock and Generation X; crystals and New Age spirituality; celebrity worship and tell-all talk shows; the information superhighway and cyber-everything.
With only a year left on the clock, however, what the 1990s have so far failed to yield is one simple word or catchphrase that sums up the way it was.
"There are decades and there are decades," says Sean Wilentz, director of American studies at Princeton University in New Jersey.
"The '60s were a decade," he adds, referring to a decade readily identified as a period of social revolution. And he notes that the 1970s and 1980s were also easily labeled as the "me" decade and the "greed" decade, respectively. "But I'm not sure the '90s measure up," he says.
In fact, interviews with experts from the fields of history, science, theology, media, technology, and culture reveal widespread agreement that the 1990s have offered no great, defining social changes, movements or ideas.
Unlike the 1890s, which were marked by what Wilentz calls "a fundamental reorientation of culture" - including the official closing of the American frontier and the shift from a rural to an urban society - Americans today are nearing the end of a decade shot through with scattered events and forces that resist easy summation and fail to define a cohesive pattern of change.
"Few decades in American history have been so devoid of defining characteristics," says Kevin Starr, the state librarian of California and a longtime social critic. "Few decades have been so characterized by divisiveness, vulgarity, and confusion."
Mr. Starr places the blame squarely on the generation that turned society upside down in the 1960s. "In the 1990s, everything that was unresolved, overweening, and destructive in the culture of the 1960s came into its major phase as the 1960s generation, in all its collective arrogance, seized control of American life without a philosophy or a program," he says. "That's why it's a decade about nothing."
Echoes of the '60s
Other observers are less harsh. They suggest the decade may prove to be, in retrospect, a time when Americans struggled to make sense of massive change. In the 1990s, they say, the country began to experience the slow-moving social institutionalization of forces unleashed in the 1960s. The women's rights' movement, for example, sparked huge changes that have resulted in a completely altered workplace - and accompanying dilemmas, such as sexual harassment.
At the same time, these experts point out, the decade has been marked by the fracturing, frenetic pace of technology. Information moves faster, to more people, and through more channels than ever before. Under its onslaught, notions of privacy have crumbled and individuals' time in the spotlight seems to be converging with Andy Warhol's speculations about everyone's 15 minutes of fame.
"This has been sort of the no-name nineties because one of the characteristics of the age is a big blur," says Josh Meyrowitz, author of "No Sense of Place," which examines the impact of electronic media on culture.
"The systems that used to be distinct are sort of blurring with one another," he says. "There's a blurring of the boundaries between public and private, between political and personal, between adult topics and child topics, and between male topics and female topics."
The blurring isn't all bad, says Mr. Meyrowitz. People today are more aware - and more suspicious - of artificial social constructs. In male-female relations, he says, the blurring has been positive, allowing men to be more emotionally sensitive and women to emerge in more influential positions of leadership.
But other critics worry that Americans may be losing the ability to make sense of larger issues, to weave a fabric of context from the explosion of bits and bytes of information that frame daily life.
Neil Postman, chairman of the department of culture and communication at New York University, says technology has so dominated culture in the 1990s that it has given rise to a belief that "technological innovation is the same thing as human progress."
"The problem is that everyone's just trying to figure out how to use each version that comes out," he says. "But very few people are ... asking how this technology is altering our psychic habits and our social relations and even our political ideas."
The pace of technological change has also driven an explosion in science in the 1990s, particularly in the biological sciences - which witnessed the birth of Dolly, the cloned sheep, as well as the fertility-drug-induced birth of the McCaughey septuplets and the Chukwu octuplets.
"It's been a dynamic decade in science," says Leon Lederman, director emeritus of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. But the rapid pace of change, he says, has produced a feeling of uneasiness among many people.
"Technology empowers science," he says. "Then we get more science, which leads to more technology, which leads to more science. It doesn't show any signs of leveling off. Even serious-thinking people are upset in some sense by this.
"Our knowledge base is expanding," he says. "But our social problems are also expanding. As we know more, we would like to gain more control of social problems, but that's not happening."
Seeking a foundation
Some observers say that despite the lack of one cohesive framework for the 1990s, many signs indicate a fermenting of thought among some citizens - a desire to find a center, or foundation, for values that aren't an endorsement of old-fashioned moralism, but which also reject the wishy-washiness of post-1960s moral relativism.
"Most of the hope is in small grass-roots efforts across the country," says Hugh Delahanty, former editor of Utne Reader magazine. He points to movements like the New Urbanism, which aims to reign in suburban sprawl. Proponents advocate redesigning communities - particularly suburbs - into thriving small-town centers that integrate businesses, homes, and schools.
"A lot of people are groping for something completely different," he says. "Part of that groping is a result of the baby boomers. They're responsible for a lot of what happens in culture now. But it's also a part of the larger conditions of our culture, which doesn't provide people with a sense of meaning.
"It doesn't provide people with the kind of grounding it may have back in the '50s," he says, "when there was a sort of common consensus of what good was."