Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2010

Looking Back to the Future

Life felt fine in 1999. Crime had fallen, stocks had soared, the Treasury was running a surplus, and we asked Who Wants to Be a Millionaire several nights a week. Our worries came down to this: Were there bugs in our computers that would bring our happy little worlds crashing down on us precisely at midnight on Dec. 31, 1999? "Millennium Countdown: Whole planet of apocalyptic possibilities — starting with Russian power stations," ran a headline in the London Independent.

We thought we got a reprieve. "Just Y2Kidding," announced the Bergen County, New Jersey, paper, as the lights stayed on, banks didn't fail, planes didn't fall from the sky, cities didn't tumble into the sea. At least, not right away. It took more time for the bubbles to burst and markets to plunge and cities to drown, for faith in institutions to collapse — the banks, the court, the church, the intelligence community, the press and finally the government, which nearly 1 in 3 people now say they "almost never" trust to do the right thing.

But that is only half the story. As the mighty were falling, the lowly were able to rise, in the most immense devolution of power from institutions to individuals in all of human history. We're swapping careers as old industries die, retraining, networking, self-branding, writing apps. The constant hustle is less secure but more exhilarating: you want to be a crime fighter, a software engineer, a video star, a music sensation, a day trader, an entrepreneur, a journalist — the gatekeepers have had to hand over the keys.

The first decade of the 21st century moved so fast that it was easy, as the poet said, to have the experience but miss the meaning. It's hard to find the truth about the age of truthiness, of truthers and birthers and reality customized by ideology. So TimeFrames is our attempt to stop the clock, slow down, look back, see what comes into focus only from a distance. We know what happened in the past 10 years. But what really happened? Who gained power, and who lost it? Who's richer? Who's poorer? Who were the visionaries? Who were the rogues? And how do we find the music or the meaning in the noise of the news?