1990s: The Way We Lived

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1990s: The Way We Lived

A strange thing happened in the 1990s, something that had not happened in nearly a hundred years: a technological revolution reoriented the entire economy and revolutionized the way people thought and the way they lived. The last time it had happened was at the turn of the twentieth century. Then, the spread of the automobile and its modern manufacturing processes changed the way people lived, worked, and thought about ideas such as distance and time. In the 1990s, it was the Internet that changed everything.

Personal computers (PCs) had been growing in popularity through the 1980s, but it was the invention of the World Wide Web and the widespread use of e-mail (along with a host of other technological advances) that turned PCs from work machines into tools for living. The World Wide Web allowed individuals and businesses to share information with other computer users in a visually engaging way. E-mail allowed people to communicate instantaneously with friends or business contacts anywhere on earth that was connected to the Internet.

Soon people were shopping, chatting, falling in love, learning, and wasting time over the Internet—all at ever-increasing speeds. The number of Internet users in the United States and Canada rose from 18 million (or 6.7 percent of the population) in 1995 to 106.3 million (39.37 percent) in July 1999—and the number of users kept on climbing. Because the Internet allowed people to always be connected, it changed the way they worked. Many Americans could now work at home and easily tap into the files they needed at their workplace. Laptop computers allowed them to take their work on the road. Cellular phones and beepers meant that people were never out of touch. As a result, the boundaries between work and regular life became blurred.

The Internet had its dark side as well. Chat rooms—online forums where people could meet and converse—became popular. Chat rooms allowed people to relate to others anonymously, but they sometimes allowed strangers to prey on the young or the unwary. Computer pirates called hackers took pleasure in their ability to penetrate supposedly secure computer sites, often with costly consequences. Computer viruses threatened to disrupt the increased productivity that computers allowed. The most feared computer glitch of the decade was the so-called Y2K bug, a problem imbedded in every computer that analysts feared would wreak havoc when the year 1999 turned to 2000 on New Year's Day. Businesses and government spent billions preparing for Y2K and many feared economic disaster, but as the New Year turned, nothing happened.

The Internet was not the only story of the decade, however. Several dramatic events gripped the nation's attention. In 1993, the Branch Davidians, a religious cult led by a man who called himself David Koresh (1959–1993), engaged in a long standoff with the federal government. The standoff resulted in a massive blaze that killed between seventy and eighty people—and was shown live on TV. Exactly two years later, Timothy McVeigh (1968–2001) ignited a bomb in front of a federal office building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, that killed 168 people and destroyed the building.

The top story of the decade, however, was the trial of former football star O.J. Simpson (1947–) for the murder of his ex-wife and her friend. From the moment Simpson led police on a low-speed car chase through the streets of Los Angeles, to the investigation, and on through a trial that lasted for nine months, every moment of the saga was captured by TV cameras and broadcast live, turning the entire event into a spectacle. Simpson was acquitted of murder but became a social exile, and America was forced to grapple once again with its attitudes about race.

On the lighter side, American drug companies came up with a variety of treatments for the ills that beset people, such as Prozac for depression and Viagra for male impotence. Both drugs were eagerly sought even by those who did not experience real symptoms, and their use was widely covered in the media. Young people had their fixations as well. Early in the decade, small stuffed animals called Beanie Babies became such a hit that collectors began to bid the prices of the cute creatures up to unlikely heights. Late in the decade, the Pokémon craze hit. Young kids across the country poured over the latest Pokémon trading cards and watched Pokémon cartoons.

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1990s: The Way We Lived

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1990s: The Way We Lived