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A bygone age, not really that long ago
On CD-ROM encyclopedias, Van Halen's hits, and why it's dumb to be too pessimistic about our own age
After computers went mainstream, but before we had anything quite like the modern Internet, we had CD-ROM encyclopedias. These digital publications -- Grolier's Electronic Encyclopedia, Microsoft Encarta, and a handful of others -- offered the informational breadth of a shelf full of heavy books, but with the relative convenience of machine accessibility (not to mention dot-matrix printing capability).
■ The brief phenomenon of the CD-ROM encyclopedia does a rather tidy job of capturing the zeitgeist of the 1990s: Americans, broadly speaking, still had the sort of boundless self-confidence that undergirded a belief that all of the world's knowledge could be authoritatively recorded in one place. But alongside that confidence was the youthful enthusiasm of a rapidly unfolding high-tech age: Suddenly, we could store all of that knowledge in a miniscule fraction of the space of the classic bookshelf encyclopedia set.
■ America had just won the Cold War, the economy was booming, and the soundtrack to everything was spectacular. It was, overall, a magnificently optimistic time to be alive. And comparatively innocent, too: Terrorism existed, but 9/11 hadn't happened yet. Violence was problematic, too, but crime was declining and school shootings hadn't yet become a deplorable social contagion.
■ The unusual confluence of massive historical waves created a sense of the moment that really can't be recreated, no matter what kind of alchemy we might try. Even the words "right now" worked their way into multiple popular songs, hinting that even in the midst of it all, people were aware (if only incompletely) that the era was extraordinary.
■ Nevertheless, lots of important things are much better now than they were in the era of the CD-ROM encyclopedia. Our smartphones are faster than the supercomputers of then. Science is starting to outsmart cancer with vaccines. Per-capita economic activity has grown by well over 50%. Significant civil rights have been expanded and incorporated into law.
■ People are quick to point out the inconsistencies, shortcomings, and hypocrisies of our own age, and we are right to try to drum them out. But we also owe ourselves (and especially our children) the grace to recognize that there are lots of reasons to feel even better about our condition than many of us did in the last widespread era of really good feelings.
■ Right here and right now, we have more power, more knowledge, and more resources than ever to fix what's wrong. And we can look all the way back to more than a century ago to hear Teddy Roosevelt coaching us on to do so: "We Americans have many grave problems to solve, many threatening evils to fight, and many deeds to do, if, as we hope and believe, we have the wisdom, the strength, and the courage and the virtue to do them."