How did Timothy McVeigh, O.J. Simpson, Monica Lewinsky, and the Netscape IPO all shape the word we live in today? American University professor of journalism W. Joseph Campbell sat down with Reason TV's Nick Gillespie to discuss the misunderstood, often nostalgized, and wildly underappreciated decade of the 1990s in his new book, 1995: The Year the Future Began.
Campbell argues that the last years of the millenium were much more than a "holiday from history" as we awaited the terror attacks of 9/11. From the dawn of the Internet to the post-Cold War complexities of foreign policy, the 1990s set the stage for the most enduring issues of the 21st century.
Runs about 26 minutes.
Produced by Todd Krainin. Interview by Nick Gillespie. Cameras by Meredith Bragg and Krainin.
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INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT FOLLOWS
reason: You talk about 1995, 20 years ago, as a clear starting point for contemporary life, a hinge moment, and the first year of the 21st century. What do you mean by that?
Campbell: Well it was a year of multiple watersheds really, and these watersheds add up to the recognition that this was a decisive year, this was the inaugural year really of the 21st century. It was the year in which we can recognize a lot of the elements of what we live with now, so it was really the year the future began, and the watersheds that I discuss in the book include the rise of the Internet. Now the Internet wasn’t invented in 1995, but it entered the mainstream consciousness.
reason: Talk a little bit about the signal events that made it. The web had been around a few years, the Internet for a couple of decades, but, so there was, for instance, the Netscape IPO.
Campbell: That’s right. The Netscape IPO in August of 1995, was really a moment that illuminated the web for a lot of people. Netscape of course made a fantastic browser, and it was very popular. The company had only been in existence for a year and a half when it had this IPO, and it went through the roof literally, and the shares were incredibly important and valuable, and Netscape showed that some people could make money on the internet, but more importantly, it illuminated the web for a lot of people who weren’t familiar with it and weren’t aware.
reason: It seems so long ago, because Netscape’s fortunes—we might as well be talking about A&P or Sears Roebuck or something.
Campbell: Exactly. The trajectory of Netscape was even briefer than that. It was from like 1994 to 1999. So it really was meteoric, and it became a terrific property. It was a terrific company. And it embraced a lot of the swagger and potential of the web.
reason: Marc Andreessen, one of the co-founders of Netscape. If Jim Morrison was the ultimate, first real rock star, Andreessen was the first real web star.
Campbell: Exactly. And I wish I had said that for the book. It happens to be accurate. He really was. And he was really in his early 20s, just out of college when he co-founded Netscape. He and his partners recruited some of his buddies from the University of Illinois, where he had developed a browser before coming to California to start up Netscape, and these guys made a new browser that was wildly popular.
reason: These guys were somewhat trenched in history. They were coming out of a tradition, but it was mostly that they were young and looking forward and weren’t going to play by the old rules.
Campbell: In many respects, that’s true. And they were kind of setting their own rules, and the Internet allowed people to do that, because nobody knew what this was going to look like. In fact, up until the mid-90s really, they thought the Internet would be a component, a sub element of a broader information superhighway.
reason: That was also in the mid-90s… People are afraid of change, and the web becoming kind of commercialized and a mass medium, people freaked out, and Congress in 1996 ended up passing the Communications Decency Act as part of the Telecom Act, which would have regulated the Internet effectively like a broadcast network. What happened that that did not take place?
Campbell: Well that piece of legislation, the Communications Decency Act, was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, and I believe it was a unanimous decision, but I believe it was overwhelmingly unconstitutional and recognized as such, but it was an early an attempt by Congress to begin to grapple with the potential, the deleterious potential of the web, of the new technology, and a lot of people thought this was going to be just a cesspool of pornography and nothing redeeming about it at all. In fact, some of the Congressman and senators behind the Communications Decency Act had very little firsthand familiar with what they were trying to regulate.