Monday, May 20, 2013

The '90s Really Weren't That Great

Microsoft released a commercial earlier this year, continuing its desperate campaign to convince us to return to Internet Explorer. Clearly, someone down at Microsoft thought '90s nostalgia was the way to go.

What would inspire this theme choice? As it turns out, the Internet is crazy about the '90s. To an embarrassing extent. There is no shortage of '90s callbacks, '90s nostalgia, and '90s references online.

And, when you think about it, it's pretty depressing.

What are we remembering from the '90s? Certainly not Waco or the Rwandan genocide. We're talking about products like scrunchies and slap bracelets, video game consoles like the Nintendo 64 and the Sega Dreamcast, cartoons and TV shows in general, and movies that we used to like as kids.

Don't get me wrong, I've got as much of a soft spot for Space Jam as most other people my age do. It's just  interesting that this fixation on the '90s comes at a time when nerd culture has become defined by its consumerism. It could be that we attribute so much of what we like as part of our identity because that's what our childhoods are defined by. The overlap between so-called '90s kids and the 20-something nerd is a pretty striking coincidence.

One inference to take from this is that growing up in the '90s conditioned us to disproportionately concern ourselves with consumer products, and to value the things that we like over the things that we do.

So what you're saying is, you were a tool.

The '90s kids were born into a very peculiar time. Their parents were mostly people who'd lived through Vietnam, Watergate, '80s deregulation, and the fall of the Soviet Union. They probably had a greater-than-average distrust for the federal government and an enthusiastic embrace for the free market. Couple this with the economic booms of the '90s, and you get a generation of parents that was happy to shell out money for their kids' luxuries. Remember, this was an era where parents would fight over Tickle Me Elmo dolls.

The '80s and '90s saw huge booms in products targeted at children. You had TV shows designed entirely around selling toy products. Shows like Transformers and My Little Pony came into existence in the '80s. Shows like Pokemon and Digimon continued this practice through the '90s. You had expensive video game consoles and games aimed at our imaginations and encouraging brand loyalty through "console wars". You had fabricated incentives to collect more consumer products - collect more beanie babies, more pokemon cards, more crazy bones.

And we, the '90s kids, were born during a perfect storm. More people wanted to make money off us than ever before, and our parents were among the most affluent people in generations.

This affluence lent to more than just material indulgence. There was a pervasive optimism among enterprising American adults of the '90s. There was this sense that with no more great adversaries on the world stage, finding prosperity in the future was easier than it would ever be before. This likely translated into the messages we received as kids - this prosperity and affluence could one day all be ours. Just work hard, eat right, and stay in school.

Of course, the idea that we'd lost all adversaries was quickly punched in the throat with 9/11, and the idea that affluence would indefinitely be in our favor was slammed with the global recession. Oops.

Putting the "recess" back in "recession".

All things considered, the adults of the '90s probably did more against our favor than they did for it. Profligate spending, irresponsible use of credit, false promises of prosperity at a time of market euphoria all led to the eventual crash and burn in 2008. And now the '90s kids are dealing with the mess.

Strangely, we're not mad about any of this. In fact, we'd much rather talk about the TV shows and movies that those same adults fed us all those years.

Nostalgia isn't a new concept - the Beatles were evoking nostalgia with "In My Life" nearly 50 years ago. What is new is the focus of that nostalgia. We aren't remembering good times with people, and we aren't remembering past glories of a community. We're remembering products that were specifically designed to cater to our under-developed brains and to get our money. And if I haven't made it clear yet, there is a significant volume of this kind of nostalgia online. Let's also be clear that although the '90s are what are currently in nostalgic vogue, we can find this sort of nostalgia about '80s and early '00s consumer products as well.

Isn't it strange that people are already fixating on the past like this? Why do '90s kids even care? There's more ahead of us than behind us, so why are we taking so much time to remember things that don't really have much cultural merit on their own?

One reason could be that we're coping with uncertainty in our lives. When we were kids we were told that by this age we'd have nice jobs and get lots of money, and we don't quite have that. It's a rough economic time to become an adult, and we want to hang on to something that used to be there for us. Our childhood environments didn't really lend themselves to much introspection or identity-building, so here we are using consumer products to define another label for ourselves - the '90s kid. Add that to your holster of nerdy labels, and maybe you'll be less of an invalid.

Another reason to consider is the pace of change in the past 20 years as compared to previous years.

The '90s are a funny time as far as technology goes. Cell phones were still large and unwieldy, computers were still mysterious and left to only the most tech-savvy among us, and people were still speculating that the Internet would just be a fad. People from the '90s were kids at a time when phones still had land-lines and videos still came on VHS. In our teenage years we got to see the emergence of the iPod, the DVD, the HD television, the cell phone, the smart phone, and many other things. The Internet grew to offer sources of information and entertainment, gateways to social connections, and opportunities for employment.

It is jarring to think how different the world was a mere 10 years ago, let alone 15 or 20 years ago. Perhaps that frightens some people. Perhaps there are people who are yearning for how things used to be, if for no reason other than it's in the past and won't be coming back again.

All things considered, the Internet was the best thing to happen to our generation. The '90s was a time of cultural ennui, and the Internet offered a platform where my generation could talk and create with one another. It gave us an outlet to shape ourselves, in an environment where we could easily filter out those who were just reaching out to sell us something.

This isn't to rail against '90s consumer products too hard - like I said before, I have a soft spot for a few things from my childhood as well. I just think that it's time that we stopped fixating on it so much and moved on. The '90s weren't great enough to warrant labeling ourselves as '90s kids. I much prefer being a part of the Internet generation - not only because the Internet actually is great, but because it continues to be great and it continues to enrich our lives.

So let's not be so crazy about the '90s anymore, eh? Seriously. You're all bumming me out.


  1. To find this article; I searched "Why were the 90's so great?" And I'm glad I found this page, very well opininonated I must say. I think why 90's kids are ao nostalgic is because they're not enjoying their present lives. So they reflect on a time in their current short timeline of life on earth when it was fun and enjoyable, and that's often times their childhood. Go watch a movie called "Midnight in Paris" it deals with this illusion.

  2. One thing I think you may have failed to mention, is that smart phones were not available in the 90s and people were more present with each other. Now we are so connected all the time, fb, twitter, instagram, it devalues real relationships. That's one thing I definately miss...

  3. I have to disagree with Mego Parmar. It's not only 90s kids who think the 90s were better than modern times. I have talked to older folks, including my parents, who think the 90s were a better and simpler time for America in many ways. Economically it was much better, for sure. It's not just those of us who were kids in the 90s getting "nostalgic" simply because we were kids then. I think most people who were alive then would agree that the 90s were a better time.

    1. The economy was better but not excellent but what do you expect? When since everything they soend goes to the industrial military complex.

  4. I really don't remember the 90s as being that great. I think the nostalgia comes from the fact that the economy was better but really not a lot. The music wasn't that great. Nirvana was ok. But I was born in the early 70s and saw the 90s for what it was. Not much.

  5. That's just it, the 90s were great years all around. The Soviet Union collapsed. We won the cold war. We kicked Saddam out of Kuwait, stopped a genocide in bosnia, helped feed some starving people in Somalia, and the biggest problem facing our country was an intern played Hail to the chief on the president's trombone. Technology was advancing rapidly, but it wasn't all consuming. Kids still climed trees, played hide and go seek, and had friends over without having to set a play date. All around it was an optimistic time where we felt the future would be fantastic. Then the 2000s rolled around. We were attacked on our home soil, entered two decade long wars, one of which we got into because of bad intelligene, and probably really didn't need to fight, the economy nearly completely collapse, millions lost value in their biggest investment, their homes, and went into a ressesion, the effects of which are still being felt today. While all this is happening, technology has encompassed our lives to the point of taking over. It's quite a stark contrast. It's not really about the cartoons or consumer products.