The 10 American Ideas of the Decade

1. Everything is Free (or It Should Be)

Let’s say it’s 1999 and you’re at an entertainment store looking for a movie or CD. The two questions you might ask are “Where can I find this?” and “How much does it cost?” Today the answers to those questions would be “Anywhere” and “Nothing.” In a kind of reverse-Big Brother effect, the Internet has been a dream for the little man consumer and a nightmare for Big Media publishers of music, movies, journalism, and television. If your content can be digitized, it can be pilfered, pirated, and otherwise pulled from the Internet without being purchased. As a result newspapers and magazines are folding, network TV is doubling down with reality shows, and music chain stores are filing for bankruptcy.

The winners—or at least, the non-losers—have been the companies who figured out how to monetize an on-demand world. The key: Don’t make us pay (not too much, at least). Gawker Media and Huffington Post found fortunes in aggregating and repackaging free news. Hulu streams free TV with limited advertising. In the bundling business, Netflix gives users an infinite library of movies for a monthly fee. iTunes lets consumers buy songs and playlists rather than full albums. The e-reader, a late bloomer in the on-demand media family, may be a threat to $30 hardbacks, but for magazine publishers, it presents an opportunity to train readers to pay for news again. The next decade will determine whether devices like the Kindle will jump-start the media industry, or give wily consumers yet another way to steal content.

The attacks of September 11, 2001, were a banner under which America launched its ambitious campaign to transform the Middle East. At home, the years after 9/11 were a solemn celebration of patriotism. Those three numbers still lurk behind some of our most significant debates. Eight years after invading Afghanistan, we are still trying to win. Seven years after invading Iraq, we are still trying to leave.

And yet, much of the specter of the 9/11 attacks has evaporated. Our most regular observance of 9/11’s legacy is a matter of taking more time at airport security lines—with the shoes, and the plastic bags, and the 3-mililiter bottles. In the 2004 presidential election, Bush ran on terrorism and 9/11 and won re-election. In 2008 Rudy Giuliani ran on terrorism and 9/11 and didn’t win a single primary.

Where did 9/11 go? It went abroad. When the towers were gone, our leaders told our military to fight and told everybody else to shop. We explained to ourselves that we were fighting terrorists in the Middle East so we didn’t have to fight them at home. But precisely because Americans were told to sacrifice nothing, we’ve pulled ourselves of the post-9/11 mindset long before we’ve pulled out of the Middle East.

3. E-dentities are Good for Us

Benjamin Franklin once said, “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.” Today our reputations are more than the sum of our deeds. They are also the sum of our applications: our MySpace pages, Facebook profiles, Flickr photos, blog posts, and Twitter feeds. Managing one’s “e-dentity” is the new chore of the 21st century. And every few months, a new study or newspaper column seems to assert that these applications are rotting our human bonds, if not our brains. Facebook is making us bad friends, blogs are making us sloppy writers, Twitter is making us lazy readers, and so on.

In fact, the opposite is true: today’s social applications allow us to become more dynamically engaged than ever with our friends and our world. While sitting at home, or even walking down the street, we can attend a hometown high school reunion on Facebook, crash a far-flung friend’s Italian vacation on Flickr, or overhear a conversation between Washington politicos and California activists on Twitter. These applications give us more than universal profiles. They give us universal access.

The president who presided over the ’00s left his fingerprints on our international relations and our domestic politics. His impact on pop culture is less obvious. But it cannot be a coincidence that in a decade launched with super-heroic ambitions to transform the world, our movie theaters were invaded by superhero franchises. What’s more, it’s notable that their plots darkened (compare 2002’s patriotic Spider-Man to 2008’s anarchic Dark Knight) as Iraq burned and Americans began to sour on our brave ambitions.

And it cannot be a coincidence that the most dependable comedic actor of the decade, Will Ferrell, parlayed a face-squeezing Bush impersonation on Saturday Night Live into a decade of characters that were essentially cartoons of the president’s public persona: an overconfident, super-masculine exoskeleton around a simple brain. Even as the Hollywood architects of pop culture disdained the president, they couldn’t entirely escape the shadow he cast.

In 2008 we asked ourselves what kind of leader would follow the Bush regime. Barack Obama came as an answer in the form of a question. Was his election the high-water moment of America’s relationship with race, or was it the triumph of a post-racial personality? Are we witnessing a liberal philosopher-kingship, the restoration of pragmatism to politics, or just a serving of reheated liberal promises? We still don’t know. Even liberals can’t decide if he’s their greatest champion since FDR or a big bleh.

No review of the decade is complete without the words “Google” and “iPhone.” Google become a juggernaut by papering the Web with ads. But the company turned itself into a cultural icon by building an empire of free software that runs our life: free mail service, map sites, operating systems, document programs, web browsers, phone apps and so much more.

The iPhone (and its smart-phone brethren) are not free. But what makes the next generation of phones as transformative is the freedom they give independent application developers to turn our smart-phones into universal task-solvers. Only two years after the iPhone’s release, its App Store already has thousands of downloadable functions that recognize songs, help you pay your bills, and guide you to the nearest Starbucks—calling this gadget a phone is like calling a Swiss Army Knife a corkscrew. The potential of Apple’s everything-machine is limited only by its screen size and its developers’ ingenuity.

Wasn’t the Information Revolution supposed to be the triumph of truth? Well, never mind. An Internet connection plunges us into a nearly infinite reservoir of knowledge, and yet our relationship with the truth remains fraught. Just as “weapons of mass destruction” made a mockery of intelligence, the 9/11 Truther conspiracy and Obama-as-illegal-alien Birther storyline used information in the disservice of truth. Moreover, they used lack of information (where’s that birth certificate?) as an indictment—a maneuver that could only be possible in an age when everything is supposedly knowable.

In his 2008 book True Enough, Farhad Manjoo explains that the fragmentation of the Internet allows different groups to create, and live in, their own “split” realities. Facts can’t find us anymore—instead, we find our own “facts” in the corners of the Internet that reflect our beliefs. “Truthiness,” the 2006 Miriam Webster word of the year coined by Stephen Colbert, means “truth that comes from the gut.” In other words, it is belief cross-dressing as certainty. The World Wide Web is a resource many times larger than the largest library in history. Yet the very size and structure of the Internet guarantees that we will find what we we’re looking for rather than what we need to know.

8 . The Return of Pop-onomics

The ’90s were roaring, but the ’00s had bubbles for bookends. In the dot-com bust, investors gobbled up the stock of online companies who gambled, and lost, on the mystical force of technology. In the subprime crisis, consumers gobbled up houses and stuff to fill them while bankers spun their regular debt payments into complex securities backed by mystical math. The first pop killed the Nasdaq. The second pop killed the economy.

Forty-four percent of Americans think China is the world’s biggest economic power. Where’d they get that idea? Certainly not from facts. Even after growing at a 10 percent annual clip this decade, China’s economy is about a third as large as that of the United States. But maybe Americans are grading on a yield curve. As the U.S. fights off the recession by pouring money we don’t have into the economy, China owns $800 billion of U.S. debt, more than any foreign country. Some experts worry that America’s reliance on China could backfire if the Chinese begin a sell-off and drive up interest rates. But to run its job engine, China, the manufacturing juggernaut, needs America, the insatiable consumer, as much America needs China.

Is there such thing as an American culture any more? It’s now rote to observe that today’s world, what with 1000-channel cable and so on, is exponentially nichefied, spinning off from the mainstream like space particles fleeing the Big Bang (“Where have you gone, Uncle Walter Cronkite?” and so on). So perhaps it bears repeating that a center still holds. Practically every household in America has a Harry Potter/Twilight fanatic (and most have more). Sarah Palin universally fascinates, even where she infuriates. We are a part of all we have seen, even if we don’t even watch our TV on TV anymore (see Idea #1). We all watched Michael Phelps win by a hair in Beijing and saw Obama’s hair-raising acceptance speech in Chicago. We all remember Halle Berry’s tears and New York’s twin towers, Tom Cruise’s couch-hop and John Kerry’s flip-flop, Eliot Spitzer’s U-face and Terry Schiavo’s vacant smile, President Bush’s banner and Janet Jackson’s boob.

And if you don’t ... well, shame on you, because the rest of us do. A visual graph of U.S. pop culture might resemble a massive Venn diagram, a lotus with a thousand petals, but there is an overlapping center stuffed with spectacle and scandal.