Reinventing American Society

Reinventing American Society

Societal changes take place so slowly that we rarely see them unfold on a day-to-day basis. But when we look back over any significant period of time, the scale of change is truly breathtaking.


Along with other baby boomers, I grew up in a world without email and where mobile phones were found only in Dick Tracey’s comic strip or in Maxwell Smart’s shoe. Boomers like me also remember record players before stereo, black-and-white television and waiting three days for photos to be developed.

Living through the ’70s, we had no idea we had no idea what was coming next. As Apple and Microsoft were being created, my college computer science class was still teaching us to use punch cards! Using a special machine, holes were punched on these stiff cards to essentially write a single line of code per card. The cards were then placed in a stack and fed into a computer through a card reader in a giant lab. Scheduling lab time was nearly impossible so turnaround times for even the simplest of programs were measured in days or weeks.

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Archaic as it seems, IBM claims their cards held “nearly all of the world’s known information for just under half a century.” Still, by the end of the ’70s, it was possible to see faint hints of the changes to come.

At the time, we saw baby steps — the transition from pinball to pong — but couldn’t imagine the bigger picture. With our three local TV stations, we could not begin to conceive of today’s world where the average household receives 189 channels and routinely watches 17. We weren’t the only ones who didn’t see it coming. The head of a leading computer firm famously declared in 1977 that “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”

Only in retrospect did it become clear how completely the new technologies would reinvent every aspect of our lives. In the ’70s, without knowing it, we were experiencing the end of the Industrial Revolution and the beginning of the most significant cultural change in American history. I call it the Great Turnaround:

–For two centuries leading up to the 1970s, the trend was for everything in America to get bigger, more centralized, and more homogenized.

–After the ’70s, however, cultural trends moved in the opposite direction with everything becoming more niche-oriented, decentralized and personalized.

In a world where culture leads and politicians lag behind, it is virtually impossible to overstate the significance of that change.

Political leaders were happy to follow society at large when it led to a growing government with more power and money. They are not nearly as enthusiastic about the ongoing decentralization that is constantly shifting power from the dysfunctional political system to vibrant centers of society.

That resistance, the unwillingness of political and corporate elites to follow where society is leading, has created the central conflict of our time. It’s a conflict over who should decide — unaccountable political elites or everyday Americans who have to live with the consequences of their own decisions?

The proper answer is obvious. The good news is that the Great Turnaround has American society moving in the right direction.

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