What is emblematic of the 21st century?

by on August 18, 2010 at 8:06 am in Books, Film, Games, Television, The Arts | Permalink

A recent reader request was:

What things that are around today are most distinctively 21st century?  What will be the answer to this question in 10 years?

Here is what comes to mind and I think most of it will remain emblematic for some time:

Technology: iPhone, Wii, iPad, Kindle.  These are no-brainers and I do think it will go down in American history as "iPhone," not "iPhone and other smart phones."  Sorry people.

To read: blogs and Freakonomics, this is the age of non-fiction.  I don't think we have an emblematic and culturally central novel for the last ten years.  The Twilight series is a possible pick but I don't think they will last in our collective memory.  Harry Potter (the series started 1997) seems to belong too much to the 1990s.

Films: Avatar, Inception (for appropriately negative reviews of the latter, see here, here, and here).  Both will look and feel "of this time."  Overall there have been too many "spin-off" movies.  Keep in mind this question is not about "what is best."

Music: It's been a slow period, but I'll pick Lady Gaga, most of all for reflecting the YouTube era rather than for her music per se.  I don't think many musical performers from the last ten years will become canonical, even though the number of "good songs" is quite high.  Career lifecycles seem to be getting shorter, for one thing.

TelevisionThe Sopranos starts in 1999, so it comes closer to counting than Harry Potter does.  It reflects "the HBO era."  Lost was a major network show and at the very least people will laugh at it, maybe admire it too.  Battlestar Galactica.  Reality TV.

What am I missing?  What does this all add up to?  Pretty strange, no?

p.s. Need to add Facebook and Google somewhere!

1 Andrew August 18, 2010 at 8:17 am
2 aaron August 18, 2010 at 8:32 am

Right, torture is so distinctively 21st century.

3 Paige August 18, 2010 at 8:34 am

off the top of my head…

To Read (Fiction): The Da Vinci Code
Films: Anchorman
Music: Outkast’s “Hey Ya”
Television: Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Modern Family… The Ellen DeGeneres Show

4 Anon. August 18, 2010 at 8:44 am

>Here is what comes to mind and I think most of it will remain emblematic for some time:
>for some time

You can’t be serious. It’s a list of pop culture fads! Exactly the kind of thing that’s going to be forgotten very soon. Exactly which part of the zeitgeist does pocahontas in space capture anyway?

5 yoyo August 18, 2010 at 8:51 am

film: based on comics, with everything highly saturated orange and teal.

6 Ari August 18, 2010 at 8:51 am

For music, I think you have to mention Arcade Fire; they sound like the past decade to me — or at least the past 5-6 years. For other music of the 2000s, I wrote up a list at the end of last year; it’s here: http://kohenari.tumblr.com/post/273308105/my-decade-in-music

For television, I think it’s important to talk about Arrested Development and The Wire, which were two incredibly different scripted shows that were critical darlings and got all sorts of buzz *after* they went off the air. For other television shows that defined the 2000s for me, here’s a list:

7 D. Boucher August 18, 2010 at 8:53 am

Iphone and blogs are to me very emblematic of he 21st centuty.
I would add:

Sports: Lebron James,Sidney Crosby and Peyton Manning (1998)
Films: The “Juno movies”, a mix of indie mainstream culture
TV: Jon Stewart’s daily show (That is 1999, I think)
Music/Technology: iTunes
Leisure: star chefs and food networks
Books: Krugman seems to be the leader for non-fiction right now

8 Michael August 18, 2010 at 8:59 am

Very much agree with Facebook/MySpace(duh!), Daily Show, The Office, and Food Network.

9 Someone from the other side August 18, 2010 at 9:04 am

> Don’t know if this should go in Tech or To Read, but texting has to be in here somewhere. It is an epidemic.

That’s pretty US centric. In large parts of the rest of the developed world, it took off in the 90s already. Though I guess if you include the developing world, it might in fact be a 00s phenomenon.

10 Someone from the other side August 18, 2010 at 9:07 am

> Don’t know if this should go in Tech or To Read, but texting has to be in here somewhere. It is an epidemic.

That’s pretty US centric. In large parts of the rest of the developed world, it took off in the 90s already. Though I guess if you include the developing world, it might in fact be a 00s phenomenon.

11 Scoop August 18, 2010 at 9:10 am

Is the object to name things of lasting value, things that people will either still enjoy 50 years from now or things that people will acknowledge as ground breaking, like the Model T? If so, The Wire will live as will the style of comedy that has become popular over the past ten years. I don’t know how to synopsize it in a phrase, but the New Yorker just did a story about it that focused on “Dinner for Schmucks.” I think Lady Gaga has more staying power than Tyler does. My grandkids will know her songs 50 years from today. Overall, I think music of this age will be known for its irony, which comes in sharp contrast to the earnestness of the 1990s, Technology is easier: Skype, YouTube, social networking, GPS and ultimately most important, I’d guess, Google books. Actually there’s too much technology to name. We’ve had the most innovations now since the 1870s/80s.

If on the other hand, the object is to spot things that capture a spirit of the age that will be mocked in ten years a la That 70s Show, then I think Avatar is appropriate. Once technology makes the effects look stupid, it’s dead because plot, characters and dialog are all terrible to the point I still half think it’s intentional camp. (Inception is better than Tyler thinks but nothing like the masterpiece its supporters claim.) The whole show of Living Green by people who drive hybrids but fly to Europe on vacation twice a year will be mocked, as will the locoavore and artisinal things. Some of the organic craze will be mocked (though some of it will turn out to be right and incorporated into normal practice).

12 C August 18, 2010 at 9:16 am

I would add my vote for MMORPGs.

13 J. Daniel Wright August 18, 2010 at 9:17 am

Films – throw the Pixar movies in there. Yes they started in the 1990s but I believe the 2000s has been the decade when their name became standalone.

Music – MIA’s “Paper Planes” has been the soundtrack to everything for the last three years.

Television – I think you can sum up a lot of television in the 21st Century as a shift to premium channels. Weeds, Dexter, the Sopranos, Curb your Enthusiasm, John Adams, and Rome are the shows I hear people talking about. They’re the shows people are excited about. These premium channel shows define this decade from the television of the 20th century.

14 anonymous August 18, 2010 at 9:21 am

The Sixties as we know them didn’t really begin until early 1964, post-Kennedy with the Beatles invasion and with Vietnam heating up and the Boomers finally coming of age in critical mass.

The 20th century as we know it didn’t really begin until World War I. This despite major technological innovations such as the airplane and advancements in automobiles in the first chronological decade.

Accordingly, I’d predict that nothing at all that we’ve seen so far will be seen as emblematic of the 21st century, from the perspective of a pundit summing up the century on New Year’s Eve 2099. The century hasn’t really begun yet.

The question is really a misnomer. If you said “emblematic of the Aughts decade”, your answers might be more reasonable (although Lady Gaga and the two movies arrived a little too late, and the mobile computing devices will not really come into their own until the ’10s decade, just like the Eighties were truly the decade of the personal computer despite the Apple II having been invented in the late Seventies).

15 Kevin K August 18, 2010 at 9:22 am

Black Hawk Down was made in (2001) and represents the current mess of military affairs better than anything that followed.

16 Jonathan August 18, 2010 at 9:23 am

Come now… isn’t it obvious that The Age of the Infovore has attenuated the “emblematic” concept?

17 matt August 18, 2010 at 9:25 am

irony is soooooooo 21st century. it’s almost as if people can’t function without being ironic in some fashion. just yesterday, i saw some bbq place advertising a ‘redneck’ night. are you kidding me? irony as fashion has neutered our culture into humorless and witless blowhards.

18 Mcsimilian August 18, 2010 at 9:28 am

I would go for these technolical induced enhancements:

Always Online + Mobile Phone Cameras + Wordpress/Twitter = instant visible publishing

2. Hybrid Cars/Electric vehicles

19 Chaitanya August 18, 2010 at 9:31 am

That list is just testament to the really fucking weird decade we’ve just had. Postmodern my ass. Just crap. Or is that the argument of postmodern writers?

20 Anon. August 18, 2010 at 9:33 am

Here follows the list of best selling books of the 50s. Other than Hemingway, I have no clue who these people are! Yeah, there are isolated examples of popular things persisting (like Jailhouse Rock as someone mentioned above), but the taste of the average person is appalling. Time enriches good works and destroys bad ones…Avatar and Freakonomics will be forgotten.

1. The Cardinal, Henry Morton Robinson

2. Joy Street, Frances Parkinson Keyes

3. Across the River and into the Trees, Ernest Hemingway

4. The Wall, John Hersey

5. Star Money, Kathleen Winsor

6. The Parasites, Daphne du Maurier

7. Floodtide, Frank Yerby

8. Jubilee Trail, Gwen Bristow

9. The Adventurer, Mika Waltari

10. The Disenchanted, Budd Schulberg

21 Nicolas August 18, 2010 at 9:43 am

Movies: Sin city, 300, Wall-E, Cloverfield, In the loop + The thick of it, Exit through the gift shop, Saw movies. Music: Kanye West, Arcade fire, Cannibal Ox’s “The cold vein”, Uffie, LCD soundsystem, Danger Mouse, Radiohead, the Strokes, Saul Williams.

Pff this is tough, I’m not old enough to have an informed view :-).

22 David Stern August 18, 2010 at 9:48 am

ChinaSmack.com – blog, China, trivia/celebrities. All the trends are there.

23 prior_approval August 18, 2010 at 9:52 am

‘Right, torture is so distinctively 21st century.’
It is for the United States, which until the 21st history, had a proud history of rejecting torture as a standard tool of waging war – as the list appeared quite American-centric, it seemed appropriate.

But you’re right, for the rest of the world, torture has a long tradition – one that the U.S. had not been a part of, at least in the minds of the rest of the wrold. I might add the entire digital photography/Internet nexus which publicly displayed the smiling faces of American torturers along with their practices and victims is very 21st century.

24 anonymous August 18, 2010 at 10:00 am

History often has a very different judgment that contemporaries about what is significant and what is not.

The long slow birth of what became the Internet actually began (in complete obscurity) at roughly the same time as the space race, and yet it was infinitely more significant. Similarly, we are surely ignoring something very important that is happening right under our noses.

Your guess is as good as mine, but I’d venture to say that barring technological collapse, virtual worlds will be very big in a few decades’ time (it will take that long for the technology to be good enough for most people to bother). Accordingly, Second Life will be of great interest to future historians, despite the fact that few people will have cared about it during its existence.

25 Ed August 18, 2010 at 10:20 am

I don’t get this blog post, but I think its mistitled. The title of the post is “What is Emblemetic of the 21st Century”. The substance is a list of pop culture trends and trendlets, in the U.S., in the Oughts.

Since the 21st Century still has another ninety years to run, the post was probably mistitled and should have been titled, “which pop culture trends will Americans remember” or something like that.

You couldn’t really tell what was “embletic” of the 20th century from 1901-10, or the 19th century from 1801-10, but then centuries are really articifical concepts.

26 Dennis Delay August 18, 2010 at 10:21 am

Add “The Wire” on the TV list. Maybe not popular, but will become more appreciated for its social commetary (Dave Simon might be the Charles Dickens of this decade).

27 thehova August 18, 2010 at 10:27 am

We’ve definitely witnessed the death of the album. Much less people buy them. And artists can’t live off them (even bands like U2 are struggling with album sales).

28 Andre B. August 18, 2010 at 10:36 am

For films, I would select Matrix (it was realesed in 1999, so it comes closer as The Sopranos). For television, I think that Big Bang Theory is a good choice, isn´t it?

29 Johnboy August 18, 2010 at 10:46 am

Maybe it’s just me, but I think you misread the question. Seems the reader was asking you about the entire century (100 years) not just the past decade. And further, it seems he was asking you to predict the future (“what will the answer to this question be in 10 years?”) requiring you to look ahead at what will take over our coming lives.

Anyone else read the question the way I did?

30 DaveyNC August 18, 2010 at 10:56 am

Sports: Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, Lebron James, baseball and steroids, the fall of Tiger Woods, Brett Favre, the New England Patriots as the team of the decade, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.

I wish that I could add something soccer-related here, but nope.

31 Jack LaLanne August 18, 2010 at 11:10 am

For the first time in human history obesity is a marker of poverty.

32 Michael F. Martin August 18, 2010 at 11:19 am

The Wire — chiming in with earlier comments.

33 Slocum August 18, 2010 at 11:40 am

For the U.S. we’re in a golden age of satire — The Onion, South Park, The Daily Show, Colbert Report.

For mass culture the interesting thing about the 2000s is that this is the decade that mass culture lost most of its mass — no books, music, or movies have anything close to the widespread impact that they used to have, and it seems unlikely that they ever will.

Also, book stores, video stores, magazines, newspapers, and movie theaters are all struggling to survive. If they continue to fade, this will be remembered as the decade when it became inevitable.

34 Eddie August 18, 2010 at 11:43 am

I agree this should be more like “What is emblematic of the START of the 21st century.”

At the current rate of technological progress, 2050 will be as far from 2010 as 2010 was from 1910.

35 Ed August 18, 2010 at 12:01 pm

“there are barely 20 current bands right now that are anywhere close to notable these days. that’s what is so 21st century. the fact that music has been taking a huge dump on unsuspecting consumers for the past ten years.”

This is a good point. The 00s could be remembered as the decade popular music died.

The point about mass culture losing is mass is also good. There seems to be no “must see” TV, let alone books, music, art, movies etc. anymore though Tyler often pretends otherwise. There are some good second-tier and third-tier types of cultural stuff being produced and published. There may be some works of genius that won’t come to light until after we are dead (though this happens more rarely than people think). But there is no point in keeping up anymore.

Sometimes historically cultures have developed to a point where their entire energy is spent in preserving and cataloging what they have done in the past, not in producing anything new, and its starting to look like the West has gotten there. This could be an important development in the next ninety years.

Another thing that might be happening, the brief window when (some) artists could earn a living off of their art may be closing. The decline of mass marketing and the rise of rents in the cities is seeing to that. This would mean going back to the days when if you are an artist, it means you have an aristocratic patron, are an aristocrat yourself, or produce a few works now and then while keeping up with your day job.

36 Brett August 18, 2010 at 12:11 pm

Technology: iPhone, Wii, iPad, Kindle. These are no-brainers and I do think it will go down in American history as “iPhone,” not “iPhone and other smart phones.” Sorry people.

I agree. There were cell phones and internet connectivity in the 1990s, but it wasn’t until the 21st century that we really saw the explosion and increasing dominance of mobile networking devices. I suspect historians from the 22nd Century will talk a lot about that, as well as the companies that made it possible (Google, Apple, etc).

Of course, barring a collapse, they’ve got it easy. Historians on much earlier eras have to deal with a paucity of information, whereas historians on our era will have plenty of that to go through, assuming there isn’t some type of collapse later this century.

37 John 4 August 18, 2010 at 12:13 pm

As noted above, World of Warcraft and fantasy football. Don’t know if they’ll be remembered, but they were huge cultural forces this last decade.

And it is bizarre that no one has mentioned Eminem in the music category. He ruled the last decade, and – qualms about content aside – the music/raps are extremely high quality, and so will likely stand the test of time.

38 matt August 18, 2010 at 12:31 pm


we can blame technology for this. though, while some fairly decent movies are coming out here and there, it’s definitely waning. gone are the days of truffaut, chabrol, bunuel, kubrick, wilder etc. though, Paul Thomas Anderson is probably our only savior in film making, at least american film making (IMO). but with the easily accessible and easily used recording devices/cameras, everyone takes a crack at something that only a very few will ever get good at. in the meantime, we get to weather the storm with a bunch of go nowhere kids who’ll end up buying their kids vampire weekend records.

39 Buzzcut August 18, 2010 at 12:58 pm

how in the world did you arrive at the conclusion that Phoenix is an alternative band? alternative to what? plus, this isn’t anymore noteworthy than the beach boys singing good vibrations over a sunkist commercial.

What’s noteworthy is that they were a relatively unknown band when they made the commercial.

Alternative in that they play ’em on Alt Nation on Sirius. 😉

I guess it’s not just commercials playing new music, shows like Grey’s Anatomy have a running soundtrack of bands I’ve never heard before. So I’m getting my new music from commercials and certain shows.

40 Maximum Liberty August 18, 2010 at 1:41 pm

– Huge, high definition televisions so cheap that the middle class could buy them.
– Video over the internet

– Mad Men

41 mulp August 18, 2010 at 2:31 pm

The resurrection of the view that natural science is a partisan liberal conspiracy to destroy society, and a return to a belief in the free lunch and the tooth fairy.

Tax cuts create jobs, spending to repair or replace failing bridges is wasteful, Medicare is not a government program, and mining and pollution do not harm the environment or people, have had ever more popular support this decade.

If the trend of the past decade continues, future national conventions will be held in Hawaii where virgins will be thrown into volcanoes to placate the gods in hopes of creating jobs and ending the droughts and floods.

42 Ken August 18, 2010 at 2:39 pm

Brett wrote: “Historians on much earlier eras have to deal with a paucity of information, whereas historians on our era will have plenty of that to go through, assuming there isn’t some type of collapse later this century.”

Maybe not. In “Glasshouse”, Charles Stross depicts this as a new Dark Age. Paraphrasing what one of the characters said, “For thousands of years, you could open a book and look at the letters. Even films, you could see the images on the strip. You couldn’t do that when they started digitizing everything, and we can’t read a lot of stuff because we don’t know the formats. But when they started encrypting everything, it really fell apart.”

By the way, count me among those who thought the question was about the whole century, and that the current technology fads are not going to make the cut. Especially not the iAnything, since Apple’s entire business strategy is to make their products obsolete as soon as possible, so you have to buy the new one.

43 dhex August 18, 2010 at 3:08 pm

“Career lifecycles seem to be getting shorter, for one thing.”

i disagree. if anything, the noughties (oh how terrible a neologism that is) are the age of the reunion. even influential weirdos of the margins (throbbing gristle, swans) are getting in on the reunion act. plus there’s the whole “let’s play that one classic early album in its entirety” thing.

44 Ed August 18, 2010 at 4:01 pm

I read alot of history both of the modern era (19th and 20th centuries), and ancient and medieval eras, and I think the historians of the earlier periods had things easier. Its easier to take a handful of sources and try to exatrapolate into what they don’t cover, than to separate out what is really relevant from a deluge of mostly undigestable material.

45 RH August 18, 2010 at 5:01 pm

Might it be that you have little idea of contemporary music and rarely go out to nightclubs?
For one, this was the decade of Reggaeton, and Merengue/Merenpop is coming. We also had a lot of Latin pop, with Shakira, Juanes, Nelly Furtado et al.
Second, just compare 80s and 90s French/European electro, like JM Jarre or Daft Punk, with David Guetta! They’re worlds apart. Balkan music and its fusion with electro is also quite new, see Shantel’s output.
Yet, Lady Gaga is a good choice, even if we’ve heard the same electropop before, with Madonna reliably delivering similar visual content. It’s a proven concept, known to sell. It’s simply good music.

46 cranky critter August 18, 2010 at 6:11 pm

I think “the wire” stands a chance if it is seen as emblematic of the transition of epic storytelling from novel to screen.

Let’s face it, in the 20th century, you could still credibly claim that the novel had the preeminent role of bearing our culture forward in a lengthy, sophisticated, dramatic treatment.

But as we go forward, t it’s hard to look at the novel as having any sort of preeminent role when you consider market share. Not that many people read non pop-tart novels, and there’s a deceasing frequency of a great one rising up and having lots of folks read it. Th novel isn;’t dead, but it’s boutique fare/

Obviously, it’s not the case that the Wire was the first to do this. But the combination of breadth and detail make it a pretty singular achievement in my opinion. It brought godfather-level storytelling to a very lengthy format. Enough so to make me wonder what other dramatic vehicle reasonably approaches the Wire in presenting the American urban conundrum of this time period. So if it’s emblematic, then it has to share the stage with others of its like in any discussion. But it’s a really good choice as the emblematic example.

47 John August 18, 2010 at 8:18 pm

Why bash Inception and NOT Avatar? Avatar is the worst movie ever to be called the best movie of all time.

48 Norman August 18, 2010 at 10:55 pm

The most emblematic will be the Presidency of Barak Obama. He’ll go down as the Un-American President and I’m not talking about where he was born. His real views of America are like those of the Rev Wright and his Muslim heritage will come out even more. For those of you who think not, when have you ever heard Obama profess to love America without qualification? The truth is that he doesn’t love America and never will.

49 Darren August 19, 2010 at 12:50 am

How about boom and bust?

50 Troy Camplin August 19, 2010 at 4:32 am

May be a bit early to make this list. What happened in 1900-1910 that were emblematic of the 20th century?

Thomas Edison creates the first battery.
The airplane is invented.
The first movie with a plot.
newspapers changed to the four-column, tabloid style paper in 1900
Ford introduced mass production of autos and thus made them cheap enough for the average person
teddy bears were invented
“The Wizard of Oz” published

Not bad. But here are a few other things from that time period:

Hobble skirts and hats — women’s fashion
the high celluloid collar — men’s fashion
barbershop quartets (still in the popular imagination, but I bet nobody knows they were a sign of those times) and ragtime was the music (quick name me ONE barbershop quartet or ragtime band from the time without looking)

In the arts, we can perhaps identify a few movements, but how many actual artists? The question is: what will last? Lada Gaga? I think not (and I say that as someone who doesn’t think she’s half bad — especially within her genre).

But I think you are right about fiction. There is nothing worth mentioning in the past ten years.

51 Watt DeFark August 19, 2010 at 10:20 am

What is emblematic of the 21st Century?

Fragmentation–DVR, On Demand, online viewing means no single cultural theme where everyone is part of a simultaneous conversation

Alienation–smart phones with internet and texting suck up more attention than the person at the table with you. View the world through the interface. Kids watching DVDs in the car rather than looking out the window

Distraction–can’t have a single moment of downtime with constant technology intrusions

All leading to lack of focus and deep thought.

52 anon August 19, 2010 at 11:37 am

Lots of good ideas above, but I don’t think anyone mentioned porn becoming mainstream and ubiquitous. If you want names, Jenna Jameson and Girls Gone Wild.

53 Jon August 19, 2010 at 7:50 pm

As someone else noted the first decade of a century does not tell you much about the rest of it. Take the last five centuries. Only the 1700s did not undergo really major changes after the first decade (changes happened but were more gradual, until the end when the French Revolution sent it out with a bang). In the other four there were major events in their second decades that changed everything: 1500s – the Reformation (and Cortez conquering Mexico and the Sultan reviving the Caliphate); 1600s- the Thirty Years War began; 1800s – fall of Napoleon and the end of general warfare in Europe; 1900s – World War I, obviously.
Maybe this will be more like the 18th century. Or maybe something really big (much bigger than 9-11) will upset all the apple carts in the next few years.

54 Vince August 21, 2010 at 2:12 pm

Not a single mention of “24”? That has to be *the* most iconic television series of the decade.

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