History is often trapped in a rut of grand political narratives. Elections, wars, dynasties, the conquests of “great men;” seldom do we peer past this pageant to see the machinery at work in the background. Look carefully at the past few decades and a bright picture emerges from the haze.
Almost none of these events were worth noting when they occurred. Many of them failed to make the news in any form. Yet our lives today are products of these evolutionary pivots.
1988 – James Hansen testifies in Congress on the human role in climate change.
Hansen’s testimony marks the beginning of public awareness of the problem of climate change. The OMB would later attempt to muzzle his conclusions. He would appeal for help from the Senate’s foremost advocate for science and technology, Al Gore.
1989 – Rick Perry becomes a Republican.
Perry’s conversion launched the final phase of the flight of the Dixiecrats into the GOP. He would go on to be Texas’ longest-serving Governor.
1991 – George HW Bush signs the High Performance Computing Act, also called The Gore Bill, creating the Internet.
Yes Virginia, Al Gore “invented the Internet.” HPCA was the culmination of years of effort by the Tennessee Senator to make this government technology available to the public.
1992 – America’s first charter school, City Academy, opens in Minneapolis, MN.
Reformers struggling to make quality education available to inner city kids scored their first big coup in decades with the opening of the first charter school in Minneapolis. Their efforts remain incomplete, but this initiative remains a ripe and under-appreciated opening for conservatives to build allies in big cities.
1993 – Hawaii Supreme Court validates gay marriage.
Though thwarted a few years later by a ballot initiative, this move by Hawaii’s highest court brought attention to a cause that enjoyed very little support at the time. From here activists built a movement that would eventually change federal law.
1994 – Demolition begins at Cabrini Green in Chicago under a Hope VI grant.
Jack Kemp’s vision for ending the misery of inner city housing projects was finally put into policy under the Clinton Administration. His reforms played a crucial role in the revitalization of central cities all over the country, reversing decades of urban decline.
1994 – Monsanto introduces first genetically modified strain of soybean.
As genetic, mechanical, and industrial innovation in food production accelerates, we appear to have hit a milestone in the past decade. We may have reached “peak farmland,” the point at which our demand for arable land has peaked. GMO’s represent the next remarkable step in that chain of innovation and this soybean strain was a breakthrough. Almost all corn and soybeans are now GMO’s. With the development of the Crispr gene splicing technology, it is now possible to make fairly reliable edits to human genes.
1996 – Elizabeth Warren becomes a Democrat.
As the Republican Party veered right and South, an older strain of Republican thought gradually died out. When Republicans lost Elizabeth Warren, they lost the most popular and influential US Senator of the next generation. Along with her, they lost old Republican enclaves in places like California, Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut.
1996 – Clinton signs directive to turn off the “selective availability” of the US Global Positioning system. In May 2000 GPS with full fidelity becomes commercially available.
Prior to this directive, global positioning was available for private use, but was deliberately skewed in ways that rendered it impractical for most commercial uses. This liberalization of US defense technology (again, pressed by Al Gore), changed the way we live.
1997 – Phillippe Kahn takes a picture of his newborn daughter on his cell phone and shares it with friends around the world, the first recorded example of cell photo sharing.
Kahn’s bulky, jerry-rigged camera phone was the precursor to something few people could imagine at the time – pervasive video documentation of our lives.
1999 – Spectrolab and the US DOE develop a solar cell with a 32% efficiency.
Not long ago it seemed there was no alternative to carbon fuels that would not create serious loss of productivity. Spectrolab’s breakthrough for the first time promised to put solar energy on a declining cost curve similar to other technologies.
1999 – Napster is released.
Perhaps the most remarkable development in modern art and music emerged from a few college dropouts playing around with Internet file sharing engines. By optimizing existing peer-to-peer technologies for a music format, they created an engine that made virtually every recording ever made available for search and download. Their technology was shut down within a few years, but it fostered an explosion in the availability and production of artistic works that continues to gain momentum.
2000 – President Clinton signs Phil Gramm’s Commodities Futures Modernization Act.
In the fevered final days of his Administration Clinton signed Senator Gramm’s signature achievement. The Act, augmented by two further Acts in the Bush Administration, would block federal oversight of commodities derivatives while allowing federally-insured institutions to invest in them. It was the CFMA that weaponized the derivatives industry, turning it into a bomb that would destroy the global financial system just a few years later.
2011 – IBM’s Watson computer defeats human contestants in Jeopardy.
A turning point in the advance of labor-saving technology, Watson was the first AI engine capable of competing with humans in thought-tasks beyond mere mathematical calculation. This breakthrough opened doors to new investment in AI and machine learning that, just a few years later, have made Watson seem…elementary.
2013 – George Zimmerman is acquitted after killing Trayvon Martin. Frustrated activists unite into the Black Lives Matter movement.
First came the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. And the rest is history.
What’s really happening out there today that will change the shape of tomorrow? We probably won’t find it in tomorrow’s headlines.
Water flowing underground…