A NEW ECONOMY?

Clinton’s popularity rested in part on the American economy’s remarkable performance in the mid-and late 1990s. After recovery from the recession of 1990-1991, economic expansion continued for the rest of the decade. By 2000, unemployment stood below 4 percent, a figure not seen since the 1960s. Many economists had insisted that if unemployment fell that low, inflation would inevitably increase. Yet prices barely rose during the boom, because rising worldwide oil production kept the cost of energy low and weak unions and increased global competition made it difficult for workers to achieve significant wage increases and for corporations to raise prices. The boom became the longest uninterrupted period of economic expansion in the nation’s history. Because Reagan and Bush had left behind massive budget deficits, Clinton worked hard to balance the federal budget—a goal traditionally associated with fiscal conservatives. Since economic growth produced rising tax revenues, Clinton during his second term not only balanced the budget but actually produced budget surpluses.

The first Starbucks store, which opened in Seattle in 1971. By the early twenty-first century, Starbucks had more than 7,000 such establishments in countries around the globe.

Two architects of the computer revolution, Steve Jobs (standing), the head of Apple Computer, and Bill Gates (via the Internet), founder of Microsoft, at a 1997 convention.

THE COMPUTER REVOLUTION

Many commentators spoke of the 1990s as the dawn of a “new economy,” in which computers and the Internet would produce vast new efficiencies and the production and sale of information would occupy the central place once held by the manufacture of goods. Computers had first been developed during and after World War II to solve scientific problems and do calculations involving enormous amounts of data. The early ones were extremely large, expensive, and, by modem standards, slow. Research for the space program of the 1960s spurred the development of improved computer technology, notably the miniaturization of parts thanks to the development of the microchip on which circuits could be imprinted.

Microchips made possible the development of entirely new consumer products. Video cassette recorders, handheld video games, cellular phones, and digital cameras were mass-produced at affordable prices during the 1990s, mostly in Asia and Latin America rather than the United States. But it was the computer that transformed American life. Beginning in the 1980s, companies like Apple and IBM marketed computers for business and home use. As computers became smaller, faster, and less expensive, they found a place in businesses of every kind. In occupations as diverse as clerical work, banking, architectural design, medical diagnosis, and even factory production, they transformed the American workplace. They also changed private life. By the year 2000, nearly half of all American households owned a personal computer, used for entertainment, shopping, and sending and receiving electronic mail. Centers of computer technology, such as Silicon Valley south of San Francisco, the Seattle and Austin metropolitan areas, and lower Manhattan, boomed during the 1990s.

Hollywood, as always, reflected changes in popular consciousness, in this case the impact of the computer revolution. In War of the Worlds, a 1953 movie based on a novel by H. G. Wells, technologically superior aliens invade earth only to succumb to disease viruses to which they have no resistance. In Independence Day, one of the most successful movies of the 1990s, a similar invasion is thwarted in part by the introduction of a different kind of virus—a program that disables computers—into the control mechanism of the alien spaceship.

Young people seemed to adapt to the computer revolution more readily than their elders. Here nine-year-old Anna Walter teaches several adults how to use the Internet in Wichita, Kansas.

The Internet, first developed as a high-speed military communications network, was simplified and opened to commercial and individual use through personal computers. The Internet expanded the flow of information and communications more radically than any invention since the printing press. At a time when the ownership of newspapers, television stations, and publishing houses was becoming concentrated in the hands of a few giant media conglomerates, the fact that anyone with a computer could post his or her ideas for worldwide circulation led “netizens” (“citizens” of the Internet) to hail the advent of a new, democratic public sphere in cyberspace.

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