If the 1890s were called the Gay '90s, the 1990s should be heralded as the Triumphalist Decade.
For at the end of the 20th century, America reigns supreme -- not only as the major military-industrial power in the world, but also as the leading infomedia society. Its undisputed scientific and technological superiority have made it the unchallenged leader of the new global economy.
The 20th century has experienced enormous scientific-technological progress. New communication technologies -- the telephone, radio, television, satellite and computers -- have transformed the world into a global community.
The Green Revolution changed the United States from a rural society in which most of the population worked on farms to an urban, suburban and exurban society in which less than 2 percent are employed in agriculture. New modes of transportation, especially the automobile, radically reshaped our landscape. Scientific medicine has improved health, cut the death rate and extended life spans. The airplane enables us to visit all parts of the planet, and space-age rockets have opened our solar system and the universe beyond to exploration.
Technological breakthroughs have continued at a dizzying pace in the 1990s. Most notably, it has been a decade in which the Information Revolution was declared the successor to the Industrial Revolution. The microchip and the Internet have transformed virtually every factory, office, home and hearth. Knowledge has become the new commodity to be trafficked worldwide.
This has led to an unprecedented stock market boom. The Dow Jones average on Jan. 2, 1990, was 2,810; by the winter of 1999, it had exceeded 11,000. The American economy, by 1998, showed its first surplus in decades and its longest peacetime expansion.
The 1990s have seen a frenzied increase in mergers and acquisitions, and these rapidly accelerated in 1998 and 1999 in both the United States and Europe, as companies large and small were gobbled up by larger conglomerates. The century began with concerns about monopolies and trusts, and the Sherman Anti-Trust law was enacted. At the end of the century, the free-market "corporate mystique" rules virtually unchallenged.
Mergers in the information and entertainment industry have made the United States the major worldwide exporter of movies and TV programs. Many are asking whether a steady diet of violence is corrupting the young. Others deplore the fact that the mass media reveled in sensational stories (such as the O.J. Simpson trial in 1994-95) and lurid scandals (the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas case in 1991, the Clinton impeachment hearings of 1997-98).
The Information Revolution contributed in no small measure to the demise of the two separate economic systems that had existed since World War II, and it ushered in a new post-communist era.
It became apparent that Soviet-style communism could not compete in the contemporary world. Entrepreneurial laissez-faire capitalism has spread everywhere -- most notably in the former Soviet Union (disbanded in 1992) and Eastern Europe. Even China has opened its economy to the free-market system.
Indeed, it has become clear in the 1990s that no national economy or government can control its own destiny, for each depends on world markets. The social-democratic governments in control in Europe learned that lesson.
In this new global system, authoritarian governments find it increasingly difficult to repress their populations: The fax machine and the Internet facilitate instant communication, and any violation of human rights anywhere could reverberate everywhere.
It's clear that in the global information age, no nation can live in isolation, and new ideas and values are bound to spread. This applies even to Muslim countries, where the first stirrings for women's rights, freedom and secularism can be heard.
As the world is being radically transformed into a global society, there have been significant pockets of opposition. There has been a surprising resurgence of fundamentalist religions worldwide, calling for a return to the verities of the premodern era.
New demands for preserving "multicultural identity" and even virulent "ethnic cleansing" also have re-emerged -- tragically -- in Yugoslavia (with bloody conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo) and the former Soviet Union, and in some cases this has led to brutal wars of genocide (as in Rwanda).
The Triumphalist Decade of the '90s provides a springboard for a leap into the 21st century and the millennium beyond. Though no one can foretell with certainty what will occur, several trends discernible at the end of the century will continue.
Technological innovations will most likely continue to develop at a rapid rate, radically transforming our lives. Inasmuch as an estimated 90 percent of the scientists who have ever lived are now alive, it's difficult to predict what they will discover or invent.
Barring a natural disaster, economic collapse or worldwide thermonuclear or biochemical war, humankind will continue to progress. Cures for most major illnesses are likely to be discovered, extending life spans even further. This will make it possible for more people to have greater time for leisure activities, including added years for retirement.
It is probable that new forms of energy will be developed, thus reducing pollution by carbon-based fuels. Nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and robotics will contribute to greater productivity and prosperity.
In the world of the future, those societies that are open to new ideas and are able to adapt will grow; those that are not will stagnate. Those that are willing to pour money into scientific and technological research will have the best chance of prospering. Education is vital, and we need to open educational opportunities to all sectors of society, including the poor and disadvantaged.
In the world of tomorrow, advances in science will dramatically extend our understanding of the universe. As we explore other planetary systems and galaxies, the human species will be viewed in a different perspective. Carl Sagan has characterized our planet Earth, as seen from space, as "a blue-green dot." From this vantage point, it should become apparent that we are all part of one planetary society.
If we are to progress further, it is imperative that we develop new transnational political institutions, a system of world law and a world court to resolve conflicts, and some international regulation and taxation of global conglomerates. As we leap into the new millennium, we will need to learn to work together -- especially to stabilize population growth, protect our environment and reduce the disparities in wealth between the rich and poor regions of the world.
We also need to renew our confidence in the ability of human beings to marshal the intelligence and goodwill necessary to solve our problems. The centuries that lie ahead will be unlike any that we have experienced. There will be new frontiers to conquer and new opportunities to tap. These are bound to challenge our imagination and ingenuity.
For our children's children and their offspring, the new millennium can be one of high adventure and meaningful enrichment. What will be depends in large measure on whether we are willing to plan ambitious goals and aspirations, and whether we have the courage and fortitude to realize them.
PAUL KURTZ, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University at Buffalo, is the author of more than 30 books and 650 articles and reviews. He is president of Prometheus Books and chairman of the Center for Inquiry International in Amherst.