Decades, centuries, eras: How do we measure time?

The end of the decade to which the Brits refer as the Aughts (“aught” being the Old English word for “zero”) is upon us. In three days, we’ll enter 2010. (Will common parlance come to prefer the expression “two thousand and ten” or “twenty ten”?)

The approach of that milestone reminds me of how tentative, narrow and conditional our understanding of history often is. Take the current decade, now coming fast to a close, as an example.

As we approached the end of 1999, it seemed clear that with the turning of all four numbers on our digital calendars — as if they were odometer numerals — we’d enter a new, as-yet-undesignated, era. The calendar was telling us things were about to change. Who were we to argue?

There were passionate and heated arguments about what the turning of all those figures would mean. Remember the Y2K paranoia — the notion that many of our automated systems would freeze and lock up, creating mass havoc? Then there were the debates over when, exactly, the end of the second millennium in the common era would arrive. Many argued (rightly, but inconsequentially) that the new millennium would not begin on Jan. 1, 2000, but rather on Jan. 1, 2001.

When extremists struck at the United States with such unprecedented force on Sept. 11, 2001, we revised our thinking. Many commentators, myself included, thought that, when the chronicle of this century is written 100 years hence, 01-09-11 would mark the geopolitical fulcrum on which the world shifted and a new chapter of human history began. Only eight years out, does that still seem likely? Not so much, really — the events around airport security in the last few days notwithstanding.

Just as lively debate still exists among historians over precisely when the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, the Victorian Era or the Modern Era began, so I expect debate to continue for some time as to when, exactly, the 21st century arrived in our midst. For some, it will be the clicking over of the calendric numerals; for others, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Economists may one day argue that it was a particular date in the fall of 2008, when the biggest global recession since the Great Depression struck.

I was intrigued, however, to read a passage on the popular Quoteflections blog from Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. Martin is quoted there as saying Nov. 10, 2001, was a pivotal date in the history of the past decade, if not the fledgling century. “That was the day the first iPod was shipped. To me, it heralded a kind of an interesting, ironic intersection of trends. In terms of consumers, what it heralded was individualization . . . . But Apple didn’t just announce iPod; it announced iPod and iTunes simultaneously. What that heralded was also the era of the business ecosystem — a gigantic system that a corporation orchestrates and manages. The two trends were more momentous than any of us had realized. It’s not that iPod caused it, but iPod signalled it,” Martin said.

Whose view will prevail over the long run won’t be known for another century or two. But two things seem clear. One, that the technological shifts of the past decade will play a role in interpreting and drawing the lines of history. And two, that history, as always, will be told in myriad ways, through the lenses of an increasing number of tellers, through an ever-expanding bouquet of tools and platforms.

2 Replies to “Decades, centuries, eras: How do we measure time?”

  1. Why do we live in the 21st century if the year is 2010, when a century represents 100 years so there’s only been 20 centuries and some odd years which would make it the 20th century? To me it seems as though we’re just getting started in the 20th century, 10 after the beginning of the 20th. If the 20th just started, why are labeling it the 21st?

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