It was during the oughts that Americans started drinking more bottled water than beer. As Susan McWilliams of Pomona College observes, you can tell something about a society that chooses clever water over humble beer. Bottled water is personal, inward-driven. Beer is social, outward-driven. Beer gets the party started. Water is the thirst quencher of choice for the solitary fitness addict, marching to the beat of his or her own drummer, digitally remastered for the iPod.
And the iPod hastened a trend toward the personalization of music, and entertainment generally. Turn on a "rock" radio station today and you'll find most of the fare is somewhere between 10 and 40 years old, appealing mostly to those who are nostalgic for a time when music had the power to define an era. YouTube, the natural extension of iPod culture, is a mix of self-promotion and atomization; broadcast yourself, indeed. The digital abattoir of the Internet is taking apart old media dinosaurs at the joints, finally delivering the long prophesied (and, perhaps, lamentable) demise of the post-World War II mainstream media. Time magazine's 2006 decision to declare "you" the person of the year will likely be remembered as a capitulation to the trend.
Meanwhile, many of the most popular and defining TV shows of the last decade have been about me, myself and I. "Survivor" premiered in 2000, launching a parade of reality shows that rewarded will-to-power, ambition and self-centeredness. The "Sopranos" was nominally about the Mafia, but it was really a biting commentary on bourgeois life, centered on a narcissistic sociopath who nonetheless won our sympathy. Series such as "Dexter," "House" and countless others have elevated egomania, self-absorption and narcissism to admirable character traits.
This may sound like the usual conservative caterwauling about social unraveling and balkanization. But it isn't. I don't know that society is any less healthy because it lacks a theme, and I'm certain I don't want Washington to invent one for us.
Still, I do think society craves a theme, which is one reason why Barack Obama's airy rhetoric of unity appealed to so many people, particularly recent college grads, the wealthy, journalists and others most directly immersed in, and responsible for, the self-indulgence of recent years.
The interesting question is whether Obama can -- with the aid of his accomplices -- impose a meaning on our age, or whether the age of meaning itself is over.