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26 December 2009
Decades as cultural artifact

Decades are an arbitrary concept; unlike days, months, and years, they aren’t tied to the cycles of stars, planets, and moons but to the fact that humans have ten fingers apiece, and thus base most of our counting systems on tens. Though I’d have to do a bit more research to prove it, they seem to be a thoroughly modern obsession. I can think of abbreviated names and cultural-historical shorthands for every decade since the 1920s, but before that it’s a lot more work coming up with anything.

We’re about to mark the end of our own latest decade, and culture-watchers and -commentators have spent the last month feeding us list upon list of the key cultural artifacts of the decade that will probably, for lack of a better idea, be known as the noughties. But how much does the fascination with placing things in dance-theme-worthy decade boxes actually alter, rather than simply order, our collective cultural memory? I have opinions as to what makes for 70s music and 80s music, but 1974–84 is just as legitimate a ten-year span, yet much harder to place musically. So it seems a reasonable thing to ask: what do decades, and the ways we talk and think about them, make of the world?

—Nate Barksdale

1. What do decades assume about the way the world is?

I think decades assume the compression of time with age.

Brian Dixon

Decades assume that cultural and historical phenomenon can be assigned to or contained within a given period of time.


Actually, the idea that we all count in 10s because we all have 10 fingers is backwards.  We don’t count in tens because of our ten fingers, we count our hands as ten because we use base 10, which is mostly because the Romans won.  Various ancient cultures were more likely to count in twelves, sixteens, or sixties.  You still see remnants of this in our counting systems today.

For basic arithmetic, twelves is actually a far more efficient counting system than ours… you can easily count to 12 on each hand.  Hold four fingers up, then use your thumb to touch each of your fingertips, then the space between the first and second joint on each finger, than the second and third.  With a little bit of practice you can get used to it and easily recognize each position of the hand as a number between 1 and 12.  That way you can count to 24 without taking off your shoes!

To count to sixteen, you count the joints instead of the spaces between them.  Fingertips are 1 through 4, first joints are 5 through 8, second joints are 9 through 12, and base joints are 13 through 16.

This bit of useless knowledge has been brought to you by the numbers aleph and gamma and the number 12.

2. What do decades assume about the way the world should be?

I think the assumption here is that the world and all that’s going on in it should be easily manageable; something we can actually take in and comprehend. Breaking it down into byte-sized, “count-on-your-fingers” increments gives us the sense that this is possible.

Brian Dixon
3. What do decades make possible?
4. What do decades make impossible (or at least a lot more difficult)?

Taking a longview. Seeing the big picture. Wisdom is sacrificed for pop-culture savvy and excelling at Trivial Pursuit.

Brian Dixon
5. What new culture is created in response?

Best of the Decade Lists. Worst of the Decade Lists.

Ben Roberts