The 2010s didn’t happen (in technology)

So I got into mild trouble over on twitter about a suggestion that the 2010s were a decade of technological disappointment.

I’m comparing this to two abnormal decades – the 90s and 00s – that saw technology change pretty much every aspect of western, well-to-do life. The platforms and concepts built during this period still exist now, of course – but are either in stasis or in decline depending on your point of view.

I was 18 in 1996. Here’s a quick list of technologies that have changed my life between then and 2010.

  • Ubiquitous mobile telephony (1995-2001)
  • Ubiquitous internet access. (1997-2000)
  • The (usable) laptop (2000)
  • Home broadband. (2000-2003)
  • Ubiquitous wireless (2005)
  • The rise and fall of magnetic data storage (1995-2005)
  • The rise and fall of optical data storage (2000-2010)
  • The rise and fall of portable, handheld, data storage (2005-2015)
  • The smartphone – constant internet access, multifunction personal computing (2007)
  • Web 2.0, interactivity and social media (2002)
  • Search engine and electronic indexing technology (1998)
  • e-Commerce/online shopping (1998)
  • Using online tools for personal administration (civic interaction/banking/etc) (2000-04)
  • Ubiquitous satellite navigation (2005-2010)
  • The MP3 player (1998-2008)
  • Subscription music services (2008)

These are all things that were either impossible or impossibly expensive when I was 18 and are within reach of my desk in 2020. The internet, clearly, is the big trend-starter – the platform for change if you will.

I’m trying to come up with a similar list for the years between 2010 and 2020, and I’m failing. Electric cars are a far more advanced version of the milkfloats I remember from the 80s – and hybrid technology has to be a contender. But the ipad is just a big smartphone (or a small laptop). The Large Hadron Collider is pretty awesome, but has yet to have an impact on my life. LED lighting is about as close as I can get, but LEDs date back to the early 60s so I’d be arguing for Cerium doped Phosphor LEDs, which feels a bit niche. Someone genuinely suggested Pokemon Go – I was rather taken aback.

But for a decade where tech hype – big data! AI! Chatbots! Personal genetic sequencing! Sodding blockchain! Everything Audrey Watters writes about! – has been everywhere I’m struck by how similar the technological world is to 2005 (though the cultural and political world is very, very different). What have I missed?

Rules are:

  1. Reached widespread use between 2010 and 2020
  2. A person from 2005 would be genuinely taken aback by it.
  3. Has a clear day-to-day impact on our lives.

Carry on…

8 thoughts on “The 2010s didn’t happen (in technology)”

  1. The rhetoric of “change is happening faster than ever before how will we possibly survive?” is a bit tired. I’ve been alive 50 years. There’s been a bunch of change. But, look at the 50 years from, say, 1900 to 1950. Change from horses to cars. Airplanes invented, then ramped up to commercial transport and fighter jets. Rockets invented. 2 world wars. Nuclear power. People went from having outdoor plumbing and having to gather wood and coal for heat, to electrical and gas powered cities. Telephones. Television. Movies. Etc. etc.

    In my lifetime, those are all still things. They’re better, faster, cheaper, but still things. The internet is a real change. Personal computing devices are a real change. Everything else would be somewhat recognizable to someone from 50 years ago. Even the internet and pocket-computer-phones wouldn’t be completely foreign concepts to someone from 50 years ago. Sci-fi predicted all of this.

  2. Hi David, I’ve been thinking about this since your initial tweet. Now you seem to have relaxed the rules a bit (not limited to first used in the 2010s) I’ll have a go. But first, I broadly agree with you: the 2010s weren’t about new technology innovation, more about consolidation and use in things like Uber, Just Eat, short-term bike/scooter rental etc. For all the great tech in your list, you cover the period when the NASDAQ crashed and flatlined, you couldn’t really expect more of the same. Also, I could quibble about some of your choices (in 1995 I had a Toshiba laptop which was just as usable as the desktops I used around then, though it didn’t use the 5.25in floppies I had been using for a decade, and the thought of ubiquitous moble phones wouldn’t have surprised me). I expect you’ll have similar quibbles about my list.

    0.Which decade gets video conferencing that works? you didn’t list it so I’ll claim it on the back of FaceTime (2010).
    1. Web-based office suites (Google docs, Office 365). Some were available ca. 2006, but large scale use was later
    2. Cloud storage and compute, PaaS. Amazon web services started 2006.
    3. OAuth, and OAuth-style “log in with Facebook/Google” 2010 onwards. SSO isn’t the point, that wouldn’t have surprised you or me in 2006, it’s the commercialization and concentration of authentication services for consumer/personal services and what that entails.
    4. Widespread contactless payment, especially with phones, especially for small payments. As above for the change in who’s providing the service (has money been privatised while we weren’t looking?).
    5. Knowledge graphs
    6. Cambridge Analytica
    7. Facial recognition. Not here, in China.
    8. Video streaming / TV catchup (Netflix streaming 2007, iPlayer 2008)

    Here’s hoping the 2020s are better. Phil

  3. How about blog abandonment 😉 (ouch, cheap shot)

    I can only take some wild swings, but must note that a measure of “widespread use” has a bit of a Horizon Report-ish trap there.

    * Mobile as primary device access to the net (maybe more of trend), mobile-first development strategies
    * Seeing the (mapped) world via Streetview
    * Mobile network speeds on par with broadband
    * HD movies on mobile device
    * JavaScript as a serious development platform
    * Animated GIFs as a response rather than a 90s throwback
    * How can you leave out DS106?

    May all your blog dreams come true in 2020 😉

  4. Chatting to Melissa Highton recently
    about the 10 year update of a learning design book that she co-authored: She made the observation that the few core edtech systems you’d be guaranteed to find in institutions hasn’t changed – pretty much an LMS and some sort of testing / assessment tool. That’s depressing and bears out your argument above. Are we in some sort of long tail here?

  5. Hey David, Happy New Year! Wanted to follow up on my twitter reply, as I think you are both right and wrong in this post and claim. The stuff of the teens is maybe less immediately apparent, but that seems to me very much because many are happening on top of ” the platform for change.” But also because – once you have the internet, you don’t then need to invent it again. And also, some of this previous stuff was enabled by Moore’s law, which while AFAIK hasn’t “changed” per se, once we hit certain points, the benefits of which flowed more into the pockets of capital than into end users hands (e.g. why do phones still cost what they do when much of the underlying technology has gotten cheaper and cheaper.)

    So the one I shouted out on twitter was various “sharing” platforms (ride, house) like Uber and AirBnB. These (and their ilk, the very trope of “Uber for _blank_” speaks to how widely they are spreading) are a perfect example of this, and it makes sense – the 90’s were the decade of “government funded networks opening to ISPs and the initial gold rush but mostly still early adopters”; the 00’s were the decade of “everything is free, mostly because we want to create incumbency but don’t know exactly what to do with it yet and here come the masses” and the teens have been where those incumbents then flex, extract their rents, and enable others to do so as well. For better or worse (and often times it does seem VERY much worse) these network-mediated marketplaces ARE having a massive impact. If the current crop of examples disturb (which often they should) I’d point ot Car Co-ops – sure some existed prior to teens, but the advent of network technology to this space has caused an explosion in the urban center’s I am near (and some related decline in car ownership.)

    I would add to this – behavioural science and big data and apps – all three have very much come to the fore in the last decade and turned our devices from being portals for self-enhancement into screens for self-enslavement. Sure there are still people doing UX and “information architecture”, but the idea that those are the ones dictating how and why things get designed or what gets put in front of us in anything but the smallest websites is laughable. And were this not the case – why is digital detox such a roaring phenom unless they are having some success tapping into our biochemical reward networks?

    Netflix – sure it was around mailing DVDs, but its streaming business was created in 2010 and has ABSOLUTELY impacted both individual viewing habits and the media ecosystem.

    Drones – sure, there were hand controlled aircraft previously, but the advent of micro-controlled drones has expanded hugely. This is actually one place where governments seemed to have reacted a little less sluggishly to regular, maybe because of the dire consequences involving commercial airspace. But in a number of different fields (forestry, farming, policing) that do impact you, just maybe not as immediately as an MP3 player.

    Arduino and Rasperry Pi – ok, so invented in the 00’s but I’d argue really didn’t find there legs until the 10s, and these have spurred on a ton of innovation, some of which likely does impact you (have you played with any of the Arduino or similar-based synths?)

    Square and the like payment systems – could be argued that similar existed, but I never visited a farmer’s market and paid by credit card before the 00s. Maybe not a big deal to you, but I know 100s of small vendors for whom this has been a big deal. I’d add to this – person to person financial transactions (not thinking Paypal, more Venmo and its ilk). Major change? Meh? But sure makes divvying up the tab at dinner easier.

    Amazon Alexa and its ilk – I think they are horrible ideas, especially given the incumbents who control them and the surveillance implications, but surely these are new this last decade?

    I could go on and we could quibble. It’s hard to disagree with the idea that the 90s saw an immense amount of change, because indeed the “printing-press of our time” became widely introduced then. But we’re like 25-ish years into what’s likely to be a much longer change window as various communications and coordinating functions get disrupted. This feels to me like the bigger piece behind your piece, a loss of personal agency and interest in the kind of changes that are happening on these platforms for change. If I’m correct, then I share this too. I’m not writing the above to argue “oh look how great the teens were,” more just that stuff is happening, indeed feels like faster than I can track it, but none of it seems going in a direction I particularly hope to follow it.

    Cheers, Scott

  6. I’ve been working on a very long list here: Still in-progress, but I’d say the 2010s were quite transformative in quiet but powerful ways. Particularly, if you don’t think just in terms of ‘invented after 2010’.

    Let’s not forget smart speakers, image labelling and many others. ChromeOS and Chromebooks were also a pretty big change. Growth in podcasts, audiobooks, YouTube as a source of learning. Microsoft embracing Open Source. I see a lot of change in the 2010s. But also

  7. One more small technology that is mid 20-teens that every time I do it feel is more futuristic than flying cars… depositing a paper check (which I am checking was new technology in 1762 via my smart phone. I did this yesterday and it still feels Jetsonian.

    It’s a game changer for those who live in rural areas where there are no ATMs or even bank branches beyond driving distance.

    No this will not change education. What will?


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