It’s sometimes easy to see the trajectory of technological change—especially when we experience incremental change and consolidation. But just as often, paradigm shifts catch us unaware and create truly revolutionary changes to our industry and society as a whole.
For instance, at the beginning of the 1990s, the effect that the internet would have on society and computing was only partially apparent. In 1990, no one foresaw the dot-com boom of 2000.
The decade that began in 2000 was more incremental. Many exciting things happened, but mainly we saw the gradual improvement of technologies that had existed at the beginning of the decade—mostly the “interneting” of everything.
The decade just ended has truly been one of those revolutionary decades. Technological forces have combined to revolutionize almost every aspect of our daily lives and transform our society—and not always for the better. At the beginning of the decade, the core components of a revolution were apparent. The iPhone was released in 2007 and had significant adoption by 2010. Twitter and Facebook were well-established—Facebook had just hit the 500-million-user mark. Amazon’s AWS cloud had also been running for a few years, although Microsoft Azure would not launch until February 2010. Even Bitcoin had been invented, though nobody outside of some crypto punk circles was aware of it.
But although the components of a revolution were in place, the transformations that would result from the integration of cloud, mobile, and social were far from obvious. In 2010, only 2% of web traffic was generated by smartphones. By the end of the decade, that figure was well above 50%. Almost all adults in Western societies now have continuous access to the internet.
Not coincidentally, during the same period of time, the vast majority of people in Western societies attached to common social networks—predominantly Facebook.
With the majority of adults continuously connected to the internet via smart devices and with the same adults maintaining a virtual presence in social networks, a positive feedback loop of unprecedented power was created. Traditional media and communication companies—already severely disrupted during the previous decade—further diminished in importance. It seemed that we had finally established a global network that would democratize news and information and would inevitably lead to an age of enlightenment and personal empowerment.
Alas, the reality of the last decade has been less than utopian. In the famous book Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell warned that technology—in his case, a sort of two-way television— might give governments the ability to impose omnipresent surveillance upon their citizens. As Edward Snowden revealed, the mobile phone and internet in fact gave governments more ability to monitor our every action than Orwell could possibly have imagined.
Even relatively liberal and benign governments, such as those in Australia and the U.S., implemented or attempted to implement mass surveillance programs of their own citizens.
Perhaps even more disturbingly, the algorithms used by the social networking companies to prioritize traffic have resulted in the polarization of our societies and weakened ability to separate fact from fiction. These social networking algorithms sought to promote “engagement.” It soon became clear that engagement was most easily generated by outrage. Facebook and Twitter happily served up information that outraged their customers with very little regard for “truth.” The often hateful world of “fake news” resulted.
Technology created with the best intentions can lead to undesirable outcomes. I’m reminded of the classic satire The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which a universal communication device, “by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”
Perhaps the problems brought by technology can be solved by technology. Encryption and blockchain technologies, in particular, may be able to restore privacy and trust in the truth. The next decade should prove to be decisive in this respect.