A decade ago, we typed on computers. Now we talk with them. We used to take taxis. Now an app picks a stranger’s car to ride. We used to meet people in bars. Now we swipe on photos of their faces.
As we round the corner to 2020, I’ve been tallying the ways we use technology that would have made zero sense in 2010. Which had the biggest impact? There was no iconic new product of the 2010s – no iPod or Walkman. Yet so much changed, bringing us new powers, new peril and a dash of dystopia.
This decade made life something that happens on a screen. The smartphone is where we communicate with family, do work, record memories and find entertainment. It was invented in 2007 so disqualified from my list, but in the past decade the smartphone certainly reinvented us – it powers half of the technologies on this list.
This is also the decade that computers became the boss of you. In the case of Uber drivers and other gig-economy workers, software literally tells them what work to do. Algorithms now make decisions that shape the daily life of any person with a phone. Computers decide what we read and watch. Apps hijack our attention for the promise of more “likes.” Just by searching Google, using a map or talking to Alexa, we feed computers personal data that trains artificial intelligence – and fuels businesses that have made us into a product.
With such a central role in our lives, Silicon Valley and Seattle firms this decade became the world’s most valuable companies. Their leap to trillion-dollar valuations was staggering: In January 2010, Apple was worth about $194 billion. Now it’s worth more than six times that. Over that same period, Facebook’s value multiplied about 41 times.
How will we remember the 2010s? At the beginning, we were pretty optimistic about tech. “Sharing economy” companies such as Airbnb actually seemed to be about sharing. Lots of people really believed Facebook would bring the world together. Lately, though, the view has darkened: We’re more aware of the ways tech companies are spying on us and shirking their responsibilities.
Today, most of the technologies on this list can be seen both as a tool and tyrant. One thing we know better going into the 2020s: With great power comes great responsibility.
Facebook’s Instagram helped make photography everyone’s hobby not just by giving us filters, but by making photos easy to share. Since it launched in 2010, Instagram evolved new forms of self-expression – and new ways for tech to hijack our brains.
The app made us voyeurs. It turned living into a performance. It commodified our faces, bodies, travels and aesthetic into “brands” that some influencers have even developed into businesses. The hunt for Gram-worthy vacation shots has damaged once-tranquil destinations and led to deaths by selfie.
How did it hook a billion-plus people? Instagram’s most powerful tool is the heart-shaped like, an expression of somebody’s admiration for a post. The app doles them out like a slot machine, keeping us coming back and creating new posts. (Psychologists call these dopamine hits intermittent variable rewards.) “Do it for the Gram!” is really, “Do it for the likes.”
It’s no wonder that some people report using the app contributes to depression and unhealthy body image. Instagram recently began testing not displaying Like tallies in the hopes of creating a “less pressurized” experience.
Apple’s talking Siri AI on the iPhone beat Amazon’s Alexa to market by three years. But it is Alexa – built into an Echo smart speaker that plays music, answers questions and cracks jokes on demand – that has come closer to the robot butler of our dreams. That idea came naturally to young people, a generation of whom now think you can access the power of the Internet just by talking to the lady in the box. (Why it’s usually a lady is a question we’ll be unpacking for years.)
Alexa also shifted our relationship with tech in other ways. Every time we speak to it, Amazon keeps a recording of our voices to improve its AI systems. We’re working for it, even as it works for us.
The voice assistants Alexa, Siri and rival Google Assistant also helped make us comfortable with the idea there is just one answer to a question. Remember when searching for information required sorting through Google links? Now a tech giant gets to decide.
(Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, but I review all tech with the same critical eye.)
Uber’s X workers
The most-popular ride-hailing app has, of course, changed how we get to the airport and come home after a night out. It has all but wiped out the traditional taxi industry in many places.
But when Uber’s now-ubiquitous UberX service started allowing nonprofessional drivers to provide rides in 2013, it symbolized a whole new way of thinking about work. A smartphone app became a kind of supervisor, with software deciding what job you get and where you go. It gamified employment, incentivizing drivers to take rides they don’t want and punishing them for saying no. It took advantage of people not having better options for work.
Uber defined these workers not as employees because they were just doing a “gig,” and the company was just running a “software platform.” Under these rules, workers didn’t get benefits or protections. This model became a mainstay of Silicon Valley in the 2010s, from DoorDash to Instacart.
Even without the overhead of “employees,” Uber struggles to turn a profit. It enters the next decade with the open question of whether a software platform can ultimately make for a more-efficient company. Its success may hinge on its ability to make good on a so-far unfilled tech promise: self-driving vehicles.
Netflix and binge
Remember a time when we owned music and movies stored in hard drives and DVDs? I bet you don’t even know where those are any more. Now we rent entertainment, through subscriptions from Netflix, Spotify, Apple TV Plus and an ever-growing list of services.
The good of this is we can watch whatever we want, whenever we want, giving us a feeling of incredible abundance. Starting around the time Netflix began streaming its first original show House of Cards in 2013, we stopped watching shows and started binging them. Who needs to leave the house any more? Creators changed the way they developed projects and the kinds of stories they tried to tell. There’s space for more risks: This year, for example, Netflix added a comedy called Special about a gay man with cerebral palsy.
The downside to the streaming revolution is we’ve handed even more power over to technology companies, to whom we have to continue paying rent for content . . . forever.
The sexy Model S
Tesla CEO Elon Musk is one of the most divisive personalities in tech, but at the end of the decade, his influence on automobiles in undeniable.
The Model S sedan, which debuted in 2012, is expensive and has long been in short supply. Still, it established that an all-electric car is a viable and even sexy mode of transportation. It shifted perceptions of electric vehicles from awkward contraptions with golf-cart like acceleration to the halo car of this generation. When you think of a hybrid, you might think Prius. In the same way, electric is synonymous with Tesla.
The Model S also established that a car is a kind of consumer electronics. It was one of the first vehicles that got better with regular over-the-air software upgrades, making the car more like a smartphone.
Feeds and filter bubbles
The Facebook News Feed launched way back in 2006, but it wasn’t until this decade that we came to understand it shapes even our offline world. The idea of a “feed,” now used by many apps and websites, is an answer to the abundance of information online. Instead of presenting it all or asking us to sort, it lets an algorithm organize the information based on what we’ve looked at before. You might see news about vaccines while I see news about climate change.
But when social media feeds become a major source of information, we risk losing important common ground. In 2011, author Eli Pariser gave this phenomenon a name: the “filter bubble.” The danger is people inhabit different realities. Our bubbles entertain us, outrage us, distract us, upset us – and harden our politics.
During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, we learned bubbles – and ads that can be micro-targeted to them – can also be weaponized. Foreign agents spread disinformation on Facebook, Twitter and other sites through targeted posts and paid ads. It’s hard to measure exactly how much they shaped the election’s outcome, but battles are raging about what responsibility sites have to reject such content – and pop our bubbles – in the 2020 race and beyond.
The Apple Watch prescription
Serious athletes have long used tech to track performance. Then in 2011, Nike produced one of the first wrist-wearable trackers for the rest of us, the $150 FuelBand. Nike eventually killed the product, but it helped create an idea today we take for granted: that a gadget could make you healthier by collecting even more data about your body. It was called the “quantified self.”
After the Apple Watch debuted in 2015, wearables went mainstream with fitness as their No. 1 selling point. Now tens of millions don’t think twice about sending heart rate, activity and other intimate data to a technology company and taking advice from it on how to improve wellness and even avoid life-threatening disease.
Earlier this year, Google purchased Apple Watch rival Fitbit, which also makes watches that collect body data. That sets up what’s likely to be one of the biggest tech titan battles of the next decade over health care.
The Ring’s connected eye
When the Ring doorbell debuted from a start-up in 2013, connecting security cameras and household appliances to the Internet seemed to hold so much promise. Ring, which puts a webcam inside a doorbell, would let you know when someone was at your door, even if you weren’t at home.
Seven years later, Ring is owned by Amazon, and we’re waking up to the downsides of having our homes online. The device’s popularity has made it a target for hackers, who take advantage of weak defenses to spy on people’s homes. Through partnerships with police, Ring is also increasingly looking like a neighborhood surveillance system that we installed ourselves.
The iPad digital babysitter
The last major product from Apple co-founder Steve Jobs before he died in 2011 changed the definition of a computer. Today, the iPad far outsells Apple’s Mac laptops.
The iPad’s biggest fans are perhaps all under the age of 10. For this generation, which seems to intuitively grasp its finger-first interface, the iPad and other tablets are digital babysitters. It’s the device parents hand over to keep the kids happy on a long flight, or as a reward for doing chores. iPads hooked millions of kids on YouTube – and made Baby Shark an icon.
So there’s great irony in reports that Jobs himself didn’t like exposing his kids to the iPad. Now many people are reckoning with what they fear is an addiction to “screen time,” both for their kids and themselves. Apple has responded with some parental controls and time limits, but getting the balance right remains a struggle.
Finger and face tech
A decade ago, fingerprint-reading and facial-identification technology, also known as biometrics, was the stuff of Mission Impossible movies. Then, in 2013, Apple added Touch ID, a fingerprint reader built into the home button, as a way to unlock the $200 iPhone 5S. Four years later, it switched to Face ID, which reads faces. Now it feels impossible that we ever had to type in passcodes to unlock a phone.
Biometrics are generally a good way to secure devices. The problem is not all uses of our fingers and faces are created equal. Businesses increasingly pitch it as a convenience; Facebook runs facial recognition on our photos to power name-tagging. Now governments and airports want to use it to pick out suspected criminals and speed up processing.
But doing so brings surveillance to parts of life that used to be comfortably anonymous. These systems still have many problems accurately identifying people of color. And they put our faces at risk of being stolen by hackers. Figuring out the balance of usefulness and protection will be one of the biggest privacy battles of the 2020s.
© The Washington Post 2019