In the 2010s, Technology Brought Us Closer Together and Threatened to Tear Us Apart

Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Twitter, YouTube—it's not hard to see where the Connected Era was headed

2010s
The second decade of the 21st century was all about connectivity.
Sources: Getty Images

This article is part of a series celebrating our being 40 Years Bold, highlighting four decades—and counting—of Adweek, whose editors look back at notable news, trends and people, and at what could be in store for the next 40 years.

If you are a human adult participating in today’s world, I have some bad news for you: You’ve been compromised.

Over the past decade, in which we saw data breach after data breach from a random assortment of businesses—from banks (2019, Capital One, 106 million accounts) to retailers (2013, Target, 110 million users) to ride-booking companies (2017, Uber, 57 million users), the story of the 2010s can be told through hacks. We’ve given away our information in exchange for convenience and expediency.

But this is just an aftershock of a bigger tectonic shift during this decade: a connected environment where technology slices through every aspect of our existence, forcing us to change how we work, how we communicate, how we live.

The Social Decade, which fulfilled Marshall McLuhan’s promise, if not threat, of a global village, managed to do two contradictory things at the same time: bring us closer together while also tearing us apart. See: 2016 election.

If the late 20th century was about the sound bite, the 2010s were about the connectivity engendered by Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube.

And while we get an endorphin rush when someone likes a post or retweets our trivial thoughts, the Connected Era also meant that companies morphed into brands, anthropomorphic representations of capitalism. We loved getting @ replies from businesses, especially after we complained to and about them.

In 2011, more than 2 billion people used the internet, and 4.6 billion people worldwide had mobile phones. By the end of the decade, there were 4.5 billion poor souls online and 3.5 billion people worldwide had a smartphone. Connectivity took over our lives. We are connected to more people than at any time in the history of the world (thank you, Facebook!); we have the answers to any possible question at our fingertips (thank you, Google!); we can watch television on our phones. OUR PHONES! Huxley’s Brave New World beat out Orwell’s 1984 during the 2010s. As Neil Postman wrote in 1985:

“Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. … In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”

We can’t say we weren’t warned.

Google, for example, introduced its panopticon Google Glass in 2013 with the promise of bringing a screen closer to your eyes. While this device didn’t catch on, other technological advancements picked up where it left off.

The number of Internet of Things devices increased 31% year over year to 8.4 billion in 2017, and it is estimated that there will be 30 billion devices by 2020. Of course, the one question companies seem to not ask themselves while they are building out “smart” appliances: Do we really need a refrigerator to text you that you left the door open?

Spun off from Time Warner in 2014, Time Inc.—which at its peak encompassed 100 magazines—got picked up by Meredith in 2017 for $2.8 billion (with help from the Koch Brothers). During the first rumblings about this sale, Adweek reported that nervous Time Inc. staffers had begun calling the new company “Teredith.” Their fears were well founded: Not long after the sale was finalized, Fortune, Money, Sports Illustrated—and Time itself—went on the block.
Getty Images

And while companies are still trying to figure out how to turn dumb devices into smart ones, I can see the effects of a connected world every day in very interesting ways. I have a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old, and they know nothing about linear TV. They know Hulu and Netflix. The 5-year-old knows exactly where her apps are on her grandparents’ iPads (introduced 2010). They don’t know what a radio is or a turntable. They know Alexa (introduced 2014). My 5-year-old has been communicating with the monolith for three years, asking the device to play her favorite songs (Phish’s “Sparkle” and the Grateful Dead’s “Sugaree”) ad nauseam. Over the last six years, the number of smart speakers (Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant, etc.) has skyrocketed. In December 2018, 118.5 million U.S. households owned at least one device, up from 66.5 million the year before.

It’s not hard to see where this all heads.

In 1998, Aaron Sorkin, writing for the NBC hit series The West Wing, said these words through one of his characters:

“The next two decades are going to be privacy. I’m talking about the internet. I’m talking about cellphones. I’m talking about health records and who’s gay and who’s not. And moreover, in a country born on the will to be free, what could be more fundamental than this?”

Society spent the 2010s catching up to Sorkin. But at what cost? We are being tracked through these devices whether we know it or not. Flipping the Huxley/Orwell script, the next decade will see, through AI and facial recognition, a return to a Big Brother.

And while tighter legislation on data collection is on the horizon—the California Consumer Privacy Act, for example, begins on Jan. 1, 2020—one thing is clear: It’s already too late.

Check out the rest of Adweek’s 40th anniversary coverage:

This story first appeared in the Dec. 9, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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