The end of a decade is a fun time to reflect on what life was like at the start. In the 2010s, technology continued to advance and improve our lives. Things that once were science fiction, like driverless cars or virtual reality, are now viable and may soon become commonplace. However, we still fear new technologies and their role in society. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
As the past has shown, we need to ask whether our concerns are based on facts or just a reaction to something new and different.
It’s easy to forget how recently much of the technology we now take for granted came about. At the start of the decade, only 20 percent of U.S. households had a smartphone. Today, more than 80 percent do. In 2010, Starbucks was in the news for offering free WiFi at all of its locations. Today, most of us expect it to be available in hotels, coffee shops and restaurants. Less than 50 percent of the U.S. population was using social media platforms when this decade started. Now, nearly 80 percent use sites like Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.
We’ve also seen new technologies and applications of technology come about this decade. Wearable tech like FitBits and Apple Watches, streaming devices like Roku and Amazon Fire, voice assistants like Siri and Alexa and a whole plethora of smart devices from video doorbells to “smart” microwaves all took off.
Even as we’ve adopted new tech at faster and faster rates, “technopanics,” or widespread, irrational fears about the worst-case scenarios of innovation, continue to emerge.
It’s easy to laugh at past generations’ fears of microwave ovens and electricity, but how different are these from similarly unfounded fears about WiFi in recent years? As 5G wireless networks emerge at the start of the 2020s, the same type of fears, with little to no scientific backing, are creeping up again.
We also seem to be stuck in the same technology policy concerns. The early 2000s were fraught with many of the same questions about whether or not to break up “Big Tech,” the influence of technology in our lives and on children, data privacy and online content that fill our headlines today. Consternation about 2001’s AOL-Time Warner merger resulted in the FCC requiring AOL Instant Messenger to interface with competitors’ products out of concern it would suppress future messaging providers. Once-popular AOL became one of that decade’s notable technological demises.
Headlines a little over a decade ago discussed concerns about privacy and data security at Myspace and the growing social media landscape. And, of course, since its commercialization, there have been concerns about online content, particularly what children might be exposed to. But new tools have helped improve the options available to consumers to find products that best fit their needs by providing a plethora of privacy options, new choices in cybersecurity, and parental controls.
Today, decades-old headlines (like “How Yahoo Won the Search Wars”) can read like a set of Mad Libs in which one merely inserts the name of the technological behemoth du jour. This should teach us two key lessons as we approach another decade of technological change:
First, technology is an incredibly dynamic market in which the best solutions tend to come from innovation rather than government intervention. By focusing only on the status quo rather than the bigger picture, we often fail to foresee disruptive shifts like the rise of smartphones or streaming entertainment, which can quickly become the next status quo.
Second, for all our fears, this marketplace tends to provide enough options to suit different people’s preferences when it comes to values, interests and desire for privacy and content.
If there’s something you don’t like or have always wanted, there’s a good chance some innovator, somewhere, will have a solution ready before long. Rather than dictating how innovators should solve problems, the American approach has allowed new products to emerge and replace existing giants — or to fail trying.
The start of a New Year and a new decade is a time for nostalgia, goals and resolutions. Perhaps policymakers and commentators should set a resolution for 2020 and beyond: to technopanic a little less.
Jennifer Huddleston is a research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, where she focuses on the intersection between emerging technologies and law.