Tech and Rapid Change in the 2000s

By Patrick J. Kiger

When Americans think back to the 2000s, it’s hard not to remember the negative parts of what Time Magazine called “the worst decade ever.” Americans felt a wash of sadness, anger and confusion over the September 11 attacks in 2001, traumatic events which set a spiral of game-changing events that the country would struggled to wrap it’s head around. From a Presidential election in 2000 whose results were bitterly disputed in the Fall to the almost apocalyptic near-collapse of the nation’s financial sector eight years later, it’s fair to say that the 2000s were a time of shock and change. Rapidly, many other parts of our lives—from where we shop to how we entertain ourselves—were radically reshaped by innovations and structural shifts that caused once-important institutions and traditions to vanish almost overnight, sometimes to be replaced just as quickly by new influences and trends.

But as we grappled with many difficult developments, not all of the change was negative. The 2000s were a time in which personal technology made quantum leaps, and our daily lives were altered by a stream of new gadgets with capabilities that would have seemed like science fiction just a decade or two before.

Moreover, the evolution of the Internet made it possible for people all over the planet to interact in new and transformative ways. The rising availability of vastly faster, always-on broadband connections turned the Internet from a novelty into an integral part of people’s daily lives. And it fundamentally changed the way that got information about the world, freeing us from dependence upon the morning newspaper or the evening TV news broadcast, and allowing us largely unfiltered continuous access to the perceptions and opinions of countless other ordinary individuals. Over the course of the decade, the amount of time that people spent accessing the Internet from their homes more than to 12.3 hours per week.

Internet use, in turn, transformed a lot of our other activities, particularly our leisure time. We began downloading our favorite music on iTunes, which was founded in 2001, and listening to it on an iPod. Instead of having shelves full of vinyl records or CDs at home, we now could carry our entire musical collections with us in our pockets. The rise of touchscreen smartphones such as the iPhone, which essentially freed people from the limitations of a desktop or laptop PC, and replaced those bulky gadgets with a tiny, powerful computer that fit in our pockets or purses. It was possible to do Google searches or shop for goods, peruse e-commerce sites, read the news, shoot videos or post to social networks from virtually anywhere we could find a broadband wireless signal. We could even find driving directions and pinpoint our locations by using GPS based Maps, which Congress initially made available for civilian use in 2000.

The Internet also changed how we watched television, which for decades had been a major influence upon Americans’ lives. Instead of relying upon the airwaves or even a cable connection that forced us to watch programs at scheduled times, by the late 2000s we increasingly were watching video “streamed” from websites such as Netflix and Hulu. In the decade that followed, that trend gradually would reshape our viewing habits, as we began time-shifting shows and even “binge-watching” large numbers of episodes.

In this new era, armed with a camera-slash-camcorder in our pockets, and being able to post digital pictures and video on the Internet for others to see, dramatically changed how we viewed reality. It was a decade in which it became possible for us not only to create our own content, but to make it available instantly to hundreds of millions of people all over the planet. YouTube, which debuted in 2005 allowed its users to make their video clips available to people all over the planet. The new platform also quickly spawned a new genre of instant celebrities. “Charlie Bit Me!” a 2007 clip of British toddler scolding his baby brother, became a sensation that has been viewed more than 800 million times since. By late in the decade, the lexicon had spawned a term—“viral” to describe the rapid rise of such sensations.

But YouTube was just one of the many new ways that people could express themselves and interact with others online. A little known service that debuted in 2006 called Twitter, allowed anyone to post a brief message that could be seen by other users around the world. After Twitter was used to spread news about a small earthquake that shook San Francisco that year, it began to take off, and it eventually became a megaphone for everyone from politicians, journalists and pop culture celebrities to ordinary people expressing their opinions. Twitter messages’ size limit of 140 characters compelled us be concise and pithy—a 21st Century version of the English language that some found befuddling.

The 2000s also saw the rise of social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook, which became not only a way for us to inform our friends what we were doing at the moment, but also a means to spread links to news stories and debate about controversies in comment threads. In the decade that followed, Facebook would become the primary source of news as much as 30 percent of the U.S. population, according to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center.

As Americans increasingly became Internet junkies, it resulted in drastic changes across society and the economy. Between 2003 and 2009 alone, online retail sales tripled to $121 billion, and products such as downloadable music, quickly over-shadowed and eventually wiped out brick-and-mortar retailers such as Tower Records. And by the end of the decade, more of us were getting our news from websites than from newspapers, a trend that helped send the once-powerful and profitable print journalism industry into a drastic decline. But some of the shifts experienced in the 2000s were deliberately induced, as companies sought to create what a 2007 Forbes magazine article described as “disruptive innovation”—that is, inventions, products or business strategies that would suddenly reorder the marketplace. And disrupt it did.

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