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Technology grew in 2010s, but did it cost us as humans?: James E. Miller

Posted 1/8/20

The year-end reviews are in ... the best Netflix movies, the best food-delivery apps, the best streaming music player, the best Instagram filters, the best mindless ludic loop-powered mobile games …

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Technology grew in 2010s, but did it cost us as humans?: James E. Miller


The year-end reviews are in ... the best Netflix movies, the best food-delivery apps, the best streaming music player, the best Instagram filters, the best mindless ludic loop-powered mobile games with which to enter Chapter 7 bankruptcy trying to win.

You could spend the entirety of 2020 just catching up on what was great in 2019. There are more general best-of lists for the decade, covering music, movies, books and television.

These “listicles,” many hurriedly produced by interns to game Google’s search algorithm, are harmless fare for faffing around in the downtime between Christmas and when real work resumes post-New Year’s Day.

They’re also revealing. Many of the trends we’ve seen over the past year would be totally alien to the average American in 2009. Streaming movies? Spotify? Smartphone apps? Kpop?

The cultural and technological changes of the 2010s were so transformative, we haven’t fully considered the scale to which they’ve shaped our lives. The changes have transmuted the very way in which we now interact with and interpret reality.

Consider the iPhone. A novelty at the start of the decade, the palm-sized technological marvel is the ubiquitous medium through which all commercial and personal information passes. More than 100 million Americans have an iPhone; eight in 10 Americans own a smartphone. Mass ownership means mass usage, and these mini computers have become inextricable appurtenances to our bodies. They rarely leave our side, or eyeline. Smartphones are the last thing we check before sleeping and the first thing we view upon waking.

An entire generation of young adults is hopelessly addicted to them. The modernly abbreviated “iGen,” which followed the tech-happy path of millennials before them, can’t find emotional fulfillment outside the social-media channels on their tiny screens. Countless articles over the past five years have documented smartphone addiction and its resultant depression. Teenagers now kill themselves after not getting enough TikTok views.

This phenomenon was unheard of a decade ago. Now, like hardcore pornography, the problem seems immitigable because we’re unwilling to rein in our appetite for unlimited electronic consumption. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley CEOs and Upper West Side moms take an authoritarian approach to smart devices, severely limiting their children’s exposure to the open internet.

The smartphone wasn’t only responsible for poisoning our attention spans and sense of self-worth. Its cord-free flexibility gave rise to a new industry, the so-dubbed “sharing economy.” Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, Venmo — apps such as these and countless more have rejiggered more comfortable parts of the economy, forcing efficiency through competition.

In the classic example, cab drivers now must take you directly to your destination instead of running up the meter by tooling around the block a few times.

At the same time, the de novo app industry has created an army of the gig precariat, like couriers and food deliverymen who barely make a cut from each job and have to fight against ever tighter margins. Just so, hailing a ride within 2 minutes of walking out your door seems so normal that’s it’s hard to imagine the concept didn’t exist in 2009.

The pace of technological development has occurred in tandem with strange and disruptive ways of talking about culture. There was a spike in usage of the following words in the last 10 years, according to The New York Times’ Chronicle tool: sexism, racism, transgender, whiteness. No surprise there, as “woke” became bespoke sometime during Barack Obama’s second term and mainstream liberalism vision followed, adopting identity as a loupe through which to examine everything.

Nonsensical terms such as “cisgender,” which trades traditional sexual dimorphism for an awkward Latin linguistic dichotomy, and “Latinx,” which robs Spanish of its gendered roots, followed.

Now you can’t discuss present-day issues without first parsing through the ways they affect an alphabet soup’s worth of racial and sexual identities. That hoary way of considering fellow citizens — as simply Americans — feels almost dirty, and too exclusionary of foreigners.

Speaking (or not) of the impossibility of having a conversation outside the bounds of liberal moralizing, the biggest cultural change of the past 2,000 years occurred halfway through the last decade.

Same-sex marriage was mostly viewed a niche issue at the start of Obama’s first term, so much so that the future president refused to endorse it during the 2008 campaign.

Now it’s not only established law, but culturally acceptable, even bourgeoise. Every prestige TV drama has a major gay character. And if they don’t, a fan-driven letter-writing campaign will produce one.

The sweeping change of the decade hasn’t been unchallenged. The clip of transmutation has been met with an instinctual response in the form of a recrudescent illiberalism. Trump, Brexit, the fortunes of far-right parties across Europe — these movements have been a reflex to the redefining of life along technocratic lines. Voters have stubbornly set up roadblocks to the Hegelian cosmovision of our elites who see one acceptable linear course for progress.

The real story of the decade hasn’t been technological overuse or the mass adoption of the liberal lexicon. Institutional distrust was the biggest trend of the 2010s.

The decade started with a worldwide financial crisis. It ended with the exposure of the covered-up futility of America’s longest running war in Afghanistan. Between was an opioid endemic, a sinking mortality rate among working-class whites, a refugee crisis in Europe, protests over police brutality, fake ads spreading on Facebook, and a debunked conspiracy about the president of the United States engaging in collusion with a foreign adversary.

The country feels more at loggerheads than it has since the 1960s. Every piece of human knowledge can be beamed down to the lambent rectangle in our hands.

We have limitless entertainment at the touch of a remote control. Yet we still feel more alone, more isolated from our neighbors, than ever before.

One question to ask upon entering 2020: Is watching Baby Yoda’s adorable mien, streaming exclusively through Disney+, in the solitary darkness of our basements worth the social cost of the last 10 years?

James E. Miller, a native of Middletown, lives in northern Virginia with his wife and daughter. He is the author of the novel “To Win And To Lose.”