Looking back, I realize that’s pretty well true for most of us. We were more innocent and more hopeful. We still believed that the Internet would be the solution, not the problem.
In 2010, two big trends were jointly reshaping our notions of being connected. Early in that year, former Morgan Stanley analyst Mary Meeker laid them out for us in her “State of the Internet” report.
Back then, just three years after the introduction of the iPhone, internet usage from mobile devices hadn’t even reached double digits as a percentage of overall traffic. Meeker knew this was going to change, and quickly. She saw mobile adoption on track to be the steepest tech adoption curve in history.
She was right. Today, over 60% of internet usage is on a mobile device.
The other defining trend was social media. Even then, Facebook had about 600 million users, or just under 10% of the world’s population. When you had a platform that big, connecting that many people, you just knew the consequences would be significant. There were some pretty rosy predictions for the impact of social media.
Of course, it’s the stuff you can’t predict that will bite you. As I said, we were a little naïve.
One trend that Meeker didn’t predict was the nasty issue of data ownership. We were just starting to become aware of the looming issue of internet privacy.
The biggest internet-related story of 2010 was WikiLeaks. In February, Julian Assange’s site started releasing 260,000 sensitive diplomatic cables sent to it by Chelsea Manning, a U.S. soldier stationed in Iraq. According to the governments of the world, this was an illegal release of classified material, tantamount to an act of espionage.
According to public opinion, this was shit finally rolling uphill. We reveled in the revelations. Wikileaks and Julian Assange was taking it to the man.
That budding sense of optimism continued throughout the year. By December of 2010, the Arab Spring, a series of anti-government protests, uprisings, and armed rebellions, had begun. This was our virtual vindication. The awesome power of social media was a blinding light to shine on the darkest nooks and crannies of despotism and tyranny.
The digital future was clear and bright. We would triumph thanks to technology. The Internet had helped put Obama in the White House. It had toppled corrupt regimes.
A decade later, we’re shell-shocked to discover that the internet is the source of a whole new kind of corruption.
The rigidly digitized ideals of Zuckerberg, Page, Brin et al seemed to be a call to arms: transparency; a free and open, friction-free digital market; the sharing economy; a vast social network that would connect humanity in ways never imagined; connected devices in our pockets. In 2010, all things seemed possible. And we were naïve enough to believe that those things would all be good and moral and in our best interests.
But soon, we were smelling the stench that came from Silicon Valley. Those ideals were subverted into an outright attack on our privacy. Democratic elections were sold to the highest bidder. Ideals evaporated under the pressure of profit margins and expanding power.
Those impossibly bright, impossibly young billionaire CEOs of 10 years ago are now testifying in front of Congress. The corporate culture of many tech companies reeks like a frat house on Sunday morning.
Is there a lesson to be learned? I hope so.
I think it’s this: Technology won’t do the heavy lifting for us. It is a tool subject to our own frailty. It amplifies what it is to be human. It won’t eliminate greed or corruption, unless we continually steer it in that direction.
And I use the term “we” deliberately. We have to hold tech companies to a higher standard. We have to be more discerning of what we agree to. We have to start demanding better treatment, and not be willing to trade our rights away with the click of an accept button.
A lot of what could have been slipped through our fingers in the last 10 years. It shouldn’t have happened -- not on our watch.