Technology firms enjoy uninhibited growth in decade following financial crash, writes Rhiannon Williams
Saturday, 28th December 2019, 8:02 am
While worldwide economies were still struggling with the aftershock of the global financial crisis in 2010, the technology industry emerged largely unscathed and poised for a decade characterised by both uninhibited growth and devastating scandals.
It’s hard to believe that streaming’s largest players were still finding their feet at the beginning of the decade, or that streaming as a concept was still fairly alien. Spotify launched in October 2008 and by the following year, UK TV channels BBC, ITV and Channel 4 were taking their first tentative steps into making programmes available online and “on demand”.
Netflix, best known at the time as a US DVD rental company, wouldn’t launch its streaming arm in the UK until 2012, sinking millions into original content to universal acclaim. Other multi-million businesses in their infancy at the start of the decade include Uber, Tinder and Airbnb.
The decade also saw the smartphone turn from a niche gizmo from the likes of Nokia, LG and Motorola to a trillion-dollar cash cow, after sales of more than 2.2bn iPhones helped to crown Apple the first public company to surpass the record market cap.
Although the death of co-founder Steve Jobs sent ripples through the industry in 2011, the company managed to kickstart mainstream consumer interest in tablets and smartwatches with 2010’s iPad and 2014’s Apple Watch. Fitness trackers and other wearables – practically non-existent in 2009 – are now common sights on many wrists, and the likes of Apple, Google and most importantly Amazon have installed an army of millions of smart speakers in homes across the world.
However, all this unbridled consumerism has had grave environmental consequences. The amount of electronic waste generated annually has leapt from 33.8m metric tonnes in 2010 to 50m in 2019, and is on track to more than double to 120m by 2050 if left unchecked. Another consequence of the dramatic increase use of the internet, smartphones and other electronic devices has been the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s 2018 decision to list gaming disorder – defined as prioritising video games over other interests and daily activities, among others – as a recognised disorder in its official health guidelines. Debate has also raged over the introduction of loot boxes (virtual crates containing usually unknown items, features or abilities which players are either rewarded or can purchase using in-game or real currency) into online games and whether they should be classified and regulated as a form of gambling.
Similarly, the past decade will also be remembered as the one in which social media evolved from early pioneers Faceparty, Habbo Hotel and Myspace into something altogether more powerful – and sinister. Facebook and Twitter were originally credited with connecting the world, while Instagram and YouTube gave ordinary people a visual platform to express themselves on, subsequently accelerating both the rise of the influencer and the troll.
Virtual reality (VR) and driverless cars are two forms of technology which, despite appearing so promising at the start of the decade, have run into difficulty after VR has struggled to make its mark on the general public and autonomous vehicles require both greater safety assurances and infrastructure investment before they can become more widely adopted. The death of pedestrian Elaine Herzberg after being struck by one of Uber’s Volvo SUVs in self-driving mode in March 2018 marked a turning point for the industry, as manufacturers and software makers redoubled safety efforts.
We’re likely to witness even more seismic changes in tech throughout the next decade, as 5G is rolled out across the world, artificial intelligence becomes even smarter and even more of the world becomes connected. Whether the 2020s are remembered as the years in which the technology industry took responsibility for its actions or was allowed to continue evolving out of our control remains to be seen.