What amazing stuff happened in the last 10 years?

My friend Grant posed the following interesting question to me:

Say you could go back in time to 1999… and you were to show/tell something that shows how much “progress” humans have made in the past 10 years — something that would amaze somebody — what would it be?

A great question, I think. Here are some answers we came up with, with a bit of justification for each:

  • Wikipedia: launched in 2001, it now has 3.1 million articles in English and 14 million overall. The #1 information source on the web and a massive testament to user-generated content. (Remember Encarta?)
  • Nexus One (or any suitably advanced smartphone): The first gigahertz chip didn’t even come out until 2000, and now you can get one in the palm of your hand — with near-universal connectivity and a beautiful touch-screen that nearly matches the 800×600 resolution of most common full-size monitors in 1999. It also comes with a built-in 5 megapixel camera to boot, and those babies weren’t even available to consumers until 2001.
  • Avatar: CGI on an obscene, marvelous scale. Art+technology.
  • Obama: a black president so soon? Amazing.
  • 32GB microSD card: In 1999, the largest hard drive you could get was 37.5GB. Now you can get 32GB in a format the size and weight of your fingernail — about .0005th of the volume and weight of that big old hard drive.
  • YouTube: Only started in 2005, but already has over 100 million videos of all varieties and origins. People watch over 10 billion videos a month — near 10 hours of video per user. All video will be streamed eventually, but it’s staggering how quickly the transition is happening.
  • Usain Bolt’s 9.58 in the 100m: Maurice Greene makes things complicated here. He ran a 9.79 in 1999, but he’s since admitted to buying (but not using… hrm) PEDs. If we take him out of the equation, the 100m world record improved by 0.08s from 1989 to 1999, from 9.92 to 9.84. From 1999 till now, Bolt has taken off a remarkable 0.26s. For a similar improvement from 1989, we’d have to go back to the mid 50s and the era of hand-timing. Even with Greene in the picture it’s an amazing feat.
  • TiVo: pause, rewind, record TV. Seems like magic. (Actually came out in mid-1999, but I couldn’t resist. PVRs are so pervasive now.)

Runners up: Newspapers going out of business (drag timeline to the left), iPod (2001) + iTunes (7B songs sold), eInk/Kindle, Google Street View

Clearly, since we’re both computer nerds, this is a limited, biased selection. Which of these is best? What else is out there? Medicine, the arts, the sciences, sports, politics…

Also: predictions for 2020?

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12 Responses to What amazing stuff happened in the last 10 years?

  1. snafuuu says:

    I was just saying to Brandon the other day that I’ve been amazed at life post-Wiki. I compared it to the printing press, in terms of the way it’s also democratized knowledge.

    Also, I chuckled, because that was such a Grant question to ask. Brandon and I constantly amuse ourselves by asking questions in what we believe is a Grant tone of voice. :-)

  2. gdogg says:

    One change in the question: I think it should be what you show to an *average* person, not an expert. That’s why I think things like decoding the human genome don’t count. Also, while hardware is amazing, it’s not something that I think the average person would really understand well.

    I’d also wouldn’t put the Nexus One alone separately — almost all smart phones would be equally impressive to someone in 2000, I think.

    As for predictions for 2020, I’d say:
    1. for the most part, no such thing as digital camera (subsumed by phone)
    2. you only carry cash in your wallets, credits cards will be through phone
    3. a shitload of augmented reality
    4. a crude form of human-computer hookup.

    • aj says:

      Nexus One — agreed. I just wanted to pick something tangible so that I could illustrate the improvements concretely. But yeah, just the general concept was impressive. I had mistakenly thought that Palm Treos (what I consider the first widespread smartphone) were around in 1999, but I was way off: they came out in 2001.

      So yeah, just the concept of a smartphone is a good one.

      I like your predictions.

    • aj says:


      Well, at least some people find MicroSD cards amazing =). (Mouse over the last panel.)

  3. johnxorz says:

    I think Obama as president would have been the most astonishing thing. The computing technology you could have extrapolated based on past trends. A black president, no way.

    • walther says:

      i completely agree with senor johnxorz. the tech stuff is amazing, but back in 1999 we were all expecting the internet and computers to drastically change the world. heck, we were all supposed to be having sex with internet robots by now; but now Grant says above that we might have to wait until 2020.

      and i guess i could argue that showing a 1999 person the effects of 9/11 upon the world would exhibit a type of mind-blowing “progress,” albeit not one representative of the positive type of progression that the question intends.

      btw, i do what i consider a solid impression of Grant posing a question too!

      • aj says:

        Yeah, we discussed 9/11… but that’s not progress.

        Obama: I’m a bit more equivocal about this. Yes, it’s an amazing achievement. But really did no one see it coming? Recall Colin Powell, who seriously considered a run for president in the 90s. He was considered a legitimate candidate who had a shot at winning.

        So it wasn’t totally unheard of.

      • Anonymous says:

        Well to an extent I’d say that computers *have* changed the world.

        Obviously, there’s the obvious stuff it’s changed somewhat such as how we shop (online is much more popular today than in 1999), how we socialize (how many of your friends *don’t* have a Facebook they update regularly), but its effects are far more reaching than that.

        Its had some far reaching effects on popular culture, how politics is “done”. I believe it’s brought the upperclasses and lowerclasses together. It’s enabled the average Joe to socialise with the big-name Hollywood star, etc.

        There’s a whole bucketload of stuff that the internet has directly affected that has become so normal so quickly that we forget just how it was before. There’s a lot more we should give it “credit” for.

        – Doug
        Lafuma chairs

    • gdogg says:

      i’m talking about an average person. showing a 2000 person a smartphone would be pretty amazing to them. total internet connectivity everywhere, touch screen interface, fits in your pocket, gps, etc.

      you should come up with some predictions :)