2007, not 2016, is the year the world turned upside down | John Naughton

While we’re undoubtedly living through dark times, the storm we’re in now started with a rush of rapid technological change

It’s interesting how particular years acquire historical significance: 1789 (the French Revolution); 1914 (outbreak of the first world war); 1917 (the Russian revolution); 1929 (the Wall Street crash); 1983 (switching on of the internet); 1993 (the Mosaic Web browser, which started the metamorphosis of the internet from geek sandpit to the nervous system of the planet). And of course 2016, the year of Brexit and Trump, the implications of which are, as yet, unknown.

But what about 2007? That was the year when Slovenia adopted the euro, Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU, Kurt Vonnegut died, smoking in enclosed public places was banned in the UK, a student shot 32 people dead and wounded 17 others at Virginia Tech, Luciano Pavarotti died and Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. Oh – and it was also the year that Steve Jobs launched the Apple iPhone.

And that, I suspect, is the main – perhaps the only – reason that 2007 will be counted as a pivotal year, because it was the moment that determined how the internet would evolve. Not that many people appreciated it at the time. After all, Apple was an intruder into a mature and established global market, dominated by firms like Nokia, Motorola, Sony and BlackBerry. In that context, the iPhone looked weird – I mean, you couldn’t even change the battery! But it was a truly revolutionary device, because it embodied the seminal insight that phones were actually handheld networked computers – which could also make voice calls if necessary.

The iPhone was the first real smartphone and it changed the world because it changed the way people connected to the net. It began the inexorable drift away from desktop and laptop computers as our gateways to the internet. In the next 10 years or so, another 5 billion of our fellow citizens will get internet connectivity, and almost all of them will acquire it via a smartphone. Which means that – as network infrastructure improves – people will be online for most of their waking lives. For many this will be a great boon. But it also means – as Jonathan Zittrain pointed out eight years ago– that they will be connecting via closed, tightly controlled devices with no user-modifiable components. And this in turn implies consolidation of the power of the companies that make the devices and provide the connectivity.

The more you look at it, the more significant 2007 seems to be. The New York Times columnist Thomas L Friedman even uses it as the cornerstone of his new book, Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. He points out that 2007 was also the year Facebook and Twitter really took off; when Hadoop emerged as a software framework for processing very large data sets; when Airbnb was dreamed up, the Amazon Kindle was launched and IBM started work on building the Watson computer system, which was capable of answering questions put to it in natural language and went on to win the US quiz show Jeopardy! in 2011, defeating two former winners of the prize. And Google unveiled the Android mobile operating system, which made smartphones affordable for the masses.

Friedman feels strongly about 2007 because it was the year the final edition of his bestselling book The World Is Flat came out. “And then I stopped,” he says, “thinking that I had built a pretty solid framework that would last me as a columnist for a while.” In 2010, he sat down to write another book, and dug out the first edition of The World Is Flat just to familiarise himself with what he had been thinking back in 2004. “I cracked it open to the index,” he writes, “ran my finger down the page, and immediately discovered that Facebook wasn’t in it! That’s right – when I was running around in 2004 declaring that the world is flat, Facebook didn’t even exist yet, Twitter was still a sound, the cloud was still in the sky, 4G was a parking space, “applications” were what you sent to college, LinkedIn was barely known and most people thought it was a prison, Big Data was a good name for a rap star, and Skype, for most people, was a typographical error. All of those technologies blossomed after I wrote The World Is Flat – most of them around 2007.”

Friedman’s point is that those tech innovations ratcheted up a pace of change that was already outrunning society’s ability to adapt. When combined with globalisation and climate change, they have created a perfect storm (Friedman calls it a “hurricane”) that people find destabilising and sometimes terrifying. Which brings us back to 2016. “Trump and the Brexiters”, he writes, “sensed the anxiety of many and promised to build a wall against these howling winds of change. I disagree. I think the challenge is to find the eye.” In order to find it, he maintains, politics, geopolitics, workplace, ethics and community all need to be “reimagined”. Correct: but you don’t have to be a cynic to conclude that Friedman is spitting into the hurricane.

Contributor

John Naughton

The GuardianTramp

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