The internet was born of the technological competition of the Cold War and went public in the early 1990s. Its far-reaching effects on both culture and commerce were immediate. The rise of internet shopping sites like Amazon began the inexorable process of replacing brick and mortar stores, including those of large chain brands. Apple’s iPhone replaced land lines and its iTunes slowly but steadily put record stores out of business.
Apple’s Korean rival Samsung took a large market share of phones and home appliances and Google emerged as the dominant search engine and transformed the nature of education. Online video streaming phased out the video rental stores so popular in the last years of the 20th century. Eventually even the great entertainment behemoth of Hollywood was forced to adapt to a new generation of digital moviegoers and challenged by rival film industries in China and India.
Email and instant messaging graduated to popular social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, which created new online communities and connected people across generations and national boundaries. By the second decade of the new millennium, Facebook alone had more than two billion regular users. Controversies arose when its commitment to free speech led to its use by revolutionaries and extremist groups, and its advertising and marketing policies were criticized by some as invasions of privacy.
The nature of banking changed as hedge funds and derivatives surpassed traditional bank accounts and fostered an overheated housing market. The financial crisis of 2008 was the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Unemployment gave way to underemployment and a growing disparity between rich and poor. The mushrooming national debt was assumed in part by old adversaries like China and Russia. Outsourcing of jobs overseas destabilized old American companies and led to lower wages and a rise in inexpensive consumer goods.
The internet forever changed the nature of politics in America. Democrat Barack Obama garnered millions of online “Millennial” supporters in 2008, and eight years later Republican Donald Trump used Twitter to advance his views. Suspicions that Russian hackers interfered with the 2016 election results led to a federal investigation and fueled fears of a new kind of Cold War. Wikipedia and personal blogs gave anyone the opportunity to contribute research and opinion to the global community. Smart phones combined photography, communication, news, financial management, and direction finding in a single handheld device. The world was suddenly at everyone’s fingertips.
The social consequences of this technological transformation became the object of intense discussion and debate. The new Millennial generation born in the waning years of the last century and raised on computer literacy was characterized as more tolerant but less ambitious, more informed but less literate than their predecessors. Others disputed these claims as the misinformed musings of anachronistic thinking, much as the last generation of 19th century America had bemoaned the onset of the electric and radio age. The young entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley were seen by many as the Edisons, Fords and Rockefellers of a new century.
The unbridled growth of the oil industry in the 20th century led to concerns over political conflict and rising global temperatures in the 21st. Many blamed big oil for the Middle Eastern conflicts which led to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent years of fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. The “Arab Spring” of 2011 toppled dictators but left power vacuums where terrorist organizations could take hold. Those same groups made use of the internet to recruit from disenfranchised communities and plan coordinated attacks on the West. Civil war drove thousands of refugees into European countries already struggling with the challenges of emerging multicultural societies. American leaders weighed in on different sides of the plight of refugees while our own immigration issues remained unresolved.
“Global warming” caused by pollution became the subject of intense political debate as melting polar ice and rising sea levels threatened wildlife, coastal communities, and water and food supplies worldwide. Deforestation and desertification in Africa, Asia and Latin America reached alarming proportions. Many saw increased trade and renewable “green” energy as the indisputable solutions to this crisis, while others dismissed these concerns as threats to job growth and national security.
As the new century unfolded, the changing nature of political conflict and economic growth created new alliances, mergers and even currencies. The old divisions of the Cold War gave way to new divisions over natural resources and the spread of disease, false information, and cyber crime. The struggle for civil rights was joined by new groups along multicultural and transgender lines. It would be left to the new generation of Americans born in this century to make sense of these dramatic developments and their place as representatives of American ideals in a more connected and crowded world community.
- What do you think of the issue of “net neutrality?” Should the internet remain free and unregulated? Why or why not?
- How has the internet changed the nature of American society, both positively and negatively?
- What political, economic, and cultural influence does America have in the world today? What should be our role in the changing world of the 21st century?
Copyright (c) 2018 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.
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