OPINION

The Decade of Cool – Brought to You by Technology

What are we calling the 10 years that just flew past? “The Naughts?” “The Naughties?” “The ‘Aughts?” “The Digital Decade?” I nominate the “Coolness Decade,” but it’s going to require a little less irony and cynicism than what is normally exhibited in our culture to fully embrace that title.

That will be tough, considering the physical, psychic and fiscal scars left behind by the years 2000-2009. They gave us one truly horrific event, two wars that are still with us as we begin the second decade of the 21st century, more fear than we can shake a metal detecting wand at, and enough political/celebrity bad behavior to program our own 24-hour cable news channel. The economy fell into a trap (TARP?) of our own making. We begin a new 10-year cycle with a jobless rate rivaling the worst times in our history.

The last decade started with bad people, airplanes, explosions and tears. It ended with a bad person, an airplane, some smoke, some flames and a much better result, but the overall impression is of this country dodging a big bullet shaped like a Northwest Airlines jet.

So I understand why a lot of people are glad to see the decade in their rear view mirrors. I know why a lot of the stuff I read on blogs and Web sites has a certain jaded quality in the words and tone. Snark colors the writing, sneaks into the conversations, darkens our political discourse.

I’m here to humbly suggest that in our daily lives over the last 10 years, any sense of wonder and awe — forget about the shock — was provided by advances in technology, and we should be grateful for that. Legitimate digital marvels became affordable and easy to use. Distances got shorter. People made contact. Information was made available. Many of us started writing and reading more. Is there some special reason why we’re not supposed to celebrate all that?

I’m not just talking about gadgets — it’s more than iPods, iTunes, iPhones, Blackberries, GPS units, Tivos, WiFi, Kindles, Wiis, Blu-rays and Googles. It’s more than ubiquitous, portable email. It’s more than avoiding the Christmas mall crowds thanks to online shopping and using webcams to make sure kids and houses are safe. It’s about what’s underneath all of those activities that we are taking for granted. It’s the encryption that makes online shopping possible. It’s the leaps in hardware, software, microprocessors and storage. It’s the brainpower at various tech companies big and small and the R&D that makes it all happen.

If you don’t know how to write code, build a motherboard or set up a Web site from scratch, it really can seem like magic. I mean, come on — to listen to music on a device smaller than a cigarette lighter, take a picture or video and send it around the world, get real-time feedback of thoughts and ideas via social media?

How cool. Hence, the Coolness Decade.

The Magic of ‘everywhere’ Media

After three years of covering technology companies from the bottom-line, quarterly earnings perspective at CNBC from 1997-2000, I decided that I was missing out on that magic by focusing on all that money. So I sought jobs that would let me write about what all that money was being used for; to impact work, play, business, education, leisure time.

But I carried one lesson learned while at CNBC to those new jobs. I saw how technology, in the form of electronic trading, had flattened the playing field in the financial industry, and had lowered barriers of entry for the average person.

I noticed the same thing happening with media and information as I covered technology for CNN and Headline News. The rise of blogs and photo- and video-sharing made everybody a broadcaster — mind you, not necessarily a “journalist” in the traditional sense, but as purveyors of information and opinion, the rising tide of electronic democracy lifted a lot of boats in the Coolness Decade.

We’ve argued here before about the good and bad points of that particular development. For the purposes of this column, I’ll be focusing on the positives and asking you to remember images and sounds transmitted by citizens that helped add to the big news stories of the ’00s: the London transit bombings, the Virginia Tech shootings, the Mumbai attacks, the “miracle on the Hudson,” the Iranian election protests.

All of that, plus other Internet-based changes that affected revenues, certainly brought more than their share of challenges to traditional media. Newspapers and magazines folding and jobs lost won’t make those affected think “magic,” I’m sure. (Maybe black magic or witchcraft, whichever requires periodic human sacrifices). But the potential is there to use digital tools and citizen-based insight and forge new models of newsgathering and storytelling — ones that will eventually turn a profit. As somebody who started at his hometown newspaper more than 30 years ago, wound his way through local and national TV and is now knee-deep in this digital media thing, I find all this very cool indeed.

A Second Coolness Decade?

The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas beckons this week, and with it all the potential coolness that’s coming down the pike. Apple has an event planned for later in January that could yield its next cool thing, an iTablet of some kind that may change the portable media and Web-surfing model the way iPods and iPhones changed their respective platforms. Hey, there’s a new Google phone coming, the Nexus One. What coolness awaits there?

Whatever happens, the next generation will keep us heading down the path blazed by technology developments of the last 10 years: handheld gadgets that contain a lot of the computing firepower that used to be in my IBM PS2 in the early 1990s; wireless broadband networks that get faster and more robust; the move toward on-demand media when you want it, on whatever screen you want to view it.

All of this Long Tail niche-ness will mean more content, and hopefully more jobs for those who want to provide that content. The citizen media aspects of the business will continue to drive us toward on-demand news; that is, “news” that conforms to your particular point of view. That’s OK too, as long as we all continue to head towards a more media-literate society that considers the source, vets the facts, curates the results.

I know it’s been a hell of a decade. Lots of bad news. The techno-wonders in our homes and offices may not balance all the nastiness in the past decade, but I believe there’s enough there to give some hope — or at least help us take our minds off our troubles. I took some comfort from my Facebook friends, who shared some suggestions for top tech developments of the last 10 years. One spoke of artificial intelligence in medical and surgical technologies, another marveled at photo- and video-sharing in the hands of the masses. My 57-year-old brother is simply overwhelmed that he’s gotten past the intimidation factors inherent in technology to own a smartphone, a netbook AND a Facebook account.

For me, it’s all the inexpensive multimedia real-time communication flying around the planet — and using that to get friends to help me write my column — that puts me in mind of the Coolness Decade.Well … that and the new fifth-generation iPod nano I got for Christmas.


TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.

1 Comment

  • Renay,

    I enjoyed how you contrasted the pop culture moments and political upheavals of the decade with the technical ones. In addition to the impact of the ipod and social media, I’d like to chime in on how Google made a "splash".

    At the beginning of the decade it was just an obscure little search engine. By the end of it, it became "the" search engine, and then cornered the market on email, chat, video chat and document sharing. We can’t count out YouTube of course (or rather Google’s purchase of YouTube).

    I haven’t "ridden" the Google Wave yet but it will be interesting to see how that grows and what Google will do next.

    Didn’t Al Gore invest in that company early too? Smart dude.

    Rosemary (@thesexygeek)

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