Most surprising thing since 1999?

I just read this article on the scale of time by Mike Treder. Part the way through it has an interesting question: What would surprise a person from the year 2000 most about the year 2010? As I don’t know what will happen in the next year, I prefer the 1999 vs. 2009 question: If I got on the phone with 1999 me, what would be the most surprising news?

Let’s start with what was going on in 1999: I had my first cell phone. Black and white LCD screen. No text messaging. I started working for Intelligenesis (later called Webmind, founded by Ben Goertzel). The machines we had were 500 MHz and had 256 MB of RAM. I discovered Google. Internet at home at 56k, but something like 256k at work. I was using Linux and was well aware of open source software. Quake was popular. Computers had CD drives, but DVD drives were starting to come out. Nobody had LCD monitors except on laptops. boom was going crazy. The Matrix was a big hit.

Ok, so what would be the biggest surprise for 1999 me? I think the single biggest surprise would be that a black man had been elected president of the United States.  I thought it would be at least another generation or two before this would be possible.  The next most surprising thing would have been Wikipedia. Though given that Linux development was working well at the time, I guess with the right control structures in place it shouldn’t have been all that surprising.  Still, it continues to amaze me at just how good it in fact is.

Many other things seem to have been fairly predictable: internet got faster, bigger, computer specs all went up, people started watching video on the internet, voice and video chatting over the internet, more mobile internet… Would any of these things have surprised me in 1999?  I don’t think so.  Even the recent rise of social networking: I couldn’t have predicted what that would have looked like, but it’s not all that surprising.  Same for internet banking.  A lot of what seems to have been going on over the last 10 years is just the maturation of the internet and mobile devices.

What are the most surprising things for you over the last 10 years?

EDIT: Add to my list: free email service with almost 10 GB of storage (gmail), and Google street view.

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6 Responses to Most surprising thing since 1999?

  1. Dave says:

    I think for me it would probably be the expansion of cell phone power and abilities. The iPhone and G1 have GPS, maps and directions, camera, video, embedded SQL databases you can program against exactly like desktop/servers, organizers, etc. And the G1/Android is incredibly easy to program for — just plain Java code.

    In retrospect it looks like it was inevitable, but in 1999 I would have been pretty blown away to know I could do all the essentials. (Of course, the black president is pretty mindblowing too, but I’m limiting the scope to technology. Otherwise 9/11 would probably win).

  2. Dave says:

    (Do all the essentials from my phone that should have said).

    • Shane Legg says:

      I also considered cell phones. While I’d say that they are one of the most impressive advances in the last 10 years, are they so surprising?

      I had one in 1999 with a basic LCD screen, and at the time the technology was moving pretty quickly. Just a few years early almost nobody had one. If you’d told me in 1999 that over the next 10 years they would get colour screens and essentially become small computers that could run various software, and had built in digital cameras (remember that digital cameras already existed in 1999, I got one in 2000 with 64 MB of ram and a colour screen on the back) I doubt I would have been all that surprised on hearing this.

      Well, maybe it’s faster than I would have expected. Something like the new iPhone in 2015 rather than 2009.

  3. I completely agree with Wikipedia being a surprise. I do not believe that my 1999 self would have believed that Wikipedia could work to the extent that it has. I am a great fan of Wikipedia, not just because I use it every day as my first reference source, but also because it gives me hope and optimism for humanity!

    I have three other surprises for my 1999 self:

    1) Digital cameras. Back in 1999 digital cameras were low-quality devices for a few geeks with too much money. I would have been surprised to find that digital photography has basically completely replaced film, to the point that even professional photographers choose a digital camera over a film camera.

    2) Text messaging. Back in 1999 text messaging was a fledgling new trend. To quote my favourite source (Wikipedia of course!): “Short message services are developing very rapidly throughout the world. In 2000, just 17 billion SMS messages were sent; in 2001, the number was up to 250 billion, and 500 billion SMS messages in 2004.” So back in 1999 text messaging was in its infancy. My 1999 self would have been very surprised to find that most of population, including my parents, would be busy sending text messages in a new txt-language in 2009!

    3) The lack of technical progress on many fronts. As you mentioned in your post, the dot-com boom was going crazy in 1999 and there was a plethora of promising technologies coming out every week. This included WAP cell-phone standards, micro-payments for small Internet transactions, and various passport technologies for single-point authentication on the Internet. But basically, 10 years later, the landscape is not that changed. The majority of cell-phones do not web-browsers and there are very few services accessible for the cell-phone, we still pay for every transaction using our credit-card, and site authentication is not that different. I think that my 1999 self would have expected greater technical advancement.

    • Shane Legg says:

      “The majority of cell-phones do not web-browsers and there are very few services accessible for the cell-phone, …”

      This is changing very quickly at the moment. Everyday on the bus I see people reading their emails on their phones on the way to work. When I’m out with the guys they often end up having to get their iPhones out to look up Wikipedia to resolve something we are arguing about. With the low end iPhone now just US $99 I expect to see phone internet access absolutely everywhere within 1-2 years.

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