We are now, already, two decades deep into the 21st century. In the past 20 years, Earth-shaking, mind-bending, being-altering changes have upended the way we live and work. We eat differently. We play differently. We communicate differently. We, in many, many ways, simply are different from how we were in the last days of the late 20th century. At this rate, we won't even recognize our world in 2040.
Things have changed, all right; some for the better and some, undoubtedly, for the worse. Here are 20 groundbreaking developments of the first two decades in the 21st century, in no particular order.
Smartphones Are Everywhere
Apple rolled out its first smartphone — a hand-held computer and mobile phone mashed into one — in 2007. Since the iPhone's debut, (the first Android smartphone debuted a year later) smartphones have grown bigger, more sophisticated, smarter and more ubiquitous than anyone would have imagined. Your average smartphone has more than 100,000 times the processing power of the computer that guided Apollo 11 to the moon. In the past decade in America, the percentage of people who use a smartphone has more than tripled, to more than 71 percent. Already, more than 3.2 billion people worldwide use smartphones ... closing in on half the human race.
Social Media Sites Take Off
With the handiness of a computer in our pockets, social media became the method of communication for billions around the world. The biggest social network, Facebook, launched in 2005 and now has 2.45 billion monthly active users worldwide. Twitter now has 330 million monthly active users. Instant messaging service WhatsApp has 1.6 billion. Chinese messaging app WeChat boasts more than 1 billion. And don't forget online dating sites. According to eHarmony, 40 percent of Americans use online dating websites. The social media good: a more interconnected world. The bad: misinformation, bullying and a loss of privacy.
We Now Connect Via WiFi
"We stand," declared Wired magazine in 2003, "at the brink of a transformation." The article was titled "The Wi-Fi Revolution," and the technology, indeed, was ground-shaking. The ability to take hard-wired internet from an internet service provider (ISP) and access the web without being physically plugged in — via radio waves on a local network — enabled the internet to go mobile, whether in your home (a laptop on the couch), in the local coffee shop (your smartphone in the corner booth), or at school (in the back row watching videos). Even with the rise of increasingly faster cellular technologies, WiFi rules. According to the Wi-Fi Alliance, WiFi is the most commonly used wireless technology in the world and the primary way the internet is accessed globally. Some 13 billion WiFi devices were in use in 2018.
Memes and Emojis Spread Like Wildfire
That smiley face, that shrugging guy, the finger gun, the tears of joy. We know them like the alphabet now. In fact, they often replace words in our digital-centric lifestyles. Emojis started in the late 1990s in Japan and are now standard issue on every smartphone in the world. Texting your approval of something? Use a thumbs-up. Think something stinks? The smiling pile of poop is always popular. Related to emojis in an Instagram/Twitter kind of way is the internet meme, an oft-doctored, meant-to-be-shared short video or graphic designed to recognize, poke fun at, or otherwise comment on the latest cultural blip. The Nancy Pelosi clap. Sad Keanu. Crying Michael Jordan. The Distracted Boyfriend. Sometimes, words aren't enough.
Streaming Takes Over the Airways
The ability to send all sorts of media to consumers via the internet took its first buffering, stub-toed steps in the late 1990s. Since the turn of the 21st century, though, streaming not only has learned to walk, it's also learned to fly. Music services (Pandora, Spotify, Apple Music, etc.) have all but knee-capped the sales of CDs. The same is true for video streamers (YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, etc.) and the sales of DVDs, the viewership numbers of more traditional TV, and the health of the movie industry. Netflix began as a mail-order DVD company but turned to streaming in 2007. It then produced its first full-length feature film in 2017, and now has more than 158 million paid memberships worldwide.
GPS Goes Mainstream
The Global Positioning System used to be strictly the realm of the U.S. government, run by the Air Force. But in 2000, President Bill Clinton ordered that a feature of it that fuzzied the picture for nongovernment types be discontinued. Now, GPS (among other more unconventional uses) shows us the way while we're driving, tells us where we are when we're lost, points out the closest coffee shop, gives us the yardage to the pin on the golf course, and tells us how long it'll take us to get places. The constellation of at least 24 satellites provides worldwide coverage. Once a GPS device homes in on a signal from at least four of those satellites, it can determine where you are in longitude, latitude and altitude.
9/11 Sparks the War on Terror
The new century had barely begun when an unthinkable horror shook the world and fundamentally altered the way that we live. When al-Qaida-linked terrorists hijacked four commercial airplanes on Sept. 11, 2001, and used them as weapons to kill almost 3,000 Americans, a so-called war on terror launched across the globe, centrally in Iraq (2003-11) and in a conflict in Afghanistan that continues today. The campaign cost the U.S. trillions of dollars. Thousands more have died, personal privacy and human rights have been strained, yet al-Qaida remains strong today, despite the killing of 9/11 mastermind, Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALS in Pakistan on May 2, 2011.
The Great Recession Almost Breaks Us
When it comes down to it, greed was the root cause of the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression. "[I]t was the collapse of the housing bubble — fueled by low interest rates, easy and available credit, scant regulation and toxic mortgages — that was the spark that ignited a string of events, which led to a full-blown crisis ...," an official government report in 2011 concluded. The Great Recession (late-2007 to mid-2009) was not just an American phenomenon; it produced financial ripples throughout the world. But the unemployment rate in the U.S. jumped from 5 percent to 9.5 percent. Almost 8.7 million jobs were lost. Home prices fell by 30 percent, and the S&P 500 plummeted by 57 percent. Though the U.S. is now enjoying the longest run of economic growth in its history, the memory of the Great Recession is never far from anyone's mind.
The Sharing Economy Helps Us Rebound
If you had too much to drink at a party in 2008, you had only so many options to get home. Then, in 2009, the ride-sharing company Uber came along — all you have to do is pop on your smartphone and buy a ride in someone's personal car — stunning taxi companies and jump-starting the "sharing economy." Need a place to stay, or have a room to rent? (Airbnb, founded in 2008.) Need to buy some junk, or sell it? (EBay, which began in the late 1990s.) Rent your car, or someone else's? (Getaround, 2009.) Crafts to buy or sell? (Etsy, 2005.) The possibilities are endless. These peer-to-peer companies put about $14 billion into the economy in 2014. The Brookings Institution expects that to jump to as much as $335 billion by 2025.
The U.S. Elects a New Kind of President
On a January day in 2008, almost 219 years after George Washington became the first president of the United States, a Senator from Illinois, Barack Hussein Obama, was sworn in as the United States' first African-American president. In a country still grappling with the stain of slavery, Obama's ascension to America's highest office marked for many a high point of hope. "I have asserted a firm conviction, a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people," Obama said in a famous speech on race during his campaign, "that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union." He was re-elected to a second term in 2012.
More Women Are in Power Politically
After Obama's historic election, the U.S. just missed out on another history making election: voting its first female president into office in 2016. But even though Hillary Clinton was defeated in the U.S., more women politicians worldwide are on the move up. A 2017 Pew Research Center study showed that the number of countries with female leaders has more than doubled since 2000, led by Germany's Angela Merkel, widely viewed as the most powerful woman in the world. Merkel has been chancellor since 2005, making her the longest-serving incumbent leader in the European Union. And back in the U.S., 126 women are currently serving in either the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives, an all-time high. That's an improvement, but women still make up just 23.6 percent of the total seats in Congress.
Same-sex Marriage Becomes Legal
In 2019, governing bodies in Northern Ireland, Austria, Ecuador and Taiwan all legalized same-sex marriage, adding to a growing list of countries to OK the legal union of partners regardless of sex. As of late 2019, 30 countries around the world have granted legal marital rights to same-sex couples, a movement that began in The Netherlands in 2000. (The U.S. legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, after a Supreme Court ruling.) Notable holdouts include all of Central and Eastern Europe, Italy, Switzerland, all of Africa (except South Africa) and almost all of Asia.
People Are Still Food Insecure
We're eating more than we did even a few years ago — no surprise there — yet, still, some 795 million people in the world don't have enough to eat. In 2018, 9.2 percent of the world population was severely food insecure, meaning they didn't have regular access to nutritious and sufficient food. Hunger is most prevalent — and increasing — in almost all subregions of Africa, Latin America and Western Asia. But hunger also affects 8 percent of the populations of Northern America and Europe. In October 2015, the Food and Agriculture Organization for the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to end world hunger by focusing on rural development, and investing in agriculture, including crops, livestock, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture.
The International Space Station Goes Online
In November 2000, astronaut Bill Shepherd joined cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev as the first crew to inhabit the International Space Station. The ISS is a collaboration between five space agencies representing 15 countries that began with an edict in 1984 from President Ronald Reagan. The ISS has been continually occupied since the turn of the 21st century. As of late 2019, some 239 people from 19 countries had spent time on the outer-space station, which boasts six bedrooms, two bathrooms and a gym, where astronauts work out at least two hours a day in order to lessen the effect that weightlessness has on muscle and bone mass.
Climate Change Poses Global Threat
Humans have been wrecking the planet for time immemorial. Two decades into the 21st century, the damage is becoming crystal clear. Because of record levels of greenhouse gases — which largely come from fossil fuel and agricultural uses — we are, according to the World Meteorological Association, in the hottest five-year and 10-year period in human history. Every decade since 1980 has been warmer than the previous one. That has led to hotter seas, higher sea levels, a loss in Arctic ice, and more severe weather patterns. "These impacts make for a more unstable world," University of Manchester scientist Grant Allen told The Guardian. Many have tried to sound the alarm: the Kyoto Protocol, which went into effect in 2005. "An Inconvenient Truth," in 2006. The 2015 Paris Agreement. Many, sadly, remain unconvinced.
But Recycling Hits Its Stride
The idea of recycling waste stretches back well into the 20th century, but the actual act of it has begun to hit its stride only over the past 20 years. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more than 53 million tons of solid waste — consumer throwaways — was recycled in 2000. By 2017 that number had jumped to 67.1 million tons. Today we know it takes hundreds of years for a single plastic bag to degrade, but Americans still use 100 billion of them a year. And even though single-use plastics continue to be a scourge on the planet, only unthinking clods don't know that it's better to take your own bags to the grocery, recycle those plastic bottles, cans and paper, and strive for something closer to zero waste.
And Electric Cars Race to the Future
Convinced that the use of fossil fuels poses a grave threat to life on Earth, South African engineer Elon Musk launched an electric car company, Tesla, in 2003 that has rattled the automotive industry. The Tesla Roadster rolled out from its California factory in 2008 and by 2010, only a few thousand EVs were sold. But by 2018, the number was up to 2 million worldwide, and Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts that by 2040, more than 56 million electric passenger vehicles will comprise 57 percent of the passenger vehicle sales in the world. Tesla is a leader in the U.S., but China is the planet's leader in manufacturing and sales. Other car manufacturers have taken notice. Volkswagen (which also owns Audi and Porsche) is planning almost 70 new electric models by 2028. In November 2019, Ford launched its first-ever electric Mustang, the Mach E. And Volvo says its goal is to have 50 percent of its car sales to be fully electric by 2025.
Scientists Find Water on Mars
Humankind, for millennia, has looked to space in wonder. When photos of gullies on Mars in 2000 suggested water at one time flowed on the surface there, we turned our focus specifically toward the red planet. In 2018, scientists discovered that liquid water — not ice, not gas — still flows under the southern ice cap of Mars. What's the big deal? Water, at least on Earth, means life is possible. And if climate change does to Earth what many fear, finding another place where human life can be sustained is critical to our very survival.
Physicists Confirm the Higgs Boson
Scientists at the Large Hadron Collider — a 17-mile (27-kilometer) circular tunnel under the border of France and Switzerland that physicists use to accelerate beams filled with particles that they smash into each other to see how they act — discovered in 2012 what they believed was proof of a long-rumored subatomic particle. The Higgs boson (subatomic particle) was known as the "God particle," reportedly because it had been so elusive. The idea that the Higgs existed was theorized in the '60s by Peter Higgs and François Englert. Until 2012, the Higgs boson was the "missing piece" of the Standard Model of particle physics, which explains how all matter in the universe should work. Both Higgs and Englert received the Nobel Prize in Physics 2013 after the discovery.
Doctors Are Cracking the Genetic Code
The idea was hatched back in 1988, but the goal was so overtly, audaciously ambitious — the "complete mapping and understanding of all the genes in human beings" — that the Human Genome Project wasn't finished until 2003. The project, run by the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy, provides the world with a blueprint of the structure and function of some 20,500 human genes. And scientists have only begun to discover what they can do with all this newfound knowledge. One possibility, according to Francis Collins, the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute in 2001: "[I]t's a transformative textbook of medicine, with insights that will give health care providers immense new powers to treat, prevent and cure disease."
While there's been no shortage of monumental events — both good and bad — during the last 20 years, imagine what we can expect in the next five, 10 and 20 years. NASA says it will put another human on the moon by 2024. Could we be living there soon after? The U.S. could experience a new industrial revolution of sorts — the kind where robots and AI take our jobs. Cars could eventually drive themselves. Deep fake videos may one day have us believing things that don't exist. Super-bugs could become resistant to the most powerful antibiotics, but biotechnology could allow us to create designer babies immune to disease. The bottom line is nobody knows what the next 20 years could bring, but we know one thing: It will be here before you know it.