Opinion: Looking back on the 2010s – a decade of remarkable change and upheaval (December 2019)

By Christopher Chagnon, PhD Researcher, University of Helsinki

As we feel looking back every year, 2019 was an eventful one. Beyond that, it represents the end of a remarkable decade (though, again, there are likely few decades that people would label as “unremarkable”), especially looking at the twists and turns of the preceding decades. To look at some broad strokes: In the 1990s, the Western world somewhat deluded itself into thinking it was seeing Fukuyama’s “end of history” in the form of a unipolar Washington Consensus. In the 2000s, especially post-9/11, we saw a shift and balancing of global power. While traditional Western powers bogged themselves down with (and gained resentment for the utter destruction, destabilization, and death caused by) “fighting terrorism/spreading freedom and free markets”, other powers were rising – especially the BRICS countries. We saw and continue to see how invoking “antiterrorism” has been increasingly used as a way for authoritarian regimes to legitimize crackdowns on minority groups and political opposition (at times with money and munitions from Western powers given under the auspices of “antiterrorism”).

Beyond this, we have seen technological change at a degree and rate that is quite possibly unprecedented in human history. From a Western viewpoint: In the early 1990s, personal computers were rare; the internet was still the domain of the military/academia and only talked of as the future for regular people; and mobile phones were the domain of the ultra-rich. By the early 2000s, personal computers were common, personal internet access was extremely common, and mobile phones were becoming more common (though, still very basic in function). By the early 2010s, computers, internet access, and basic mobile phones were ubiquitous, but smart phones were still somewhat luxury items. Today, of course, internet is extremely common, and free in many places, smart phones are ubiquitous (and come in a wide range of prices and capabilities).

In many ways, the world today does not look all that different from 30 years ago[1], but we have also seen changes that are downright sci-fi in their levels of change. We have seen AI take tremendous leaps and bounds, as well as the ability to manipulate video and audio. Our computers and smart phones might not be able to instantly scan and cure injuries and disease, but they outclass any handheld and computer terminal you ever saw in Star Trek: The Next Generation. And along with this, we have unprecedented levels of connection, communication, and commerce.

All this combines to create a remarkable decade of change. In some ways, the Western world seems almost unrecognizable compared to January 1, 2010. Who would have guessed how far right-wing populism would spread in the West – let alone that the US would have a notoriously shady businessman/reality TV star as president, and that the UK would be led by a tabloid reporter notorious for fabricating stories and getting ready to charge out of the EU? In the 1990s and 2000s, globalization, facilitated by increasing interconnectivity and the “spread of free markets”, was presented with optimism, but its breakneck pace (and that pace’s underpinnings of neoliberal ideologies) have proven to be irresponsible. In the West, the wealthy have seen disproportionate gains, while the working class, poor, and middle class have seen disproportionate losses. Across the Western world, we see people left behind by globalization flocking to right-wing populist standards.

Those waving these standards are, somewhat ironically, often those who gained the most from globalization. They utilize classic mainstays of right-wing populism: railing against minority groups, immigrants, intellectuals, and anyone who disagrees, laying the responsibility for all ills at their feet. Their rhetoric sells a return to an idealised time that never actually existed, by promoting more neoliberal economic policies which will likely exacerbate the problems of most of their followers.[2]

This rise and messaging is aided tremendously by the aforementioned incredible increase in connectivity and communication. The growth of the reach and volume of social media, along with improvements of video/audio editing and manipulation technologies, and artificial intelligence, have allowed for a renaissance of propaganda. This happens domestically, with social media companies like Facebook stating openly that, while they would take down advertisements for products that make false claims, they would not take down political advertisements which pushed blatant lies. Internationally, it has opened channels for intelligence services and non-state actors to manipulate public opinion in other countries and influence politics.[3] As a result, we see traditional Western alliances and alignments fracturing and in question.

In the developing world, this technological change and connectivity has brought tremendous change as well. By 2017, mobile phones had a 98.7% penetration rate in the developing world, with people in some countries having greater access to mobile service than electricity and water. The proliferation of mobile internet and affordable smart devices have allowed for a facilitation of SME business growth in the developing world, as well as unleashed the innovative and creative potential of millions of people by untethering the internet from expensive and cumbersome computers.[4] Examples of this abound – In Kenya (and now far beyond) M-Pesa[5] has revolutionized payments and money transfers for people who would not normally have access to bank accounts. The Great Firewall in China has carved out a space where Chinese tech companies evolved to fit particular market needs. For example WeChat went from from a simple messenger to a messenger/biggest social media site/biggest mobile payment app/commerce service/food ordering service (in a way that even giants like Facebook or Amazon could only dream). Mwabu, from Zambia, utilizes mobile technology to help spread and improve education quality and skills. Babyl, in Rwanda, allows people to access nurses and doctors via phone and SMS. And there are many more examples (of course, major Western companies are getting in on the act too, such as with MasterCard launching 2KUZE in east Africa).

This connects, as well, to revolutions in our own field of practice. The spread of this technology has given unprecedented access to information and new data gathering techniques. Governments are able to more accurately gather data in remote areas. People are more able to share their experiences with readily accessible cameras and recording devices. Researchers and development practitioners are able to reach out to communities they work with instantaneously and from a distance through social media. Impacts of projects are able to be seen, shared, and assessed in a way that is more collaborative, inclusive, and thorough than ever before. This technology has been a tool of empowerment, and hopefully it will continue to be and continue to erode the negative veins of paternalism/colonialism that still exist in many areas of development practice and research – as well that it can continue to build upon and strengthen practices that are respectful, inclusive, empowering, and effective.

This was also the decade where the organizational power of technology and social media showed itself. The Arab Spring uprisings in the early part of the decade are probably the clearest example of organizing power, with groups using Facebook and Twitter to organize gatherings and protests. Of course, this is not the first example of this happening. In summer 2009, Uighur independence activists used Facebook (among other social networking sites) to communicate during the Urumqi riots – leading to the blocking of Facebook (and other non-China-based social networks).[6] Of course, beyond blocking social media channels, officials have also used it to crack down on protests by targeting protesters based on social media check ins/posts – one of the best examples of this is how police in the US began to do this to harass the Standing Rock protesters in 2016/17; which led to thousands of supports from around the world checking in to interfere with the surveillance.

Of course, in this nexus of politics and technology that has led to such a remarkable decade, I would be remiss to not mention the elephant in the room – the climate crisis. In the first and most direct aspect, the increased interconnectivity and dissemination of technology has meant greater demand for the resources necessary to make the technology, and increased demand of electricity for those devices. This is not even considering the knock-on effects for demand brought about by easier shopping and increased advertising exposure. Though there are positive aspects: the utility of this technology in helping to spread information and consciousness about climate change, alternatives, stories that show its impact, and organize action to push for change. Though, on the opposite side of that coin, they are remarkable tool for propaganda and misinformation – by sheer number of people, there are probably more people today who hold a convicted belief that the world is flat than at any time in human history.

While there is so much more to be said about this previous decade than this small and limited opinion piece can show, I would like to wrap up with some predictions for the 2020s.

We will see a battle for the heart and soul of the internet. What I mean by this is, that there are, broadly, two major visions of the internet today. One is of an internet that is fairly open, accessible, and interconnected with the rest of the world. The other is of more isolated, with connections more closely monitored and controlled by national governments. We are already seeing this beginning to play out, especially in Africa, but it will ramp up in the coming decade as infrastructure and 5G capabilities expand. The most famous version of the isolated internet is China, with the “Great Firewall”. While China has never made following their version of the internet at all a condition in Chinese companies’ push to expand telecommunications, their model is gaining traction and popularity. Zimbabwe has begun reshaping their internet along these lines, as has Russia, and Ethiopia. While both versions can coexist, there are certainly plenty of reasons for governments (especially authoritarian leaning governments) to seek greater control over the internet.

We will see an awakening to the importance of personal data and regulations around its protection and usage. Anyone who knows me knows that this is something I am very interested in, and believe is very important. One of the aspects of the rapid development and proliferation of technology of the past decade has been both a dramatic increase in areas and methods for collecting information about us as individuals, and the rapid advancement of artificial intelligence to sift through and utilize this data. This has already begun to play a major role – Cambridge Analytica collected and used Facebook user data to target misinformation and election manipulation campaigns in the US and UK. The massive increase of wireless internet speeds that 5G brings will allow for a proliferation of the internet of things – that is, more smart devices in more areas of our life. We are already seeing this with the increase of “smart homes” where one can control their heat, lights, and home electronics remotely (and by voice command); smart refrigerators which can monitor and order food automatically; smart watches which can monitor our heartbeat, activity, and sleep patterns; etc. Even strictly benign usage of these devices creates troves of very personal data – where you like to spend your time in your home and when; your eating habits; your sleeping habits; your exercise routine; when you get up to use the bathroom in the night and how often (easy to figure out based on heart rate data and which lights in the house were turned on); and so much more. If one goes into how these devices can be hacked into and used, it is even more intimate (and scary). As such, people will take more notice and demand better regulation and protection. The EU has begun a step down this direction with the GDPR. However, this is only a starting block. The regulations and protections will continue to evolve as understanding evolves, and hopefully action will be taken to break up tech giants. Of course, on the other side, we will also likely see a proliferation of a surveillance state in some countries, as we are seeing being rolled out in China (and the underpinning technology of which Chinese and Western companies are already selling around the world).

There will be a greater shift towards alternatives in many ways. There will be a proliferation of alternative, renewable energies and decentralized power systems – both in the developing world where power transmission penetration is low to meet demand, and in the developed world where infrastructure is falling apart and the cost of restoring the current systems is prohibitive. There will be a proliferation of alternative conceptions of education and training – there will be an increased awareness that not all types of learning are for everyone, and that all types of knowledge are valuable (traditional college, vocational, indigenous, etc.) and can blend together. There will be a proliferation of alternative conceptions of success and happiness – likewise, people will continue to realize that there are many types of value and ways to create value, and that success is different for different people, and happiness is something that is neither universal in conception, static in nature, nor fundamentally material in construction.

We will see increasing multipolarity in the global system. This includes not only the “rising powers” like BRICS, but greater power in the developing world. With technological proliferation, a booming young population, and improving education, African countries have the potential to not only grow economically, but to become global leaders of culture and innovation. Perhaps the shift will not be complete, but I believe we will see major steps in that direction in the 2020s.

There is plenty more that I could write and muse about in this vein, but there is limited space in this newsletter. Whatever this coming year and decade may bring, I hope that you, dear reader, are part of bringing some of the best parts of it to your family, friends, community, and the world (I will endeavour to be as well).


Please Note: All opinions expressed are solely those of the authors.


[1] Though, of course, we have lost so much of the natural world, and many urban spaces around the world are practically unrecognizable compared to 30 years ago.

[2] Not to mention that in the time periods usually invoked, the taxes were much higher and the social safety nets much stronger, going directly against the neoliberal messages being sold.

[3] This is not to overlook or condone how the West has manipulated elections and utilized propaganda for decades; I am of a mind that all such manipulations are bad and should be reckoned with.

[4] As a personal anecdote of witnessing this shift firsthand. I spent a couple of years teaching at a technical college in Jazan, Saudi Arabia. Jazan province, on the border with Yemen, is one of the poorest in the country, and my students were generally from the poorer parts of society. Most were from small villages in the mountains, where people were traditionally semi-nomadic, and they lived in small concrete houses with some electricity. They all had smart phones, but most had never seen a computer before – to the point where many would try to poke the computer screen to do things, or would instinctively right-click on a mouse instead of left-click, and typing was an absolute nightmare. However, while they lacked computer skills, they used their smart phones like fish in water – able to write, surf, and do pretty much any computer-based task easily (and faster than I could) and figure out tasks they didn’t know how to do very easily. It made me realize – these young men are the future of their country (and their comfort with mobile devices is certainly far from unique); why should they want to keep a more expensive, less intuitive technology, instead of charging forward with what they know that can do almost all the same stuff?

[5] Yes, the service launched in 2007, but I include it here because much of the growth has happened over the past decade.

[6] For another personal anecdote, I was living in China from 2007 – 2012. And I remember when the ultimate blocking of Facebook came. It was not surprising; it had happened sporadically before that, and Google services were regularly blocked. Though, it did make me laugh a bit about how views on the internet had changed among the Chinese leadership in a relatively short time – when I studied abroad in Beijing in 2006, Wikipedia was blocked because of its articles on the Tiananmen Square Incident, but did not block Facebook or any other social media networks, foreign or Chinese. They didn’t seem to realize that people connecting freely and semi-anonymously online might be a bigger threat than online encyclopedia articles they could easily change to fit their views (and which were mostly in languages that the majority of their citizenry couldn’t read). Though, obviously, that changed fairly quickly.