Twilight of a Decade

As is the case annually around this time, a new year will soon be upon us, the year 2020. New Year 2020 is more important than most new years, however, in that in addition to a new year, it also represents the twilight of one decade, the 2010s, and the dawn of another, the 2020s. This encourages us to see beyond a mere year in review, and take the more interesting and meaningful perspective of ten years. We have already seen and will continue to see many predictions for how the 2020s will unfold. I have never been terribly fond of making predictions at a new year, decade, or century that come bundled with a certain date, as I have always thought that rather arbitrary; after all, the flow of history does not reveal itself only on New Year’s Eve. Today I invite us to gain perspective instead by turning back the clock a decade to December 31, 2009 and focusing our attention on how people were thinking about the then-forthcoming decade of the 2010s.

Politically, “populism” became the standout term used to describe the most momentous developments of the 2010s, especially among intellectuals and the mainstream media, and it would be hard to deny the scope and power of anti-government protests and popular revolts during the decade; the 2010s even saw a bona fide revolutionary wave sweep the Arab World, which came to be known as the Arab Spring. As an aside, although the failure to build democracy in places like Egypt, Libya, and Syria is much lamented, the (by this point much less well-known) democratic revolution in Tunisia, where the wave originally started, was successful enough. The nearly forgotten Occupy Wall Street movement (later generalized to just Occupy) rounds out the early 2010s, in addition to numerous other movements over the decade, including the still-active Yellow Vests in France and the protests in Hong Kong which will continue into 2020.

So how were people on the eve of 2010 thinking about this? If you gave them a crystal ball they wouldn’t have been very surprised, since the populist wave of protest we are accustomed to today was already in full swing in the late 2000s. The Tea Party in the United States, which, to the extent it wasn’t a continuation of the Ron Paul Presidential campaign, formed as a resistance to the bank bailouts amidst the economic crash in late 2008, is interestingly enough the earliest instance of this wave as far as I know. The general tone of the decade as one of a veritable rolling popular rebellion in politics against the backdrop of an economy that has continued to be poor was actually something many were predicting ten years ago, as it turns out quite correctly.

With that said, some of the specifics may have come as a surprise. In the more nitty-gritty arena of elections and referendums there were quite a few unexpected developments. The advent in 2016 of the twin menaces (to the political class) of “Brexit and Trump” will perhaps be the best remembered such events of the decade. To anyone paying attention 10 years ago Brexit wouldn’t have been very shocking, since a poll from 2010 found Leave ahead of Remain by 14 points, and the idea of having a referendum was rather mainstream within the Conservative Party. Regardless, the actual outcome as it happened seemed to shock the establishment, even though Remain never had a very large polling lead in the home stretch of the referendum campaign. Go figure.

Donald Trump as President, on the other hand, would have shocked almost everyone in 2010 if they could have peered into the future. A non-traditional candidate running a populist campaign was actually expected (or hoped for, depending on your point of view) to some extent, but very few would have expected Donald Trump in particular to be it, and even fewer would have expected the strategy he ended up using to be successful. Ten years ago, there was of course plenty of speculation about the then-upcoming 2012 Presidential election in the United States. Looking back at Wikipedia’s helpful page about speculated candidates, we see quite a few names, most of whom didn’t hold much more interest then as they do now. Donald Trump showed up in time for the election, yes, but only in 2011 when he took up the birther cause (which I honestly think was stranger than “the Wall” four years later). Ten years ago, the hottest future President from the entertainment industry was not Donald Trump but rather Gary Sinise. Nicole Wallace floated his name in articles on CNN and the Daily Beast, and apparently there was some buzz around him in Republican insider circles. Nothing came of it, because by all indications Sinise was never interested in the idea, but it gives you an idea of how much can change in ten years.

Wallace’s article highlights another fact of New Year 2010 that is almost forgotten on New Year 2020: Republicans were searching for their own version of Barack Obama. Donald Trump is what they ended up with, and while in some respects they are opposites, many forget Obama was relatively inexperienced, only the third sitting Senator to ever be elected, and he ran (by contemporary standards) a rather populist campaign in 2008. After all, “Change we can believe in” is hardly a ringing endorsement of the status quo. There were many other candidates that presented a more Obama-like profile than Trump, of course, but examining that in-depth will be for another time on this blog.

As far as how expected or unexpected the candidates we ended up with were as of ten years ago, let’s run down a list of notables. Sarah Palin was probably the Republican that had the most hype surrounding a Presidential run ten years ago, and not only did she not run at all, she seems to have fallen off the radar altogether by now. Chris Christie was a freshly-elected Governor, and he did end up running in 2016, with very little success aside from giving Marco Rubio a humiliating debate defeat. Jim DeMint was perhaps the foremost conservative in the Senate ten years ago, and was widely thought to be a future Presidential candidate, but he ended up not running. Mitch Daniels was much discussed as well and he too did not run. Mike Pence was widely discussed as a candidate but he ended up running for Vice President in 2016 under Donald Trump rather than President. Paul Ryan too was thought likely to run but he likewise ended up as a running mate, and somewhat unexpectedly Speaker of the House later in the decade. Bob McDonnell was a freshly-elected Governor and he didn’t end up running, either. David Petraeus was floated for President around ten years ago but he wasn’t interested. Perhaps the flashiest ending to the “did not run” list ended up being Eric Cantor, widely talked about as a Presidential candidate in 2010, who not only didn’t run for President but ended up losing his seat to a Tea Party primary challenger just four years later.

Among the ones who did run and make waves, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul were expected to run in 2012 as of ten years ago and did. Jon Huntsman was perhaps the most promising Obama-like candidate that was available in 2010, and while he did run he did much worse than expected, as did Rick Perry. Herman Cain wasn’t really on the radar in 2010, but he ended up briefly leading in national polls in 2011 before flaming out. Rick Santorum wasn’t talked about much in 2010 either but he did better than expected late in the 2012 primary.

Michele Bachmann was widely talked about as a candidate, did run, but didn’t end up making much headway. Another Minnesotan, Tim Pawlenty, was widely speculated to be a formidable candidate in the future 2012 election as of 2010 only to flame out more or less completely during the actual campaign, doing much worse than expected.

2016 is somewhat more interesting, since people making predictions in 2010 had to think six years out instead of two years.  The 2024 and 2028 elections are at a similar temporal distance to us as 2016 was to people in 2010; there is already speculation out there about who will run then, so once again it may be useful to look back.

Looking through Wikipedia’s list of candidates for 2016, obviously the biggest surprise was Donald Trump. Looking beyond him, though, we see other symptoms of the populist anti-establishment trend. Many forget that the runner-up was Ted Cruz, who proved to be by far the strongest resistance Donald Trump faced in the whole cycle (Trump even admitted this recently); one reason was that he himself was a populist anti-establishment candidate, and like Obama he too was an inexperienced sitting Senator, and even an ethnic minority to boot. In 2010 Ted Cruz wasn’t even running for the Senate yet, being best known as Texas Solicitor General and being relatively obscure outside the conservative legal movement. John Kasich was running for Ohio Governor ten years ago, but as far as I know wasn’t being talked about as a future Presidential candidate. Marco Rubio was widely thought as a possible future President among Florida politicos, but had only started running for Senate as of ten years ago.

Perhaps most notably, in 2010 Ben Carson was already very famous for a neurosurgeon but as far as I know until the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast virtually no one suggested he would be President or even run; his campaign would have been more surprising than Trump’s to people from 2010, considering Trump had been toying with running since at least 1988. The fact that Carson was the only candidate to tie Donald Trump in national primary polls in 2016 after Trump took the lead in August 2015 would have come as a complete shock to most people ten years ago. Keep in mind that as of New Year 2010 neither Trump nor Carson were even Republicans. Such a fact in 2010 would have seemed more at home in post-apocalyptic fiction than real life to many people.

Jeb Bush running in 2016, on the other hand, was expected by many in 2010; the fact he lost would not have been unexpected either, though the depth and rapidity of his loss at the hands of Trump’s onslaught would have been surprising to many people. Trump succeeding at bashing the Bush family and John McCain and directly challenging the Iraq War and the post-9/11 neoconservative agenda should not have been too shocking, though, since many elements of the Tea Party were already there ten years ago.

Carly Fiorina was hyped up as a non-traditional candidate as early as 2008, specifically for John McCain’s Vice President, so her campaign wouldn’t have surprised people from 2010 at all. She briefly benefited from the anti-establishment wave in summer 2015 before flaming out for whatever reason, only to curiously re-emerge in 2016 as Ted Cruz’s running mate.

Bobby Jindal was one of the most prominent Republican Governors of his time and widely speculated as of 2010 as a future President, only to make virtually no headway in 2016. Scott Walker ended up in the same category, though he was not Governor yet as of ten years ago, so his future was much less certain than Jindal’s was at the time.

All this talk of the Republican primaries obscures the fact that there was also speculation about who would succeed Obama in 2010 after he completed his Presidency. Interestingly in 2010 Hillary Clinton did not appear to be the prohibitive favorite she was in the lead-in to 2016; 2010’s view proved to be more accurate, excepting those who thought Clinton wouldn’t run. Bernie Sanders mounted a historically strong challenge to such a formidable front-runner. Sanders, who as of 2010 was an independent famous for self-identifying as a “democratic socialist”, performing so strongly would have come as a great surprise to people a decade ago. Another surprise is that the Democratic bench became so thin in general by 2016.

So looking forward to 2024 and 2028, we should bake in a certain amount of the unexpected into any predictions. If the 2020s are anything like the 2010s there will be some formidable contenders for President most of us have never heard of, some we think formidable that are in reality paper tigers, and some we expect to do well and end up doing just that. Looking into a multitude of possibilities instead of the most likely or the most obvious will help us from being as dumbstruck as those who thought Brexit or Trump never had any chance of victory.

Of course, there is much more to a decade of history than electoral politics, and among the most important fields of human endeavor is the unlocking of new frontiers of technology and exploration. In our era the most prominent and the most important over the long term is spaceflight. As it turned out the 2010s present one of the most intriguing profiles of any decade in the history of spaceflight, in hindsight feeling like an inflection point, beginning with space exploration being on the decline as dusk set over an era and ending with what appears to be a resurgence of spaceflight and the dawn of a new era.

Fittingly for such a realignment of a field, leadership has shifted from a certain set of governments to a new set of businesses, albeit with the latter still subsisting off contracts from the former to a large extent (though with plausible plans to come out of that situation in the near future). The most advanced vehicle on offer in 2010 was, as depressing as it may seem looking back on it, still NASA’s Space Shuttle, originally designed in the 1970s. The crown at the end of the decade has to belong to SpaceX’s Starship, interestingly bearing a very close resemblance to the kind of ships old science fiction authors thought we would be flying into space in the year 2020. Starship did not end up flying in the 2010s, but by all accounts is almost certain to be a very prominent part of the 2020s.

As far as the 2010s go, by far the most notable accomplishment in spaceflight has to be the flyback boosters perfected by SpaceX in the middle part of the decade; most people don’t know that this fulfilled an old dream for the Saturn V’s first stage, which was slated for the next generation of NASA technology after Apollo, only for it (along with many other plans) to be cancelled to make way for the Space Shuttle. The Shuttle did not end up reducing space launch costs significantly, but SpaceX has already achieved very substantial cost reductions through the reusable booster technology, with much more still to come. In hindsight it is quite clear that flyback boosters were a much better idea than the Shuttle, though in all fairness to the NASA designers the original plans for the Shuttle did have a flyback first stage before it had to be made less ambitious.

Moving back to our decadal review, Elon Musk and SpaceX were obviously around as of December 31, 2009, but were still not very well known outside of space enthusiast circles. It also wasn’t at all clear that SpaceX would establish the commanding lead in space technology they ended up demonstrating in the 2010s, nor were the reusable boosters generally thought of as a technology that would be used routinely in only a few years. Almost no one other than Elon Musk expected Starship to have a prototype ready by the end of the decade.

Indeed, as mentioned earlier, Starship much more closely resembles older science-fictional ideas of what a future rocketship would look like than the “more realistic” science fiction and real-life concept renderings from more recent times. The 2000 film Mission to Mars is particularly illustrative here, and not just because it starred future speculated Presidential candidate Gary Sinise. The film is actually set in 2020 (though most of the plot takes place in 2021 and 22) and at least the technology of the titular mission was fairly “hard” science fiction, making for a good comparison, and 2000 is near the middle of the period when traditional rocketships were out of favor. Compare a screenshot or clip from Mission to Mars with the video renderings from SpaceX about a Martian voyage of Starship (or even the videos of the prototype) and it doesn’t even look like it’s from the same era; Starship seems much more advanced. The only advantage Mission to Mars’s ships have is the artificial gravity centrifuge, though even then Starship will get to Mars so much faster it isn’t really needed. Starship should also be able to easily ship large sections to Earth orbit and beyond for rotating-wheel space stations, much like those seen in both Mission to Mars and older science fiction.

The point is that after being told for decades that the traditional glamorous sci-fi-style rocketship is not a realistic future for spaceflight, it appears rather that the so-called “realistic” incremental improvements over Apollo-era space capsules were a dead end for the future. This is perhaps the most heartening of all the technological developments that have taken place in the 2010s, and certainly the most heartening for the long-range future as far as “atoms” are concerned, to use Peter Thiel’s dichotomy.

The other side of the dichotomy is of course “bits”, the virtual as opposed to physical world. What were people thinking that side of technological development would look like in the next decade as of December 31, 2009? I contend the decade was characterized by what may be called a physicalization of the virtual, of which the famous 2010s saying “software is eating the world” is but one symptom; the shift among tech elites to a much greater focus on “atomic” sectors like cars and spaceships than in previous decades is another.

For our usage of the Internet to evolve into its next stage with the commensurate benefits for mankind, it is necessary to restructure how we relate to physical objects in the same way the Internet has already restructured how we relate to their virtual counterparts. The parts of the physical world adjacent to the virtual or the most easily accessible from there are the first to feel the effects of the so-called “disruption”; this is where the ever-growing “sharing economy” and the “gig economy” enter the picture, along with the commensurate rise of “evasive entrepreneurialism”.

In recent history the world of “bits” has been (nearly) unregulated and filled with opportunities for profitable innovation, in stark contrast to the world of “atoms” where regulation was pervasive; thus extending the world of bits into the world of atoms, so necessary for social and technological advancement, necessarily flouts regulations, norms, and a multitude of entrenched corrupt interests within the ruling class. Naturally this creates social conflict between the incumbent ruling elite, the rising elites at the head of the social status hierarchies associated with these technologies, and the masses who have been (mis)ruled by the incumbent elite classes. This is the primary reason we saw anti-tech propaganda be newly prominent in the 2010s, because the ruling class gained some measure of awareness that the the Internet’s reformation is as big a threat to their own power as the printing press’s was to their post-medieval counterparts. This is a very long-range and deeply-rooted trend, and should be a major front in social conflict well into the 21st century, if not beyond.

Most people on December 31, 2009 were not cognizant of any of this nor would they have predicted it. They were not cognizant of another important technology, either: Bitcoin, which was invented a year earlier but was very obscure as of ten years ago. Satoshi Nakamoto’s invention of cryptocurrency, along with the blockchain technology it is based on, has represented the cutting edge of development in “bits” over the course of the 2010s. It has already revolutionized online markets in illegal goods such as drugs, and has been steadily spreading outward from there. Cryptocurrency adoption, while still small in the grand scheme of things, is far greater than anyone outside the community of enthusiasts would have predicted ten years ago. Blockchain enables peer-to-peer networks, including but not limited to finance, to be cryptographically secure in ways that previously were impossible.

This is very important since this is already enabling decentralized peer-to-peer systems to outcompete centralized systems in certain (as yet small) niches. To the extent authorities can exert any control at all over the individual Internet user it is by exerting pressure on centralized service providers, the most prominent example in the 2010s being social media companies. If the Internet becomes “re-decentralized” in the future, this becomes much harder. There are tentative signs the 2010s may have been the peak of this wave of centralization and the attendant effects. The social media landscape is more complex and fragmented, the “Fediverse” is significant as opposed to virtually nonexistent a decade ago, and in the most striking transformation of the decade Mark Zuckerberg went from “privacy is dead” in 2010 to the “pivot to privacy” in 2019.

Blockchain, peer-to-peer networks, and dark web technologies will all facilitate new possibilities of innovation and represent the best means of resistance to the effort to control the Internet, thus as that effort increases so too will the importance of these technologies.

Much less prominent in this role but also quite important developments in the 2010s include significant advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, as well as the advent of voice assistants. Apple Siri was only released in 2011, with Amazon Alexa, still the most popular on the market, following in 2014. Indeed voice assistants and their attendant technology, the smart speaker, have progressively stolen smartphones’ thunder over the years as the hot new technology. Smartphones are, of course, more of a 2000s technology considering the iPhone was released in 2007 and the idea of getting a new iPhone every year started to lose its luster as far back as the early 2010s.

Smart speakers are a very interesting development in another way: it is the first technology in the “bits” sector that has achieved mass adoption that does not involve looking at a screen, the interface instead being voice. This too signals a break with the traditional realm of information technology in favor of the physical world, being yet another example of physicalization. This break also represents the first decisive thrust toward the old dream of “ubiquitous computing” on a mass scale.

Back to the topic of what people in 2010 thought, few outside Silicon Valley thought having reliable voice interface that would prove popular enough for mass adoption was going to happen well before the end of the decade. This, interestingly, is yet another old science-fiction dream that forward-thinking people fell out of love with in the late 20th century that has made a return appearance in the 2010s. Most would not have predicted that as a theme of the decade, yet that has been the case to a more significant extent than most in recent history.

The stable of technologies outlined here that were obscure or nonexistent a decade ago represent the dawn of a technological landscape online that is quite different from the canonical list of Web 2.0 technologies. After all, a peer-to-peer darknet where people exchange cryptocurrency through voice commands to artificial intelligence software doesn’t sound at all like Web 2.0, yet that is not much beyond where we are right now. This, rather than any of the previous proposals for such a thing, constitutes the real “Web 3.0”. Even if the 2010s have not brought about the full-blown version, this may have been a decisive decade for its building blocks.

These three overarching themes of politics, spaceflight, and information technology are what come first and most prominently to my mind looking back a decade as the year 2019 and the 2010s decade come to a close tonight. There are certainly many other themes that can be and indeed are already being explored elsewhere, and even my own retrospective here is quite incomplete as you may imagine. More on the decade soon to be consigned to the past will be forthcoming as inspiration strikes and as relevant for later posts.

In the meantime, I wish everybody a happy New Year’s Eve.

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