The 2000s: Most Disruptive Decade Since World War II

Google hit its stride, the iPhone debuted and the internet and social media gave the masses a voice

2000s
The Aughts were defined by war and bookended by fear and hope. - Credit by Sources: Library of Congress, Getty Images, Courtesy of Tom Anderson
Headshot of Josh Sternberg

This article is part of a series celebrating our being 40 Years Bold, highlighting four decades—and counting—of Adweek, whose editors look back at notable news, trends and people, and at what could be in store for the next 40 years.

Our 20s are a transitional time. We leave the confines of our parents’ rule and enter the harsh realities of the working world. We start a career. Our brains mature. Our bodies hit their peak. Statistically, most of us meet our spouse.

My 20s, long in my rearview mirror, coincided with the most disruptive decade since World War II: the 2000s, a period defined by war and bookended by fear and hope.

The Aughts had everything: economic recessions (two of them!); a terrorist attack on U.S. soil; wars (two of them!); and the introduction of arguably the most important instrument since the airplane.

Businesses and society grappled with a potentially crushing Y2K bug, while a dot-com bubble ensconced us in a false sense of security.

As the century flipped to 2000, I was a 22-year-old kid fresh out of college, driving down from New Jersey to the Florida Everglades to see Phish, the jam band from Vermont. I went with a bunch of friends in multiple cars using Rand McNally road maps and CB radios to communicate.

I was glad to be alive, ringing in the millennium with 80,000 of my closest friends, obviously not knowing that in four short years a company (read: Facebook, founded 2004) would serve as the conduit for 2.7 billion “friends.” 

While some of us had cellphones, the technology had yet to hit its stride with the masses. It wasn’t until October 2001 that 3G hit the Japanese market, after the U.S. would learn about the limited use of its mobile technology on a random gorgeous Tuesday morning the month before.

I woke up that morning to a phone call—on my landline. It was my first day of graduate school, and I overslept. So when the phone rang, I figured it was my mom calling to wake me up. I was both right and wrong. It was my mom, but she was calling me to turn on the TV, an old CRT hulking box of electronics. (I was five years away from my first flat-screen TV, a 52-inch Sharp Aquos.) 

Frantically, I got dressed and drove up the New Jersey Turnpike, where I saw the billowing black smoke. I had Howard Stern on the radio, and it started to sink in that this was not a joke. When I got to school, where I was also a graduate assistant, I began calling friends and family I knew who worked in the World Trade Center and at the Pentagon. 

On a day that I remember being eerily silent, outside of those last moments before the buildings fell, the only sounds that stick: the busy signal of my futile attempts to reach everyone, and the beeping sound of my colleague’s Nextel phone, which was the only cellphone that worked because its tower was not atop 1 WTC. 

We live in the shadow of Sept. 11, 2001, and today I think how my kids, currently ages 5 and 2, will learn about it through Google. It’s a keystroke for them. And then I start thinking about the outsize role Google plays in our lives, and it all started in this decade. 

The search giant was born in 1998, but it took the 2000s, and the company going public in 2004, for it to really get its engine revving. Got a new job? You sent an email through Gmail (2004). Wanted to learn how to tie a tie for that interview? You went to YouTube (founded 2005; bought by Google 2006). Needed directions to the office? Google Maps (2005). Needed a reminder for when the interview is? Google Calendar (2006). 

Of course, at the time I had no qualms about tying my life to one particular company. The idea of privacy and data being nefarious tools for companies was on the periphery. What was of interest was the idea that a democratized media could give power to anyone with a keyboard and internet connection. With the introduction of blogging platforms (LiveJournal and Blogger in 1999, the latter bought by Google in 2003), the fringe could become mainstream. The 2000s fractured media, and as a newly minted college professor, I knew this was big.

And then, in 2007, the iPhone changed everything—from the way we think to the way we behave. There’s a 50% chance you’re reading this on a smartphone. Hopefully, not while driving. And with the ushering in of this device, new software, platforms and ways of life have followed. Twitter, founded in 2006, didn’t become a thing until after the introduction of the smartphone. The app economy led to the gig economy. Uber doesn’t exist without the iPhone.  

"The iPhone changed how we think and how we behave."

The end of the decade saw our first African-American president preside over the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression. We were looking for something, anything, to give us hope. 

In December 2010, a self-immolating fruit seller sparked the Arab Spring, a movement organized through platforms like Twitter. This gave rise to the idea that social media could be a force of good, a hope that would eventually turn to fear.

Check out the rest of Adweek’s 40th anniversary coverage:

This story first appeared in the Dec. 9, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@joshsternberg Josh Sternberg is the former media and tech editor at Adweek.
Publish date: December 8, 2019 https://stage.adweek.com/digital/why-the-2000s-were-the-most-disruptive-decade-since-world-war-ii/ © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT
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