1. Opinion

LeMieux: From iPhones to Facebook, technology changes the world

Facebook has 2 billion users — 30 percent of the world’s people.
Facebook has 2 billion users — 30 percent of the world’s people.
Published Jul. 5, 2017

Last week, as America focused on the Senate's attempts to pass health care reform, the latest mass shootings in the Bronx and Arkansas, and another 140-character attack by the leader of the free world, two important and related milestones were realized.

First, the iPhone celebrated its 10th anniversary. Since its launch in 2007, the iconic smartphone has sold more than 1.2 billion units and transformed the mobile phone from a device for phone calls and texts to a handheld computer platform of limitless applications. The word "revolutionary" is overused, but for the iPhone it is spot-on. Not since the advent of the telephone, radio, automobile and television have the lives of Americans been so profoundly changed.

This past week also featured a stunning announcement from Facebook. The social media giant reported that its platform now has 2 billion subscribers. That's almost 30 percent of the world's population! When you subtract more than 3 billion people who live in dire poverty worldwide, and the 1 billion-plus children, you come to the conclusion that most every adult of some means is on Facebook. Surely an accomplishment of that magnitude took decades to achieve.

It took 13 years.

By comparison, it took Christianity some 2000 years to have 2.2 billion adherents. Islam, a mere 1,400 years old, has fewer subscribers than Facebook — only 1.8 billion.

As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman explains in his recent book, Thanks for Being Late: An Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, the world is transforming at a dizzying pace. Not since Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440 has technology had such a profound and destabilizing impact on the world. The printing press' transmission of quick and accurate information created literacy among lay people. That in turn deprived priests of the sole dominion of reading and teaching the Bible, leading to the division of Christianity into Catholics and Protestants and a 30-year war in Europe. Readily available writing also led to scientific breakthroughs and the Age of Enlightenment, which ended the age of kings and sowed the seeds of the American experiment.

The societal, political and cultural changes we are experiencing due to the Internet, handheld computers, social media and artificial intelligence are equally profound. Terrorists are recruited online, one-third of U.S. marriages start with online dating and every day technology kills another job, from the tollbooth operator, to wait staff (where iPads are used for ordering), to retail store clerks as more sales are made online. In truth, no job, not even computer programming, is safe from elimination by technology. Politics is no less susceptible to the influences of technological transformation. President Barack Obama used online fundraising to fuel an underdog candidacy against heavily favored Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary. President Donald Trump uses Twitter to speak directly to his supporters and as a rhetorical weapon against his foes in the media. And technology, namely hacking, was the implement the Russian government used in its efforts to undermine our election.

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Technology and its acceleration is the destabilizing, disruptive and transformative force of our times. It may cure cancer and lead to the end of our cultural, religious and political institutions as we know them, all within our lifetimes. To make matters more interesting, the speed of change is likely to increase, not decline. Drones, self-driving cars, computer screen glasses: here, almost here, and coming soon.

I once thought that a person born in 1900 who lived to 1970 would experience an unmatched lifetime of innovation — from the first flight of the airplane to the moon landing. Now, for my four children ages 7 to 14, I can only imagine what they will see during their lives. It is an extraordinary time to be alive, but accelerating technology will be as disruptive as exciting.

Buckle up, America!

George LeMieux served as a Republican U.S. senator, governor's chief of staff and deputy attorney general.


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