Only yesterday: A retrospective of the tech decade

Sakunthala
Dec 24, 2019 · 15 min read

I just turned 26, and having reached the end of a frenetic and turbulent decade, I am hoping to mellow out a bit. I feel very lucky to be part of the generation for whom the internet was a favorite childhood toy that we dragged with is into adulthood. I spent much of this decade around the tech world, in the Bay Area and otherwise, because like many others I was completely enamored with computers and the internet, and the utopian vision that came with it.

Now that ‘future’ is no longer a theoretical dream, I’ve been trying to articulate exactly that vision was, and what made it so attractive to me in the first place. Understanding the culture you grew up in is like listening into a dinner table conversation and trying to figure out what people are talking about, but I think the culture of 1989–2010 was uniquely complex. It’s almost hard to remember now, but the world really was run by cold and indifferent Kafka-esque bureaucracies, especially so to people outside the “mainstream”. Information flowed through only a few, tightly constricted channels — newspapers and TV. That system was dying, but was still called “the system”.

At the same time, there was a counterculture. The conversation was shaped by whatever happened the 60s, a worldwide cultural and religious revival that threw social norms into question and loosened patterns of behavior. If the new proto-belief systems that emerged around the world at that time had a common theme, it was a revolt against the mid 20th-century “system”.

I think the pre-2010 internet age was a strange moment of cultural confusion, of maximum pluralism and personal independence. The early internet grew up alongside a uniquely vibrant culture, new loud morals and hip pop culture, young cyberpunks and aging hippies. It was the perfect time to enjoy the pleasures of a big, messy, decentralized conversation.

The Secret Clubhouse

I have more memories of the beanie baby bubble than the “dot com” bubble, but I did catch some of the excitement second hand. I’m not sure if it was the crowd of screaming fans on Boxing Day waiting in line for the PlayStation2, or Toy Story and the first computer animated movies, but I always associated computers with the kind of happy anticipation that made moralistic adults complain the holidays had become too materialistic.

via reddit

The overnight fame and teenage millionaires were not the main attraction. The internet felt like our own secret clubhouse. In the mainstream media, the youth were depicted as superficial, brainless and quasi-criminal, wanting to dip their parents into a vat of gunge. The world seemed to be run by pompous stuffed suits and religious fanatics who wanted to ban piercings and rap music; the internet was a secret hideaway for misfits and hackers.

As a teen I wanted nothing more to make something like Napster, something that would be wildly popular and maybe controversial.. Filesharing was illicit fun, but also the ultimate way to stick it to the big corporations and loosen their grip on the dominant narrative. The draw of technology was to have a chance at shaping and influence the world around me. From MySpace to LiveJournal, the internet was ground zero for alternative culture; the home of vlogs and fanfics, Gawker and GameFaqs, conspiracy theories and atheism support groups.

Meeting up with internet ‘strangers’ as a teen was a favourite pasttime, even more so because of the moral panic around ‘chatrooms’. The internet was a subculture, and the people you met online were a similar type. I used to love news stories about teenagers who would run off to meet their internet boyfriend in another country — 10 years later in San Francisco I ran into someone who met her husband this way.

I loved hearing stories about teenagers who ran away to get married to someone in another country they met on a chatroom

I started programming around 2007, and perhaps the reason I got into computer graphics was because that was a great year for video games. Portal, Bioshock, Assassin’s Creed, Halo 3 — there was plenty of low-hanging fruit left in 3D gaming and genre-defining classics would come out every week. If I couldn’t create the next Napster, I dreamed of creating the next Grand Theft Auto.

The internet was purported to be for many things — for personal choice, for worldwide democracy, for the end of mass media, for globalization and a borderless world, for fulfilling intellectual work, for augmenting the human mind, for less centralized institutions. Most of all, it was for celebrating the divergent over the conventional, and allowing for greater personal freedom. It was these two ideas that made me and many others most excited about the internet’s potential.

One of the most memorable features of this period was the “internet martyr”. Every other week on Slashdot or Digg, there was a story about some hacker or dissident or religious non-believer somewhere being unjustly persecuted by their local authority, and the internet would rush to their defense. It was becoming harder and harder for big institutions to squash weirdos and those who simply wanted to live differently.

The End of the Beginning

If there was a turning point for the internet, I think it was April Fool’s Day, 2008, the day when memes went mainstream. By then so-called “normal people” were spending more and more of their time online, even if it was just to use Facebook. It was the year that it actually became clear the internet could influence real world outcomes. It was no longer limited to promoting bands on Myspace or publicizing the Blair Witch Project; some people were crediting the internet with helping elect America’s first black president.

Even before the Arab Spring, it was clear something special was happening. “Hacktivist” groups and petitions were growing more and more common; 4chan and Anonymous had gone from making prank calls about Battletoads to hacking Sarah Palin’s email account. It was the start of the personal essay, a medium for formerly voiceless people to announce their story. A new feminist movement started amongst teen girls on Tumblr. The first serious niche political movement emerged online — “libertarians”, a word that was not in widespread use before then. There was more anti-establishment sentiment, than there had been before — and not just amongst internet misfits, but increasingly amongst the ‘normal people’ who were just coming online. Everyone was in revolt.

And alongside all this nascent social change, were new dreams of internet stardom. The first internet celebrities had emerged on MySpace and now YouTube, and now startups were back, and in a big way. The pace of cultural evolution was so fast, following the new trends could be a full-time job. I had a punk rock zine where I tried to pick and write about bands before they’d become popular, pretty soon I was doing the same thing with websites. I was all about finding — or hopefully one day making — the next big thing.

I have always felt extraordinarily lucky to have grown up with the internet, and right at the start of this decade, the internet seemed to be really reaching its potential. It was around this time I first went out to San Francisco. Seen from above, the California landscape looks like an exaggeration of a mediterranean paradise, with a sea that is unnaturally blue, mountains that are impossibly lush, and a sun that looks too bright, like a special effect from the movies. In contrast to the dramatic landscape, all the markers of settlement, like houses and roads, looked makeshift, like they were drawn in with crayons. It all seemed curiously undiscovered.

The week I first landed was just after Facebook had bought Instagram, and the tech boom was just about to heat up. Even then, mainstream people did not take internet businesses seriously, so San Francisco tech people were a strange subculture. Before the gold rush, the mood was nerdy, speculative excitement, and many of the vague predictions made then turned out to be truer than anyone realized at the time.

I remember one party, there was one person who when I asked what he did, told me he was working on mining asteroids. Up to that point, that was the craziest thing I’d ever heard anyone say. I was amazed that level of ambition was tolerated, let alone encouraged. I wanted nothing more than to be part of it. It was one of the great openings in history, where you really could be an unknown teenager from an unknown place, and you really could create something so important used by millions or even billions of people, and nobody had really caught on to how important it could be.

The Digital Nomads

I think I went to university at the exact right time to feel the maximum stress of competitive individualism, as test scores were increasing, but before the the “snowflake” culture of campus politics arrived to soften the blow. The world had already felt harsh and alienating, but the bleak economic environment pushed people against each other even harder than before. One don described the hazing and drinking culture as likely to create the next generation of “insider traders, exchange rate riggers and corrupt Volkswagen engineers”. Nobody said it as plainly as an international student I knew, who had been the winner of a TV talent show in China: “life is a competition”.

I felt like if I wanted to make my mark on the world, I couldn’t trust the system to help . There seemed to be a lot of young people on a frenetic search for their place in the world. Around this time I read a magazine story about an Asian-American from Orange County who had quit school to go fight with the rebels in Libya called “Arab Spring Break”. There were other, less extreme stories: hacker collectives popping up in Berlin, digital nomads who used new services like Airbnb to move from country to country and of course, kids dropping out of school to get rich from startups. It all had a rebellious counterculture charm; a fun moment was when a newspaper columnist accused a friend of mine of being part of a “web-inebriated movement to abandon study for wealth”.

Digital nomads, taking advantage of low interest rates and Ruby on Rails

San Francisco was becoming the center of it all, which was strange, since it looked more like a novelty tourist destination then than the capital of anything. Everyone seemed to be moving out there, if not because they wanted to get in on the startup gold rush, then because they just wanted to be close to the action. Every day you’d hear news stories about people moving out of their dorm rooms to make it out west; it was the focus and meeting-place for the rootless. A couple of weeks after I arrived in California, Prop 8 was overturned, and I was greeted with the most exuberant gay pride parade I am ever likely to see; rainbow flags thrown out of windows, women on motorbikes, and smiling people waving and shouting “hooray!” Gay rights was an internet cause and at that moment it really felt like “we” were really starting to win.

The Bay Area, more than any other place, was (and still is) a place that celebrates people’s individual conscience, often to the extent of impractical self-righteousness (and far beyond that). The signs on the movie-set houses and lawns, and cars with highly opinionated bumper stickers reminded me of comments I read online. It felt like a place where the culture I had glimpsed on the internet had fully been brought to life. And it all seemed so fun, so innocently self-indulgent, charming, crazy, with it’s novelty foods, like sushi-burritos or avocado toast, or cronuts, it’s gorgeous scenery and it’s wild west highways.

This was the atmosphere in which what now seems like the blueprint for the 21st century was being drawn out. At a most basic level, startups were coming up with a new way of doing business, throwing out bureaucracies for nimble, mission-driven organizations. But it was also a breeding ground for new ideas about education (dropout culture, coding boot camps), the financial system (cryptocurrency), politics (libertarianism, social justice, basic income), urban planning (YIMBY, charter cities) and healthcare (quantified self, nootropics). It was the start of a total re-imagining of IRL to the specifications of a philosophy that was popular online, and plenty of people wanted to get rich making it happen.

The bizarre sociology of a gold rush can be summarized as: everyone believes their own life is going to turn out fantastically, so will tolerate any almost anything from other people. It is an atmosphere of extreme social disorganization. There was a moment where the advice given for all problems was “Just go start a company!”, even if you were 19 years old. I was living away from home for the first time, and it was the perfect way to go totally crazy. I remember walking around Palo Alto and having everyone I met that day promise me some new, fantastic opportunity. There was a sense that we really were on the verge of something special, we could throw all the old rules out of the window, we could have everything we ever wanted and everything would be fine. And underneath all the optimism was the shaky suspicion that it couldn’t possibly last, and a constant anxiety that it was about to all come crashing down.

The types of people who participate in a ‘gold rush’ are weirdos, the adventurous and energetic, shady characters, and those with an abnormal lack of social ties. The frenzied atmosphere of lost boys (and sometimes lost girls) made me feel like I had arrived in America on a ship in the early 20th century. There were so, so many immigrants; I remember hearing about a teenager from Turkey who was being paid illegally in bitcoin, then a thrilling novelty. I ran into several people, from Singapore, Switzerland, Israel, who were only there to avoid military conscription of young men. My acquaintances showed up every other week in Gawker, and mainstream newspapers wrote about the money-crazed antics of Google interns. It was during this time period that tech people started talking about Roko’s Basilisk and avocado toast, polyamory became a popular experiment and people started experimenting with microdosing.

There was a real sense of romantic desperation. People would live out of vans, or sleep in other people’s offices. There were self-help authors teaching the new immigrants basic social skills so they’d be able to get dates. People in general seemed more interested in individual success than self-respect; I particularly remember a story about two people living in a basement trying to make money from a gif porn scraper. Alongside the open-source hippies and bearded techno-idealists were those who were gaming the system with no pretense of higher principle, people selling bogus supplements and throwing launch parties using other people’s money.

What happened to San Francisco was sort of like that scene in ‘There Will Be Blood’, where the prospector finally strikes oil and it erupts dramatically into the air, spraying everything in its reach. Rent began it’s 5 year climb through the roof, and the eccentric dreaming started to diverge with the reality of what the city was becoming: the world’s economic cutting-edge. But for a wonderful short while, in the 18 months spanning 2013 and 2014, the old and the new city co-existed.

In that time the mood speeded up and turned darker, and crazy things happened in too fast a succession to really understand the changes they represented. Ambitions became wilder, people started to talk seriously about California secession and curing aging so we might live forever. I more than once ran into screenwriters hanging around looking for crazy stories to turn into material. There was an extravagant Hobbit-themed wedding, the Snowden revelations further eroded trust in government, the drug kingpin running the Silk Road marketplace turned out to live two blocks away from me. It became normal for startups to have beer in their offices, and new millionaires would throw big parties in their houses.There were altercations at gentrification protests and stories of people being punched in bars for wearing Google Glass. Through some obscure connection I found myself backstage after a gig with Trent Reznor. Popular apps turned more frivolous, from Snapchat to Secret to “Yo!”. People cheered when the coder behind Minecraft outbid Jay-Z and Beyonce for a mega-mansion.

I was an intern working 60 hour weeks through all this rapid change, madness and excess. It was a recipe for total burnout. The Sunday morning before I left for school I remember crashing on someone else’s couch and waking up to an earthquake causing a laptop screen to smash on the floor.

Aftermath

By the time I graduated and moved back out to California in 2015, things had calmed down significantly. It was like waking up after a long, frenetic dream, and the world had been turned upside down by the changes I had only just begun to understand. Tech companies were the biggest in the world, San Francisco had become the #1 destination for the young and ambitious, the tech hippies had in some sense taken over. It was an exaggerated version of what I had felt after the Prop 8 repeal: that “our” way of doing things had won. And almost immediately, the mood started to darken, as problems with the ‘new economy’ started to be articulated.

I had changed too. I was a mixed-race immigrant who told people my home was “the internet”. Most of the people I knew were people I’d met during the tech boom. I loved the soft-hearted freedom and dynamism of California, and desperately wanted it to stay that way forever, but perhaps that was a bit like wishing for eternal youth. I wanted it to stay that way so badly, I spent ages writing about productivity growth, defending the new economy, and trying to work out the problems with technology, without realizing how gargantuan, painful and likely decade-long a task this would be.

Writer Virginia Postrel has an idiosyncratic definition of “glamour”: something full of mystery and promise. It is something that gives you a glimpse of a better life, but that you don’t understand well enough to see its flaws. Skyscrapers are the perfect visual metaphor for extrapolative expectations. Grand, aspirational, just out of reach — and they are a lagging indicator, usually built at the end of a boom. The construction of the Empire State Building began in 1929. And, right on cue, San Francisco got its own record-breaking skyscraper completed in 2017.

I wasn’t the only one; during early 2016 I went to more than one “green card party” to celebrate the immigrants who moved during the boom settling down for good. Many of the artists and eccentrics who lived in San Francisco had been priced out and the people for whom startups were a get-rich-quick scheme went back east to get real jobs. Others who had made money left to go wandering around Europe in search of some other romantic paradise. One person I knew who had lived a nomadic lifestyle earning income from Google Ads arbitraging, gave that up to go to medical school. The disruption and social disorganization had slowed and there was much more pressure on people to settle down and find their place in the world. Unable to live in California during 2017 I moved back to London, and was drawn into a very different society, that was also changing dramatically.

London in 2017 was surprisingly disorienting, and felt to me like a completely different place. When I left the country had been hit hard by the economic crisis, but when I came back, though the crisis was still going on, the neighbourhood I grew up in had gentrified and was full of cafes and art students. Social attitudes were softer and cuddlier, there were way more continental Europeans and people made more references to popular culture. The media incorporated slightly more diverse perspectives, everyone seemed crazy for WhatsApp and Twitter, and entrepreneurial San Francisco trends were all the rage. It was like walking into a strange, left-libertarian alternative reality, like a weird 90s Californian fever dream version of my former life. It was proof to me that the internet — alongside other trends — did change something.

Even though technological disruption is difficult to deal with, the internet boom should not be remembered primarily for it’s flaws. The internet did promise and deliver on several huge things — economic prosperity, ending the possibility of totalitarian government, and most importantly a culture that incorporates a wider array of perspectives, as well as being more encouraging of individual ambition. Those are all huge accomplishments, and a massive change from the world of 2010. I think it was well worth the price of the huge social disruption, ugly political arguments and frayed relationships that have characterized this decade. At the end, even though not everything worked out for the best, it’s still a better world than the one we started with.

Though no longer a crazed youth, I still want to focus on working on the future of computing, though perhaps in a less frenetic way. I’m tired of fighting, but still want to invent something new, and perhaps this is a good time — perhaps the information-technology industry is “mature” enough to no longer be that socially disruptive, whilst still having space for radical technological ideas. The computer revolution isn’t finished yet, but I would guess we’re finished with the bloody part.

As I say, it’s been a turbulent decade. I’m mostly happy that the unpredictable part is over, and we know the internet economy mostly works, and the cultural conversation can get better. I did wonder if I’d no longer be interested in technology without the promise of a radical unknown future, but that wasn’t the case. The changes brought about by the internet will be with us for some time, and many people will probably spend a large part of the next decade thinking about how to make it work. It’s a fascinating, complex challenge, that will probably define the world well into the next century. Why wouldn’t you be interested?

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