The most impactful inventions change the way we live our daily lives. It seems we’ve just heard about them then all of a sudden, we can’t live without them. They can go in any direction once they leave the inventor’s hands and go out into the world. Some outcomes are good, some bad. Some problems they solve, some they create. From innovators and early adopters to laggards who only adopt a new thing when they’re forced to, the most impactful inventions touch us all. These are the 21st-century inventions that shape our day-to-day world.
We’re practically attached to them, so it’s hard to remember that the first iPhone came out just 15 years ago. Since then, smartphones have become our most prized possessions. They’re our digital assistants, reminding of us of what’s on our agendas today. They’re our cameras, with more photos taken on any given day than in the entirety of pre-smartphone human history. We watch TV on them, we surf the web on them, we run financial transactions on them. They’re little handheld computers, and they know more about us than anyone else in our lives.
The term is an imprecise catch-all. There were social networking sites before the turn of the century, but it’s the ones that exploded on the scene in the early 2000s that became ubiquitous. They connected real life to life online in a way that dominates our culture. When we pull out our smartphones, a great deal of the time we’re checking out what’s happening on social media. At its best, social media allows us to keep in touch with friends scattered all over. At its worst, it really can rot our brains.
Some of the most important 21st-century inventions are solutions to problems that come along with other inventions. With so much of life taking place online, we have a lot of personal data floating around out there that could really hurt us if it fell into the wrong hands. That’s especially true of financial transactions. What tokenization does is turn that sensitive data into undecipherable one-time-use tokens that leave no connection to the personal information that spawned them. It’s what enables us to make quick electronic payments without having to worry about our banking information being stolen.
The global positioning system itself isn’t a 21st-century invention. But until the year 2000, it was controlled by the U.S. military and not publicly available. Now, we’re out there driving or walking around using GPS navigation to find that new restaurant a mile from where we live. Many of us can’t go anywhere without it, and it’s opening up parts of the world that were extremely difficult to explore before. Road trips with a paper map? That’s so 20th century.
With increasing bandwidth on the internet and its takeover of technology, the ability to stream audio and video has changed the way we consume media. First, Napster (actually founded in 1999) shook up the music industry. Then Amazon Prime Video and Netflix began video streaming services. Now, there are more than 50 million cord cutters in the U.S., with more subscribing to streaming services every day. We listen to music on streaming services instead of physical media, and everyone you know has a podcast (invented in 2004). This year’s best picture Oscar went to CODA, released on Apple TV+.
A portable library that stores all your books in one handheld device, the device changed how we read and how we print. Suddenly you didn’t have to choose one beach book for vacation, you could bring them all with you in a handy tablet. With electronic paper rather than LED screens, you can get long battery life and limited eye strain that you couldn’t on a smartphone. More than half of American adults own an e-reader, and it’s forever changed the publishing industry.
Human Genome Map
The Human Genome Project began in 1990, but it was the publication of a “rough draft” of the human genome in 2000 that launched countless medical breakthroughs. Level “complete genome” was achieved in 2021 and the last sequence completed this year. Knowing what makes up our genes has led to treatments for all sorts of diseases, especially cancers, and provided a great deal of information about human evolution and prehistory. We are just beginning to tap into the potential of this knowledge, and it will lead to longer, higher-quality living.
The goodness is questionable, especially if you lost a lot of money in the latest crypto crash, but the impact is undeniable. Marketed as a decentralized alternative to government-issued fiat currency that puts the power in the hands of the holder, crypto’s widespread adoption has shaken up the financial industry. From the 2009 introduction of Bitcoin to today, more than a fifth of American adults have traded or used cryptocurrency, and if you watched the Super Bowl, which more than 100 million Americans did, you couldn’t escape it.
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