Connectedness is now a given. Smartphones offer us advice, the Internet carries our voices and video, the cloud archives our data, and e-readers pull it to Earth again. We share all this stuff and more via our social networks. Behind the scenes, brainy grids juggle power, and vast military networks stretch out to robotic planes equipped with devastating firepower above distant battlefields. Nothing seems to happen anymore without global resources coming into play.
These technologies—and a few off-the-grid ones, like dazzling LED light sources—made the cut of our survey of the most consequential innovations to pervade our lives in the decade that just ended. Though many stemmed from discoveries made years or even decades earlier, only in the 2000s did their time truly come.
Our idea was pretty ambitious: to give you a compact and yet comprehensive and compelling guide to the state of technology a little over a decade into the 21st century. Technology moves fast, and although dozens of journals chronicle its esoteric little breakthroughs, and several newsstand magazines detail its human-interest stories and gee-whiz gadgetry, not many magazines ever try to give you an authoritative accounting of what the most important trends have been, where they came from, and where they are headed in the near term.
That's what we did here. You're welcome.
In selecting these 11 technologies for our list and ranking our picks, we strongly considered the technology penetration rate, as the MBAs call it—the speed with which the technology went from a promising possibility to dominance of some domain of human activity. How quickly and intensively the technology insinuated itself into our lives, in other words. And because we didn't want an issue that would have all the excitement of a B-school seminar, in finalizing our list we also included a fudge factor for sheer tech exuberance. That explains the inclusion of, for example, planetary rovers, which have not really changed life for us earthlings but have revolutionized space science, inspired intelligent people everywhere, and probably helped to entice at least a few bright youngsters into becoming engineers rather than hedge fund managers.
Our amazement at how these 11 technologies have transformed our lives was diminished only by our consideration of what this issue might have looked like had we done it a century ago
Our more attentive readers will note that we've broken with the practice of our past January surveys by ignoring the losers and dealing with only big and broad technology winners. The reason is simple: Here we're giving a backward glance rather than a prediction, so to finger losers would be too easy, even unsporting.
To be sure, any list will annoy the champions of the items that didn't make the cut. How could we possibly snub hybrid electric cars? Because as successful as they have been, hybrid electric cars still account for a very small percentage of auto sales worldwide. Why did we relegate tablet computers to a mere "honorable mention" in our survey? Well, as much as we love the iPad and are awed by its early success, it hasn't quite knocked laptops and netbooks out of the picture yet.
Our amazement at how these 11 technologies have transformed our lives was diminished only by our consideration of what this issue might have looked like had we done it a century ago. In that hypothetical January 1911 issue we'd have covered radio, the automobile, the airplane, the diode, the triode, movies, the mercury vapor lamp, the electrocardiograph, and—drumroll, please—cornflakes. All those things still flourish, and all but the last have markedly improved.
Finally, why 11 technologies? To paraphrase the motion picture This Is Spinal Tap, any top 10 list can have 10 entries. Ours has 11.
For all of IEEE Spectrum's Top 11 Technologies of the Decade, visit the special report.