Ten Years And Tremendous Change: Reflecting on the Technology Changes Between Sept 11, 2001 and Bin Laden’s Death

A few weeks ago our friend from Delhi, India visited. As a WSJ reporter, Shefali is naturally inquisitive, so she asked: “Jon, what was your reaction to the Bin Laden death?”

After some thought, I responded: “It made me realize exactly how much technology has changed over the past decade.”

Flash back to Tuesday September 11, 2001. I was driving from Jackson, MI to Mackinac Island. I was anxiously watching the clock because at 9 AM I needed to find a store that sold CDs. Bob Dylan’s Love And Theft album was dropping; as a huge Dylan fan I could not wait to hear the follow-up to the near flawless Time Out of Mind. I pulled off at a few exits but came up empty. Finally, I found a Walmart in Mt. Pleasant.

I was no more than fifteen feet into the Supercenter when a man came up to me. “We’re under attack!”

“What?” I asked the man. He was straddling the line between burly and obese, and dressed in camouflage.

“They – Saudi Arabia – or one of those countries – attacked New York.” To this day, I’m still impressed that the man fingered Islamic extremists. My initial reaction, I’m embarrassed to say, was Russia, maybe China. A decade since the end of the Cold War and that was still my lens.

After digesting the news in the electronics section, we canceled the Mackinac trip and turned back to Jackson. When we arrived home, we tuned into cable news. Like fifty percent of the homes in the nation, the house did not have Internet. With the Towers felled, the Pentagon ablaze and a mysterious plane down in Pennsylvania I was left with one final task: find out how my friends in New York and Washington were doing. I paced around the house, dialing friend after friend on an old, clunky cordless phone. At 7 PM, I switched to my Motorola StarTac.

Flash forward to May 1, 2011. In many ways, very little has changed. We still put pants on in the morning, use a stove to cook breakfast, a car to get around. When it is hot, we put on air conditioning; when it is cold we turn up the thermostat.

The way we gather and share information, however, has changed dramatically. Music is the first example. September 2001 was the crossroads for the music industry. In the preceding months, Napster launched, disrupted the music industry forever, and then shuttered. The world had a taste for digital distribution but there was no easy-to-use, reliable portable music system. That would not happen for another two months: Apple shipped the first iPod on November 10, 2001. So on that fateful morning when I wanted my Dylan, I knew the CD would soon be anachronistic but it was the only solution. And I wasn’t alone. Music sales hovered around $14b in 2001. Today, sales are half that and falling precipitously.

Perhaps the biggest revolution during the 10 years between September 11 and Bin Laden’s death is the ubiquity of the Internet and the platforms it has enabled. In 2001, it was completely normal for a middle-class, educated home in the richest nation on the planet to not have Internet. Now, not only do most American’s have Internet but the Internet has become accessible and powerful in developing nations, such as Pakistan. Over the last decade, Internet access in Pakistan has grown 1,000-fold to reach 10% of the population, or about 17 million people. In short, we’ve gone from a world where a comfortable American could not email friends from home to one in which a man in Abbottabad, Pakistan can broadcast – in real time and at zero cost – the raid on Bin Laden’s compound.

Lastly, and most obviously, the way we connect has changed. In 2001, communication was “one-to-one,” meaning I called or emailed friend X, then friend Y and so on. Facebook and Twitter, which would not be invented for another two and half years and five years, respectively, enable “one-to-many” communications. These services are incredibly efficient during times of distress. Had Facebook been as ubiquitious as it is today, it would have taken me just a few seconds to learn the status of the dozen or so people I knew in New York.

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