The Evolution of Digital Culture

This timeline is meant to work with the book Digitized Lives by T.V. Reed.The timeline uses major devices, apps, platforms, pop cultural and political events to mark shifts in the evolution of digital cultures -- the inter-personal relationships that have developed over the Internet and related digitized spaces. The point is not the products cited but rather the products as indicators of interactions they helped enable or constrain. Napster, the iPod and later iTunes, for example, are cited to mark moments when digital tech was transforming the way people experienced recorded music.

Timelines are a crude way to render history. All timelines are selective; there are many other items that might be added but those cited should give some sense of major moments when technical and social forces combined to further digitize aspects of many people's lives. Exact dating of ongoing phenomena is also impossible. Where exact starting dates within a given year of launch is not known, I have used Apr 1 as a placeholder date, with April Fool's Day perhaps an apt notation for the foolish idea of pinning down social time in this way.;xNLx;This graphical representation relies heavily on major electronics corporate developments that, while important, cannot really tell us how these various digital tools are used by actual people. That requires the kind of social contextualization briefly noted here and found in more depth in the book.

Blade Runner

Digital cultures have long been entangled with science fiction films, TV shows, books and games. The interaction works both ways, with new developments in tech shaping how artists imagine the future, as well as technologists building devices under the influence of s/f. Some have traced the impact of Star Trek on the early design of the flip phone, for example. And the release of the Ridley Scott directed film Blade Runner in 1982 represents a pop culture moment expressing, among other things, anxiety about a future in which human beings are replaced by humanoid robots (replicants), and distinct national cultures become a multicultural melange. But it also gives technology a glamour that helped shape acceptance of the emerging digital world.

Net Neutrality

A concept coined by Professor Tim Wu of Columbia university, net neutrality argues that government policies should prevent large telecommunications cartels (like Comcast, Verizon or AT&T in the US) from discriminating against smaller internet service providers by offering their own products at faster rates than those of competitors. Under net neutrality, for example, an ISP cannot get paid by a firm like Netflix to slow down other competing streaming movie services. Net neutrality keeps large corporations from fully dominating the Internet, allowing ordinary users to access a broader range of content. Net neutrality became official US policy in 2015 under the Obama administration, but is currently under assault by the Trump regime.

Edward Snowden Revelations

In June of 2013, Edward Snowden, an intelligence officer under contract to the US government, released a large cache of documents revealing the extent to which the US and it allies were illegally spying on foreigners and their own citizens. The documents also revealed that telecom companies (like Verizon) and electronics corporations (like Google) were complicit in massive surveillance programs, including many not authorized by official policy. The leaks led to charges of espionage against Snowden by the US Justice Department, and set off a major debate about his status as either a heroic whistleblowing patriot or a traitor to his country. Whatever his status or motives, the revelations unleashed a vitally important political conversation about electronic surveillance by government agencies. Snowden remains active in work to limit such surveillance while in exile in Russia.


eBay was the first major and still most successful online auction site and as such represented a new kind of e-tail sharing.

Assault on Net Neutrality & Privacy Laws

Under the administration of US president Donald Trump a number of laws and regulations protecting internet privacy began to be undermined or repealed. In March of 2017, Congress passed legislation allowing ISP (internet service providers) to sell users personal information to advertisers. Trump's appointee to the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) has outlined a clear agenda of deregulation that favors the largest telecom corporations and will largely end Net Neutrality, while also allowing them to further intrude on the privacy of US citizens.

The Internet of Things

The concept of the Internet of Things refers to the more direct integration of the physical world into computer-based systems in homes, vehicles, businesses, and in the human body itself. The term dates from 1985 but it is in the second decade of the 21st century that the term becomes widely used, and widely recognized as an expanding phenomenon. IoT includes a wide variety of "smart objects," devices that can be remotely controlled over a digital network. This can include things like smart homes where lighting, heating, and other features can be controlled remotely. Self-driving vehicles tied into a traffic monitoring system are one popularly cited use. Or health monitoring devices networked to a physician's office or hospital. The latter includes devices worn on the body, but also include another deeper level of invasiveness, the implanting of sensors in the individual body. Some of these smart devices use sensors that make automatic adjustments, others leave the adjusting to human decision making. A major concern about the IoT is that it well enable increased surveillance and open more processes to invasion by malicious hacking.


Giving a birthday to digital culture is an inherently arbitrary thing. Depending on one's definition, the starting point can be set back at least as far as the first digital computers in the 1940s, and as late as the 1990s. But with that caution in mind, October 29, 1969 can make a pretty good claim on being the birthday of digital culture, since it stands nicely as the birthday for the force at the center of most digital culture, the Internet. On that date ARPANET, the great-great grand ancestor of the contemporary Internet, came online. ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) was a created under the auspices of US Department of Defense. The original Net grew in part out of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the US, specifically out of a desire to create a decentralized communication network that could survive a nuclear. war. On that October day, the first internet message was sent between UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) and Stanford University. In what was a harbinger of things to come, the first attempt to send the message, in this case the word 'login,' failed. Instead, all that was transmitted was the first two letters, creating the mysterious message: 'lo.' However the message may have been interpreted at the time, we can now say that it might best be decoded as, Lo and Behold, digital culture is born. Over the next couple of decades, ARPANET expanded and morphed into increasing larger and more public networks that by the mid-1980s had become the basic structure of Internet we know today.


The idea of images and messages that would appear, then disappear, through a self-delete function, found its social media form with Snapchat. While perhaps most (in)famous for encouraging 'sexting,' the platform has a wide selection of features and uses. Users have the illusion that their images disappear forever, but as with all things digital disappearance is a relative concepts. Snapchat pics still exist in the hidden wastelands of digital space, and can sometimes be embarrassingly made to reappear.


Netflix became, in a few years after its founding in 1997, the leading mail order provider of movies. Providing films on DVD (digital video disk), allowed them to compete with and eventually drive most video stories out of business. In 2007 it expanded beyond DVDs (it had rented more than 1 billion by that point) to become a movie streaming service. Like the music business before it, the film industry saw businesses like Netflix as preferable to movie pirating (though that practice continues) and eventually all major studios sold streaming rights to Netflix. It now controls more than 1/3 of the entire market for films streamed over the web, and in 2013 expanded once more, this time into movie production.


While the term "gamification" dates back to at least 2002, the year 2010 seems to be the moment when the concept really took off. Gamification means to turn something not previously thought of as a game into one. Gamification is being applied across a range of social territories. In business, increasing numbers of stores are using games as a way to lure customers online (where they can log your taste preferences) and to deepen brand loyalty. Think of the Foursquare game at Starbucks or Nike's + platform. While business gamiifcation seems solely designed to increase profits, gamification is also being used in science and healtlh, in education, and for the purposes of positive political change. In the field of education many folks are working to get beyond the bad reputation that educational games once had to produce engaging and enlightening games that teach real thinking, not just rote learning. The most famous example of its use in the pursuit of science is probably Foldit, a protein folding game that helped solve a major problem in disease research. Jane McGonigal is the most widely cited game designer arguing that games can be used to help solve large-scale social problems like climate change.

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