How Does It Know?

Craig Douglass On Consumers

How Does It Know?

Remember Y2K? If you were born before, say, 1984 (that would have made you 15), you possibly do. Now, I don’t mean the always-anticipated Times Square “ball drop” signaling a New Year, new decade, new millennium. Nope. I mean the worldwide anxiety that the turn of the century — the literal time-captured turn of the century beginning at 12:00:01 a.m. — would mean catastrophic computer failures. We’re talking computers that ran everything from planes in the air and nuclear-tipped missiles in the ground to television broadcasts and water treatment plants.

But nothing much happened.

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Y2K did focus us, however, on our growing dependence on technology, including the Internet (still called by some at the time the “information superhighway”). And that dependence is now pervasive in all aspects of our lives and institutions: government, communication, education, health care, environment, transportation, business, agriculture, safety and so much more.

The latest turn of the century was 20 years ago. The turn to a new decade, the 2020s, is with us here and now. So, as is the wont of writers and editors, lists are published marking notables of the year now spent or, in our case here, 10 years, the whole of the elapsed decade.

Consumer Reports published the day after Christmas their list version titled, “The Most Influential Products of the Past Decade.” As they describe it, it’s their editors’ picks for the products and services that defined the 2010s. Here is our abridged and commented-on inventory.

My morning paper is now read on an iPad. The Sunday edition is still printed and delivered, but I choose not to wrestle with newsprint. I’ve been converted. And what is making this experiment in journalism and advertising possible was introduced by Apple to consumers at the beginning of the decade, in 2010. One of my doctors uses it, too, when making a record of my visit. And when the tab is paid at a favorite Italian restaurant, the credit card is swiped on the iPad, which also accepts my finger-directed signature.

“Alexa, how many words in this column?” “Too many,” she retorts. We’ve forgotten that Alexa is the name of the Amazon Echo, introduced in 2014. Now Alexa adjusts the thermostat and the lights, starts the oven and plays “The Best Is Yet to Come” by Frank Sinatra. Oh, “The 1964 version with Count Basie, please.” Wonder if she listens to every conversation in the house and reports keyword data to the home office?

Netflix and streaming video put us in charge of not only relevant and many times excellent content, but this delivery method instantly connects us with events and news as they happen in real time (a now-overused term). While sitting in a dark theater watching a movie that was just released, which still is preferable, I find that if I want to watch it again, it most likely will be streaming in a day or two (“The Irishman,” “The Two Popes”).

The technology of electric vehicles has been around. The commercial development and marketing of renewably fueled cars, however, has not met with much success until this recent decade. Tesla’s Model S, introduced in 2012, was a game-changer (also an overused term). Consumer Reports measures and tests the evolving Tesla models’ performance and customer satisfaction. And they measure up. An adequate national network of charging stations is next.

Has animal protein been put out to pasture? Not really. Not yet. Plant-based burgers and other protein substitutes are not your father’s veggie burger, though. They actually cook and taste like the real thing. My Impossible Burger Whopper proved it. At least to my doubting buds.

Video cameras are everywhere. And they capture your image, while we remain oblivious. We can be blivious, however, that our image will be recorded and streamed at the front door through Ring Video Doorbell, which went to market in 2014. This “digital eye,” as Consumer Reports calls it, stakes out the front door and can be connected to other cameras around the residence, inside and out. Whither privacy?

These are just a few decennial observations. They reside with AirPods, OLED TVs and even Instant Pots!

But as a friend recently observed, “Still doesn’t beat the invention of the Thermos bottle!” How does it know?

Craig Douglass is executive director of the Regional Recycling & Waste Reduction District in Pulaski County. Email him at