Best Invention of the Last 20 Years?

Meg‘s comment on my post about TiVo (note to self, add TiVo to iPhone as a topic that gets lots of comments) got me thinking about the best of the last 20. She said:

I have said often that Tivo is the best invention of the last 20 years, in my life it is equal to the remote control and far surpasses things like wireless networking and digital cameras (which I love).

At its basest form, blogging is about opinion, i.e. your own and maybe some others for “balance”. Meg brings up an interesting point, not only about how much TiVo rocks, but also about comparison.

Is it fair to compare TiVo with wireless networking and digital cameras? So, for giggles, let’s have an good old town hall around this topic.

What is the best invention of the last 20 years? Bonus points for why. If you’re wondering, here are a few arbitrary ground rules.

There aren’t any, aside from the last 20 years bit. I tried to come up with some guidelines, but I’m pretty sure the fun (if any is to be had) of this exercise lies in an open field. I’m interested to hear thoughts.

Here are a few I like, obviously focused on stuff I use every day, not picking a favorite:

  • Digital Video Recorder, i.e. TiVo
  • The cellular telephone
  • The World Wide Web, i.e. consumer version of ARPANET
  • The digital camera
  • Satellite and cable television

This is food for thought. Find the comments and share your thoughts.




  1. I think Meg's comment illustrates that when it comes to stuff, applications have more uh, “killerness” than infrastructure. Yet, it's the infrastructure that makes the bigger real difference.

    I think back to 20 years ago, and scratch my head about the best thing since then. That was just about the time I was flaking out, burned out on technology and even the single life. So if you had asked the then-me based on what I know now, I probably would say facebook, which is something I don't even use, and would perhaps creep the ladies out if I did now, not to mention the wife.

    All the usual suspects, just seem to add to stress, not reduce it. I've even gone back to a (kinda cool skeleton) wind-up watch, after so many years of Data-Link stuff and thinking I'd want a Dick Tracy wrist video-phone. Effin' internet, just makes me worry about iTheft – just last week got a fraud call from business card, only used that sucker at Knott's, no I didn't buy toys in New York. I'd rather read the newspaper on the train than be connected, I'm online all day (and, rarely, half the night). Best picture in my house is on the 1980 vintage Sears 19″ (with ultrasonic remote, no less), 48″ HD needs adjustment. Flickr logins screwed up since Yahoo got involved. Camera's mean wife makes me do all downloads after her friends screw up USB and dueling photo apps have their way. Already had cable 20 years ago, I can still see some 12'+ dishes on concrete foundations at various neighbors. Already was working remotely with multiuser OS, so that's not new. Blogging wipes out informed debate. William Gibbons was an optimist.

    So I'll go with google, even if it scratches nails on the chalkboard of formal design and really isn't worth more than General Motors. At least I can look up William Gibbons.

  2. Maybe you were thinking of Peter Gibbons?

    To your point, you think Google over its reason to exist, the WWW? Odd. I'm tempted to add email to the list, the boring kind I had in the early 90s. Remember Emacs and Pine as mail clients. I have a friend who only reads email in Emacs. Not kidding.

  3. i think one of the most interesting inventions of the last 20 years has been the wind-up radio (Joel's mention of the wind-up watch reminded me). It has brought radio to many parts of the world that never had it before. In the same breath the $100 wind-up laptop is an important invention.

  4. Wow, I've never heard of a wind-up radio. Sounds very cool and definitely useful. How strong is its receiver? I would think that radio stations would also be in short supply in some parts of the world.

  5. I have to vote for the WWW. It continues to be the Petri dish for sweeping technological, sociological, cultural, and economic change. I spent 25 years working in blue collar jobs until the Web made possible a rather profound career change, 11 years ago this month.

    That makes me old enough to remember life before the Web, and I can think of no other invention in the last 20 years that has had as significant an impact.

  6. You make a good case. I do love my TiVo, but 'tubes makes it better. Same thing for digital photography. Good old WWW is very disruptive.

  7. The problem I have with this sort of “invention” is that it is still, and always will be, just a radio – something that has been with us already for a century.  Yes, it’s nice having a radio that doesn’t need a power supply or batteries, but while it is an innovation it is stretching it to call it an invention.

  8. I’ve seen this question asked a lot recently, and it seems in many cases that people are having difficulty telling the difference between evolution, innovation and invention.  In the last twenty years, there has been no technology made for public consumption which comes close to rivalling the internet, certainly not updated technology like mobile phones or HDTVs.  People already had mobiles twenty-five-plus years ago albeit in significantly larger and more simplistic form, just as they have had colour televisions for over forty years.  MP3 players and iPods are hardly a leap forward when there has been music on the go in the form of personal stereos since the late 1970s.

    Twenty years ago, only the military and a handful of people in certain offices and colleges had access to even the most basic of forms of the internet, now it is a worldwide (web) phenomenon used every hour of every day by billions of people.  The internet, therefore, stands alone as the one true “invention” of the last 20 years that has actually had a significantly influence on society – everything else is just tweaking.

  9. Your semantic debate has merit, but it marginalizes innovation. Frequently evolution of or innovation around an original invention makes all the difference. I’d argue that the DVR (TiVo) makes TV much more useful; in your mind, it’s not original enough. Ditto for the digital camera.

    And for wireless networking, which has made the internet much more revolutionary. Without mobile access, the internet is merely a toy of the rich, not very “worldwide”.

    Let’s be frank, the Internet isn’t entirely original either, given that its roots lie in telephony. If you’re waiting around for a pure invention, you’ll miss a lot of really useful and great innovations.

  10. I don’t think we’re debating cultural significance. Many people would debate the cultural significance of TV. TiVo changes how TV is watched, for the better, so it’s not “just” TV.

  11. Again, your semantic quibble negates a lot of really useful innovations. Keeping it that narrow eliminates the entire list, including the interweb. Not very productive.

  12. TiVo is a brand. I have access to hundreds of TV channels and have done for years. TiVo-free.

  13. I’d like to agree with you, especially as I resurrected a thread of comments that had been dead for two or three years, but I think we have to draw the line between inventions and innovations. People like John Logie Baird and Alexander Graham Bell are, rightly, famous for the things they invented, and it seems only fitting that those who have merely tweaked existing technology are not. Tim Berners-Lee is perhaps an innovator as much as he is an inventor, but we have much to thank him for – and he is known because of his creation. Mr TiVo man isn’t.

    I’m one of the few who doesn’t (yet) use the internet on the go, relying on computers at home, at work and in town at places like our libraries. The thing, is, I need never be without the internet because of that. Do I need it in the car or on the train? No, I don’t. Internet on the go is great, I’m sure, but it’s an unnecessary luxury.

  14. It’s not really semantics when the question posed involved the word invention. I suppose we live in an age where we have so many luxuries and gadgets that it will take something really breathtaking to change the world as the TV, the telephone, the internal combustion engine, the electric light bulb and the internet did. It must have been quite something to see such changes over the course of only forty or fifty years. Maybe that’s where I’m coming from when I’m a bit snooty with regards to inventions and mere tweaks. Maybe I’m a bit over keen to see the next big leap forwards.

  15. Sure, so are Google and Kleenex, but frequently they’re used in the vernacular as generics. TiVo invented the DVR, which has transformed TV watching.

  16. Perhaps I should have chosen a different word, but still, I think you’re marginalizing important work. Dennis Ritchie didn’t invent the first programming language or the first OS, but his work is incredibly important.

    Mobile internet is a luxury to you bc I assume you live in a developed country. Mobile internet has connected the entire world, including many people who could never buy a computer or go to a library to use it. Like I said, without mobile internet, the internet is a luxury item.

  17. It’s exactly the definition of semantics; you’re narrowly defining a word. FWIW the internet doesn’t fit you own definition, given that it’s essentially a form of telephony, which has existed for a hundred plus years.

    Your point about breathtaking change is spot on though. The big changes of our time have come from improvements, but I posit that they are equally important and shouldn’t be marginalized by a narrow definition of what an invention is.

  18. That’s a very good point, actually. I have to admit that I was viewing the internet purely from my comfortable Western viewpoint.

  19. With the mobile internet, democracy may come to Libya, Egypt, Syria, etc… or the masses may choose fascist religionists, or have it thrust upon them.  I for one did not see this coming 3 years ago.

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