History, it seems, will remember 2010 in the United States as the year of health-care reform, the Gulf oil spill, and the tea party movement. But the most widely covered stories are clearly not the only events that could shape the future of the nation.
Here we note five overlooked stories of 2010 – developments that might have received some press coverage but perhaps not as much as they should have, given the impact they could have on various aspects of American life in the years ahead.
Computer viruses that steal identities are nothing new. But 2010 introduced the world to something potentially far more dangerous: Stuxnet.
Stuxnet is the world's first publicly known cybersuperweapon – a computer program that is able to cross the digital divide and destroy a real-world target. In the case of Stuxnet, that target seems to have been Iranian nuclear facilities. But future variants could be used to hammer US critical infrastructure, too, the Congressional Research Service warned this month.
Discovered in June by a Belarus antivirus company and later revealed as a cyberweapon by a German researcher, Stuxnet was designed to control and destroy industrial control systems. It could be activated merely by plugging a thumb drive loaded with the malware into the target computer system.
Many experts worry that a "son of Stuxnet" clone could make an appearance in 2011. "My greatest fear is that we are running out of time to learn our lessons," Michael Assante, an industrial control systems security expert, told a congressional hearing on Stuxnet in November. "Stuxnet ... may very well serve as a blueprint for similar but new attacks on control system technology."
Stuxnet required a team of experts working clandestinely for months or more to build it – and cost millions of dollars to produce and test. Only a few nations – Israel, the US, China, France, or Britain – could create it, many say. Now a rich terrorist could buy a Stuxnet variant.
The original Stuxnet was a cyber "guided missile" that unleashed its digital warhead only under very specific conditions (believed by a number of experts to be part of Iran's nuclear plant designs). The son of Stuxnet might not be so selective. If retooled slightly, a Stuxnet clone could be made to detonate and damage a wide swath of critical infrastructure facilities – water, power, energy, and transportation facilities, for instance.
It "threatens to cause harm to many activities deemed critical to the basic functioning of modern society," the Congressional Research Service reported Dec. 9.
"Depending on the severity of the attack, the interconnected nature of the affected critical infrastructure facilities, and government preparation and response plans, entities and individuals relying on these facilities could be without life sustaining or comforting services for a long period of time," the study's summary states. "The resulting damage to the nation's critical infrastructure could threaten many aspects of life, including the government's ability to safeguard national security interests."
2. TARP is Cheap
In the fall of 2008, as the US financial system teetered on the precipice of collapse, the Bush administration announced it would inject $250 billion directly into the banking system.
Called the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), the program quickly swelled to $700 billion, with Uncle Sam owning large chunks of many of the major US financial institutions, the auto industry, and AIG (a giant insurance company).
TARP was instantly unpopular, the butt of jokes on late-night television and reviled by both political parties as a bailout for fat-cat Wall Street executives. There were predictions of huge losses, which would come out of the pockets of taxpayers.
That is not how it has actually turned out.
In a report at the end of November, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the losses to the taxpayer will be $25 billion, mostly from investments in the auto sector and AIG.
"TARP was probably one of the most successful financial crisis cushioning programs ever executed," says Brian Bethune, chief financial economist at IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Mass. "It is astounding the costs came down that low."
Some of the banks, such as Goldman Sachs and Bank of America, quickly paid back the loans with interest. In an October opinion article in the Washington Post, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said Uncle Sam had received $200 billion, plus a profit of $28 billion. Since then, billions more have piled in, the government has reduced its stake in General Motors to 33 percent, and AIG has announced a plan to pay back all the money it borrowed.
Even some of the fiscal hawks now see TARP as a successful effort. Retiring Sen. Judd Gregg (R) of New Hampshire, interviewed on MSNBC, called the program "the most significant thing that's happened in the last five to 10 years." He added, "I think the program worked the way it was supposed [to]."
The TARP program does not include the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Mr. Geithner has estimated their losses as less than 1 percent of gross domestic product, or $150 billion.
3. Common School Standards
In the US, it has always been an accepted fact that if a student moves from Georgia to Minnesota – or from any state to any other state – she can expect a potentially major shift in the way she is taught, what she is taught, and how she is tested on what she knows.
In 2010, the US took a significant step toward changing that situation: It created common, rigorous standards that are on track to be adopted by 44 states and the District of Columbia.
These standards are intended to influence curricula, teacher training, and textbooks, and spur the creation of better, more sophisticated tests. By most accounts, these standards are good ones, and go a long way toward addressing the oft-cited US problem of teaching that is "a mile wide and an inch deep."
This is the first time in US history that states seem serious about having one set of universal standards – something that's commonplace in most countries, but has always been anathema to the decentralized American education system.
"Big, modern countries in a flattening, shrinking world don't have separate academic expectations for kids living in different portions of their country," says Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a longtime advocate for common standards. "We also have a mobile population of people that are as likely to live in Portland, Ore., as Portland, Maine."
Though overshadowed by the Obama administration's Race to the Top education grants and education reform battles in cities like Washington, common standards could be a key step toward meaningful reforms to improve US education, advocates say.
Mr. Finn, who was among those pleasantly surprised by the overall excellence of the standards, acknowledges that creating and adopting them is only about "10 percent" of what ultimately needs to take place.
"But if you don't have a destination for your journey that's worth getting to," he adds, "why start driving?"
4. Rise of Natural Gas
The dramatic rise in the amount of retrievable natural gas in the United States could recast the nation's energy profile.
Natural gas is threatening the dominance of coal and undercutting nascent efforts not only to resuscitate nuclear energy but also to establish renewable energy as a viable and economic alternative.
The vast expansion of US natural-gas reserves is due in large measure to the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing of shale deposits, which critics say contaminates ground water. Natural-gas prices have fallen more than 40 percent in two years, settling below $4 per thousand cubic feet, the US Energy Information Administration reported in September.
As a result, utilities are unfurling plans to build new gas-fired turbine plants nationwide – and others are shelving plans for renewable energy projects and nuclear projects.
Wind power, in particular, has had a hard time competing with electricity produced by burning cheap natural gas. Wind-turbine generating capacity soared through 2009, making the US the largest market for power. Wind power was cheap enough to sell itself on the open energy markets of the Northeast and West Coast, where it competed with natural gas-fired generators and nuclear energy generators.
Now flip that picture, says Matt Kaplan, a senior analyst with IHS Emerging Energy Research in Cambridge, Mass. The first half of 2010 saw a 70 percent drop in new wind-power installations.
Fossil fuels such as coal are on the chopping block, too. "A large-scale switch from coal to natural gas in the US has become possible largely thanks to the major increase in supply from unconventional shale gas," according to a Deutsche Bank analysis last month. "Increasing supply is causing a long term fall in the price of natural gas, making it a far more economic fuel than in the past."
5. Twilight of the Desktop
Largely lost in the scramble for Android smart phones and Apple's iPad tablet is mounting evidence that the desktop computer – long the staple of personal computing – is becoming obsolete.
Two years ago, desktops made up nearly half of all PC sales, according to Forrester Research. They've now skidded to one-third, and will likely slump to one-fifth in the next three years, when they'll be outsold by tablet computers – a category that didn't even exist in Forrester's report until the iPad arrived last spring.
Leading the charge away from table-bound PCs is Apple chief executive Steve Jobs, who offered a controversial metaphor at a tech conference in June:
"When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks, because that's what you needed on the farm," he said. "But as vehicles started to be used in the urban centers, cars got more popular…. PCs are going to be like trucks. They're still going to be around. They're still going to have a lot of value. But they're going to be used by 1 out of X people." (Mr. Jobs includes Macs in this atrophying category.)
The "cars," or maybe even mopeds, of the future will be mobile, he argues. And already, software is changing to match this new dynamic.
In December, Google started publicly testing Chrome OS, a laptop operating system that tosses out many of the fundamental ideas behind a desktop PC. Bye-bye hard disks, installed applications, and lumbering start-up times. Hello online storage, Web apps, and immediate access to a browser.
Similarly, the proliferation of online app stores on phones and even televisions shows a thirst for inexpensive, single-purpose programs. Of course, there will always be a need for Photoshop and databases – powerhouse software with countless menus and taxing hardware requirements. But, the thinking goes, such workmanlike applications will run best on "trucks."