The arrival of 2020 is a chance to look back on the past decade and what it has meant for the world of technology. Recent security problems with security cameras sum up where we are today: technology designed to protect us has made us vulnerable instead. Pessimism, dread, and anxiety have replaced the optimism and progress that defined technology from its inception.
And yet the decade has also been defined by unprecedented advances, changing our lives and the world on a scale we might not yet even comprehend.
What happened? What can we learn from it? And how can we turn it around?
1. Social Media: Propaganda, Disinformation and Discord
Social media first emerged in the latter part of the 2000s. YouTube debuted in 2005, Facebook and Twitter really hit the mainstream around 2007. So technically these are innovations from the previous decade. But as we stood on the cusp of 2010, these and other social media platforms were new enough that we were all still figuring out what they could do. It was still a time of infatuation with the new technology.
This infatuation has now passed. Hopes and dreams have been replaced by reality: these platforms have caused harm that no one in 2010 could have imagined.
An obvious example is interference in the 2016 U.S. election. The leaders of Western democracies and social media companies were, like the rest of us, slow to understand how social media could be harnessed for malicious, manipulative purposes. Many of us looked at social media and saw ways to share cat memes and food pictures. Others saw the most advanced and efficient means ever devised to distribute propaganda and misinformation.
In addition to its role in election interference, social media has failed to live up to its potential to support human rights, democracy and positive social change. In 2009, Twitter was credited for helping protesters in Iran stand up to the regime. In 2019, we’ve seen authoritarian regimes shut down internet access and use Twitter and Facebook in malicious ways. The use of Facebook in the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar is one alarming example.
Even outside the realm of governments and propaganda, social media in the past decade has arguably driven people apart more than bringing them together. Social-media fights over politics, religion and a host of other issues have become commonplace to the point of cliché.
All of this makes social media — one of the most pervasive technologies in everyday life — at best a net neutral, and at worst a net negative.
2. Devices as Addiction
Speaking of pervasive, let’s examine the impact of mobile devices.
Make no mistake, the iPhone in 2007 was revolutionary, and Android soon followed. Similar to the introduction of social media, at the start of the 2010s, the role of mobile devices was still unknown and held great potential. Over the course of the past decade, however, we came to better understand what mobile devices could do for us, and to us. And it’s the “to us” that is the problem.
In an article in The Guardian in October 2017, Loren Brichter (who created the iPhone’s “pull to refresh” feature) admits and expresses regret that this capability has helped make mobile devices addictive, much like slot machines.
Take a moment and look around at a restaurant and you’ll see many people sitting at a table together, all glued to their mobile devices at the expense of conversation and interactions.
We read regularly about the challenges of kids being addicted to “screen time” and the resulting negative social and cognitive impacts. And we’ve seen the rise of technology meant to mitigate addiction (for kids at least) in the form of parental controls that limit screen time.
The place of mobile devices in our lives now is far from where it was in 2010. We don’t talk about the promise it holds, but about the dangers and the problems.
Along with social media, mobile devices are the most common way people connect with tech in their daily life. And now, that connection is viewed as addictive, on par with tobacco, gambling, or opioids.
3. Data Breaches Everywhere
The number and scale of data breaches since 2010 has skyrocketed in ways that even the most pessimistic among us wouldn’t have predicted. It may well go down as the “Decade of Data Breaches.”
You only have to go to haveibeenpwned.com, type in your email and see how many times your credentials have been exposed. At the time of this writing, that site alone counts more than 9 BILLION compromised accounts.
In conjunction with this, credit card fraud has skyrocketed, and identity theft is rampant.
The situation has gotten so bad that we’re numb to it. A steady drumbeat of data breaches, compromising millions of accounts at a time, has bludgeoned us all into a sense of defeated resignation.
All of this has fundamentally and deeply eroded trust in the internet to the point where many people just assume that their data can and will be lost if it hasn’t been already.
4. Rise of “Big Tech”
In the United States, the label “Big” on anything is never good. Whether it’s “Big Government,” “Big Business,” “Big Oil,” or “Big Tobacco,” the “Big” moniker is a sign that an industry or institution has reached a size that violates American populist sensibilities.
Microsoft may have been “the Borg” or even “the Evil Empire” in its worst days, but it was never “Big Microsoft.”
What an iconic picture this is. pic.twitter.com/1KKORDbWYU
— Dave Lee (@DaveLeeBBC) April 10, 2018
Over the past few years, we’ve seen the term “Big Tech” emerge and be used with increasing frequency, bordering now on regularity. As a phrase, “Big Tech” puts Amazon, Facebook and Google into a single category. Sometimes Apple and/or Microsoft are included, but not as reliably as those three.
The label “Big Tech” has stuck as people have come to increasingly distrust and resent the power and influence of these large, successful tech companies. And the cultural resonance between “Big Tobacco” and “Big Tech,” as purveyors of something enjoyable but addictive and unhealthy, shouldn’t be underestimated.
This rise of “Big Tech” also impacts those within the industry. Many people went into technology over the decades not just out of personal excitement and enthusiasm but from a true desire to make a better world. Finding yourself working in an industry that is viewed as harmful on par with Big Tobacco runs directly counter to that sentiment, and has a real and deep impact.
5. Loss of Optimism
Technology itself is the final problem. The engine that has driven the industry and its optimism since the 1970s has been innovation.
In 1980, we knew processors were coming that would make computers like the Apple II even more useful and powerful. In 1990, we knew that the Mac and Windows would be made better in the next versions. In 2000, the internet was new, and we knew more exciting things were coming. And in 2010, mobile devices and social media were still new enough that we knew (or thought we knew) that more, better technology was yet to come.
At the end of the 2010s, we just don’t have that same sense that something new, bigger and better is coming.
Partly, this reflects the march of time. Bill Gates is focused on philanthropy; Steve Jobs has passed away. Satya Nadella and Tim Cook have done good things for Microsoft and Apple respectively. And they’re both rightly viewed as more “caretaker” than visionary CEOs. You have to go digging to see what Marc Andreessen is up to these days. The generation of visionaries has passed, and there’s not a new generation to take its place.
This also reflects business realities. The goal for startups these days isn’t necessarily to go public, like it was in the past, but instead to be bought up by a Microsoft or Google or Facebook. And while that’s a perfectly valid business strategy, it does represent a literal focus on “selling out” rather than making it big on your own.
But ultimately this reflects the basic technical reality. Smartphones and social media, as noted above, came out in the last decade. The internet, the World Wide Web and web browsers are products of the 1990s. The personal computer is still around despite predictions of its demise, and that comes from the 1970s. In a lot of ways, the decades of optimism in tech have been fueled by early adopters, hobbyists, geeks and hackers. And as we come to the end of the 2010s, there’s not much new for those audiences to build or buy, take home and try to build something new and revolutionary.
Indeed, in a poetic and prophetic sign, we just heard that Fry’s Electronics in Palo Alto is closing.
Even where we do see promise of new technologies, in areas like artificial intelligence or quantum computing, those increasingly have a shadow of doubt and concern in light of the past decade. More importantly, these are technologies that look and feel more like something that would come out of IBM than Steve Jobs’ and Steve Wozniak’s garage.
Historians say it often takes a few decades before you can write history, so making pronouncements on the 2010s now could be premature. But I’ve heard a common refrain from my colleagues in tech these past few years: “It’s just not fun anymore.” And while that may seem like a shallow complaint, it points to a greater truth under the surface. The nature of the tech world has changed, people’s attitudes towards it have changed, and it has lost the optimism and promise it once had.
Can that optimism come back? Yes, I believe so, and this is how.
First, the issues that impact trust must be addressed. Whether it’s through regulation or self-regulation, the concerns around social media abuse, device addiction and data breaches must be resolved. Otherwise, tech will continue its trajectory towards “Big Tech.”
Second, there must be a new generation of truly disruptive innovators who look at tech as a tool for individual liberation and have a determination to take on the IBMs of today and win. Turning this around requires the next generation of geeks, hackers and hobbyists to find their own inner Jobs and Gates, follow their own paths, and bring a renewed sense of hope and progress to the decade ahead.