OOne of the challenges of writing about technology is how to escape what sociologist Michael Mann has memorably called “the sociology of the last five minutes.” This is especially difficult when it comes to covering the digital tech industry, as one is continually inundated with “new” stuff – viral memes, shiny new products or services, Facebook scandals (a weekly staple) , security breaches, etc. The past few weeks, for example, have brought industry enthusiasm for the idea of a “metaverse” (carefully dissected here by Alex Hern), El Salvador’s flirtation with bitcoin, endless stories about central banks and governments starting to worry about cryptocurrency regulation, Apple’s possible overhaul of its plans to scan phones and iCloud counts images of child abuse, countless attacks from ransomware, antitrust lawsuits against app stores, the Theranos lawsuit and so on, apparently To infinity.
So how to get out of the sterile syndrome identified by Professor Mann? One way is to borrow an idea from Ben Thompson, a veteran tech commentator who doesn’t suffer from it, and whose (paid) newsletter should be a mandatory daily email for any serious observer of the tech industry. In 2014, he suggested that we look at the industry in terms of “eras” – significant periods or eras in the history of a field. At this point, he saw three eras in the evolution of our networked world, each defined according to its core technology and its “killer app”.
The first era in this context was the PC era, which began in August 1981 when IBM launched its personal computer. The basic technology was the machine’s open architecture and the MS-DOS (later Windows) operating system. And the killer app was the Spreadsheet (which, ironically, had actually been developed – like VisiCalc – on the Apple II).
The second epoch was the Internet Age, which began 14 years after the start of the PC Age, with the Netscape IPO in August 1995. The core technology (the “operating system” , if you will) was the web browser – the tool that transformed the Internet. into something non-geeks could understand and use – and the era was initially characterized by a bitter struggle to control the browser, a battle in which Microsoft destroyed Netscape and captured 90% of the market, but ultimately ended. found facing an antitrust lawsuit which almost led to its termination. At that time, research was the app that kills, and ultimately the dominant use became social media, with the dominant market share captured by Facebook.
Epoch three as part of Thompson – the era we are in now – was the mobile era. It dates back to January 2007 when Apple announced the iPhone and launched the smartphone revolution. Unlike the previous two eras, there is no dominant operating system: instead, there is a duopoly between Apple’s iOS system and Google’s Android system. The app that kills is what is known as the “sharing economy” (which of course is nothing of the sort), and messages of all kinds have become the dominant medium. And now, it looks like this smartphone age is reaching its peak.
If this is indeed what is happening, the obvious question is: what comes next? What will the fourth epoch look like? And here it is worth borrowing an idea from another perceptive observer of these things, the novelist William Gibson, who observed that “the future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed. If it’s as deep as I think it is, then what we should be looking for are things that continue to bubble in disjointed and seemingly unrelated ways, like the hot lava jets in Iceland or other geologically unstable regions. .
So what can we see bubbling up in tech right now? If you believe the industry, metavers (plural) – basically designed as massive VR environments – could be a big thing. It sounds like this watcher is wishful thinking for psychotics. In any case, at its extreme, the idea of the Metaverse is a vision of an immersive, video game-like environment to entertain rich humans in their air-conditioned caves while the planet cooks and less fortunate humans have to. trouble breathing. In that sense, the metaverse might just be a way to avoid unpleasant realities. (But then, as one prominent Silicon Valley figure recently joked, maybe the reality is overestimated anyway.)
Two other plausible candidates for what will fuel future eras are cryptography – in the sense of blockchain technology – and quantum computing. But an era where these technologies are dominant would embody an intriguing contradiction: Our current cryptographic tools depend on the creation of keys that would take millions of years to decipher conventional computers. Quantum computers, however, would break them down in nanoseconds. In that case, we may eventually have to admit that, as a species, we are too smart for our own good.
What i read
There is a sobering opinion piece in the New York Times by historian Adam Tooze titled What If The Coronavirus Crisis Was Just A Trial?
Proust’s Panmnemonicon is a meditation on the rereading of Proust by Justin EH Smith on his blog. A reminder that if you want to read Proust in your lifetime, you must start now.
Public Books has a terrific article by Erin McElroy, Meredith Whittaker, and Nicole Weber on the intrusion of surveillance tools into homes.