If there was a feeling that defined the cultural backdrop for 2013, it was technoanxiety.
The two big things were the continued rise of doing everything on a screen, and the continued rise of doing things the old way. Mobile everything. And vintage everything. Digging your hands into the earth, while software eats the world.
It wasn't so much that the technology got worse or did less or would have been less impressive to a human from 1980.
But the longer a user spends on Facebook or LinkedIn, the more cruft builds up. Many people have been through a few Apple upgrade cycles. Technical improvement is ho-hum. Connectivity is assumed. The great benefits of these technologies are no longer as striking as they were when they first appeared.
And the con list for our favorite technologies grew. The data-exhaust business models that the free web runs on turned out to have a nasty side effects. Like making perpetual surveillance by the NSA easier and almost requiring the existence of hundreds of companies trading your data.
But also: the social networks that connect us restructured our social lives in uncomfortable, coercive ways. Once we started using our phones for everything, we found we couldn't stop. The forever drone war hovers uncomfortably in our peripheral vision.
There are not the experiences of the '90s-Wired subculture, but fully mainstream phenomenon. Tens of millions have smartphones. Hundreds of millions have Facebook. The NSA is three "hops" from almost everyone.
This year, I think this uneasy balance busts. It's not that the underlying tensions will go away, but one can only remain anxious for so long. We will make our peace with our smartphones, either succumbing or overcoming, or something.
Attention will turn elsewhere. 2014 feels like the beginning of a new cycle, and that's where my focus will be. I find myself astonished at the reporting possibilities that are apparent to me this year. And I want to share some of my hypotheses with you.
Job tech. When we look back on this year from 2030, I think it will become clear that the largest change in our daily lives came around the technology—and therefore quantification and control—that we allowed to creep into our work lives. For example, right now, cameras on some buses and trucks are constantly monitoring them on the road, and when they detect some sort of anomaly, the video is sent to a human-staffed control center, where the event is recorded and coded as the driver's fault or not. That information will go into the driver's record and perhaps be used to predict when accidents might occur and perhaps be used to hire and fire drivers. Let's just say that such a system makes the roads safer, but it costs employees even more power vis a vis their employers.
The big question is: Do we want to live in this world? Do you want this kind of technology applied to your job? What kinds of artifacts will be introduced by this kind of tracking? How will the stats be juked?
As Don Peck's excellent feature on HR analytics shows, companies are pushing into this territory right now and if we want our society and politics to make the right adjustments, we need to start thinking this through now.
Robot world. After many Roombas and false starts, I'm counting on this year to be the one where robots enter the mainstream. They won't be general-purpose humanoid robots, but semi-autonomous physical objects with specific intelligence built into them. As we start to incorporate these bots—be they drones, semi-autonomous cars, window washing bots, or nanny cameras that track movement—they'll need us to make our environments more and more legible to them. Cars need roads; robots will need similar environmental changes. Our homes will become LANs of things.
Again: Do we want to live in this kind of world, where the environments where we live are only partially designed for humans? What are the tradeoffs?
Tech strikes back. According to people in Silicon Valley, last year everyone was hating on them. And this year, they're hitting back. If you want to see the first public wave of the offensive, look no further than the renewed Twitter account of Marc Andreessen. He's got an optimistic view of the world, loves quoting stories of success, says people will adapt themselves to technology, and believes in Progress, with a capital P.
He is, in short, a stand-in for Silicon Valley, and willing to stand up for what he believes the Valley has accomplished. For those with a more pessimistic outlook, he'll be a great and fun sparring partner.
But I also think his version of taking to the airwaves is a signal of a broader movement within the Valley to say: Look, this is what we believe, and what we stand for, and love or hate us, we've done X, Y, and Z.
Will the charm and data offensive work? I don't know. But it's worth watching.
Ephemeral everything. For a time, it seemed like the Internet's major sites were all pushing in one direction: more real names, more archiving, more tracking, more accountability. My friend Robin Sloan (who used to work at Twitter) wrote a little code that would go back and delete his tweets after a set period of time, and I remember thinking how retrograde that whole idea was.