Top 10 in tech for the decade
As we approach the festive season, it's customary to post a top ten in tech summarising the previous 12 months, but as 2019 is the last year in the 2010s, I thought I'd go all-out and attempt to sum up the entire decade. Here's my list.
1. The Christchurch call - the internet played a central role in the horrifying and tragic events of March 15. Terrorism has been enabled by social media which drives 'lone wolf' attacks on sites like 8-chan, with the horror then spread through mainstream sites such as Facebook and YouTube. An indictment on all of them. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has led an international effort to bring the mainstream sites into some kind accountability for the spread of terror. But will the social media giants just pay it lip-service - or will it bring about meaningful change?
2. The Arab Spring - at the start of the decade it felt like the internet could be a force for good. Social media was credited with fuelling what became known as the "Arab Spring', where oppressive regimes were challenged - and sometimes changed - throughout the Arab world, notably in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and arguably as the catalyst for the devasting civil wars in Syria and Yemeni. Oppressive governments are getting better at shutting down the internet when there is trouble. The organisation Access Now documented 196 shutdowns in 2018, compared to 106 in 2017, and 75 in 2016.
3. The divided internet - when the internet first appeared it had a kind of 60s hippy vibe. Everything was free, but then businesses discovered you could make a lot of money so they created algorithms to push advertising dollars, and governments found out you could control what people do. In this decade the internet lost its innocence. Edward Snowden's whistleblowing in 2013 showed the extent of the US National Security Agency's surveillance programs, China developed great tech for controlling a vast population - from facial recognition surveillance to name and shame jaywalkers to a social credit system in which human behaviour is rated and negative scores result in punishments like travel restrictions. While Russia has been accused of using social media to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election.
4. The power of the FAANGs - Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google - has been awe-inspiring in good, and bad, ways. The tech is clever - supermarkets with no staff (Amazon Go) and AI that mimics human interaction (Google Duplex) but what are the consequences of having so much power concentrated in a handful of companies run by a tiny number of people that have little or no accountability? I'd also add Microsoft into the mix, Satya Nadella's appointment as CEO in 2014 has ensured the company remains in the leading pack by pivoting to public cloud.
5. The charge of the unicorns - coined in 2013 by venture capitalist Aileen Lee, a unicorn refers to a private tech company that is less than 10 years old, is venture-backed and worth over US $1 billion. At the time there were 40, now there are over 500, but the unicorn's progress is slowing down, now that profit is back in (as opposed to the revenue growth) and recent IPOs such as Uber have stumbled. In New Zealand our unicorn numbers are tiny (nine according to Callaghan Innovation), but we have seen the growth of an exciting start-up culture that, it's fair to say, was initially driven by Xero. It includes companies like Rocket Lab which mean we now have - amazingly - a fledgling space sector in this country.
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