2013: tech tragedy or triumph?

How will history judge the tech world's efforts in 2013? Was this a great year, or a terrible one?

The clock is ticking, the year is nearly done. When midnight strikes, 2013 will wither away, and be replaced by the promise of 2014. How will history look back on the year just gone? Was it a year of tech tragedy or tech triumphs?

One well-shared piece on Quartz last week got straight down to the point: 2013 was a lost year for tech:

All in, 2013 was an embarrassment for the entire tech industry and the engine that powers it—Silicon Valley. Innovation was replaced by financial engineering, mergers and acquisitions, and evasion of regulations. Not a single breakthrough product was unveiled—and for reasons outlined below, Google Glass doesn’t count.

The article is a blow-by-blow takedown of the year, portraying it as a mix of missed opportunities, stagnating innovation and companies in decline.

It’s also pretty obvious – and successful – link bait. Hell, I’ve just linked to it, as have many others. But the best thing about link bait like this is that it sometimes creates much better pieces of writing in response. Daring Fireball blogger Jon Gruber goes after the Apple-related points in the Quartz piece with a great deal of vigour:

The nature of progress is to move incrementally. The great leaps are exceedingly few and far between. One needs to pay attention, to learn to appreciate fine details, in order to appreciate progress as it churns. Compare today’s iPhone 5S to the original 2007 iPhone and the differences are glaringly obvious. But some petulant tech critics dismissed every single subsequent iPhone as disappointingly incremental, lacking “innovation”. The iPhone 3G merely added faster cellular networking, which the iPhone “should have had” all along. The iPhone 3GS was “just” a faster 3G.

He also makes a really good point about tech writing generally:

There’s a nihilistic streak in tech journalism that I just don’t see in other fields. Sports, movies, cars, wristwatches, cameras, food — writers who cover these fields tend to celebrate, to relish, the best their fields have to offer. Technology, on the other hand, seems to attract enthusiasts with no actual enthusiasm.

I suspect that’s just about attracting cynics who want to ride the coat-tails of something that’s clearly both successful and transformative to an easier life. The tech world is clearly reshaping the way we live at a rapid rate – and fortunes are being made – so people want as easy a slice of that as they can. And the easiest way is to write link-baity attack pieces that get the genuine enthusiasts all riled up…

But back to positivity – and one of the best writers on tech there is today: Om Malik.

[…] it would be good for folks to take a step back, think for a moment and stop looking at innovation from the singular lens of consumer apps and gadgets. Instead think about the fact that we have more bandwidth in more places, we have more apps that seem to read our mind and that we can quickly get restaurant recommendations from our phones without as much as thinking. A lot of that happened in 2013, just without fanfare.

His response to the Quartz article should be the last thing about tech you read this year. If it doesn’t make you excited about the future, then you’re probably reading the wrong conference’s blog. This is very much what NEXT is about – finding the signs of the future in the thinkers and doers of today.

His core point is the right one, though. It’s not just about the big consumer launches and software, but how tech innovation is threading itself through every aspect of our lives. The things that were invented this year that will change our lives aren’t doing it just yet – they’re in use by a minority, or still in the lab.

Tech’s big winners rarely ever arrive in a “big bang”. A handful of Apple launches, perhaps, but that’s about it. Most huge successes start small, and take years before people start taking them seriously. I’ve met plenty of people who thought Twitter started in 2008 or later, because that’s when they became aware of it. In reality, it started in 2006, and even those of us using it back then had little ides of what it would become over the years.

Om made the same point about it and Amazon’s storage and computing infrastructure:

Both Amazon and Twitter are examples that show innovation and its impact are not bound by an investor or a publication’s sense of time, say, a year.

So, I’d like to propose a third path, one that matches neither Om’s positivity or Christopher Mims’ negativity. I think the truth is that right now, we have no idea how successful a year this has been for tech. How many reviews of 2006 mentioned Twitter as being something important? Very few, I’d guess. Certainly reviews of 2004 wouldn’t have touched on this college networking thing called “The Facebook”.

It’s be three to four years before we know how to judge 2013 truly, before some startup or service a bunch of us are using hits the big time, and we realise that there was a huge significance in the year we missed – or this year’s crop fail to do that, because we chased down too many blind alleys.

Tech is about the future, and the future isn’t here yet. Let it grow, watch it happen and enjoy what’s coming. Don’t be too quick to pass judgement on the present, because it’s the earth in which the future is growing.

Image by Christopher/Photo Optik on Flickr, and used under a Creative Commons licence