2018: a digital year in review
The end of the year is a time for taking stock, clearing out — and finally summoning up the courage to look back on your predictions for 2018, to see how you did.
A year ago, I dubbed 2018 the year of consequences - and I think that was a pretty good call. Facebook, in particular, has been buffeted by the winds of consequence, with revelation after revelation about ethical and technical lapses at the company, which has seen trust in the company collapse precipitously - and led to its first active decline in users. The last quarter’s results showed continuing decline in European users, while the firm’s biggest market - the US and Canada - is static.
I also suggested that 2018 was the year that governments would get more involved - which has proven true - and that legislation would start - which hasn’t. I underestimated the slowness with which legislative intervention actually occurs. That said, we’ve seen major tech executives dragged in front of senate hearings in the US, and growing numbers of countries are demanding that Facebook answer for its behaviours. Notably, the UK has been aggressive in its investigation of the social network’s practices.
However, it’s worth noting that the EU has been active in bringing forward some law, most notably GDPR, but that was in the works for some years beforehand. There have been new moves from them, but that law has proven to be highly controversial. There’s a growing resistance to the EU Copyright Directive, and in particular Article 13, with former NEXT speaker Cory Doctorow writing regularly about its deep problems. It might well end up entrenching the interests of the big tech companies, not limiting them.
I suspect that the handling of this over 2019 will tell us a lot about the fitness of our governments to effectively regulate digital economy companies without quashing innovation.
One to continue watching into 2019.
My second prediction was that cyberwar would escalate - and buy, was I spot on. Iran has joined Russia in the premier league of cyberattackers. Even in the closing month of the year, we’ve seen major US newspapers come under cyberattack. Former security service operatives are calling for rules of cyberwarfare engagement, just as we have rules for conventional warfare.
This will continue for the foreseeable future - but how long before we have a massive disaster triggered by cyberwarfare, that changes the conversation about it?
The march of voice continued unabated - I was right about that. Amazon and Google expanded its range of voice-activated assistants - and even Facebook, showing astonishing low awareness, got into the game with Portal. However, we’ve not really seen even the first twinges of a backlash against them.
People struggled to set up their Alexa devices on Christmas day, because the servers were over-whelmed with requests. Sales were at record levels - although this was only disclosed in typically vague Bezos numbers.
All this still feels like a privacy time bomb. In recent weeks we’ve seen one user get unexpected access to huge amounts of another person’s usage data. Right now, we aren’t properly evaluating the privacy/convenience trade-off. And the idea of Google or Amazon learning more of my routine habits, and those of my family, chills me. We acquired a HomePod early in the year, and it’s a favourite with my daughters. But I understand - and trust - Apple’s privacy story around the device, and am willing to pay extra for that. Many people aren’t. And so they fill their homes with corporate devices that are quietly harvesting ever more information about them.
Tick tick tick tick…
Meanwhile, the wearables market continues its steady march to public acceptance. Apple’s AirPods became a meme. The Apple Watch is becoming a massive success story. Fitbit is moving from an activity tracker company to a smartwatch/healthcare player. But Xiaomi has become the worldwide biggest player.
None of this is anywhere near as big as the smartphone - but 2018 really set the stage for the next stage of consumer technology, as functions that were “owned” by the smartphone start to spread outwards to a cloud of devices. That’s only going to continue.
So, my predictions were not half bad. The only major miss was predicting more legislative intervention than we actually saw. 2018 wasn’t a revolutionary year - what we saw was existing trends deepening and embedding themselves in our digital culture. That should pave the way for a more interesting 2019 - if you know where to look…