If you want to follow the debate about crypto’s impact on society, which I believe is one of the most important topics in tech today, you better sharpen your Twitter skills – most of the interesting thinking is happening across Twitter’s decidedly chaotic platform. I’ve been using the service for nearly 15 years, and I still find it difficult to bring to heel. When following a complex topic, I find myself back where I started – in a draft blog post, trying to pull it all together.
That’s where I’ve been this past weekend as I watched the response to a thoughtful post from Signal founder Moxie Marlinspike. (And yes, the fact that the Twitter conversation was driven by a blog post is not lost on me…)
Popcorn in hand, I’ve been watching the recent religious war between tech leaders, and I find it all quite…wonderful. It’s been a while since we’ve had this level of disagreement about the future of what we used to call “our industry,” and as long as the debate remains relatively civil, I’m here for it. Then again, we’ve already seen trolling (Elon Musk), blocking (Marc Andreessen), and shitposting (Jack Dorsey) from some of the biggest names in tech. But hey, at least the arguments are getting aired out.
So what are we arguing about? In short, the future. Nothing is more sacred in the world of tech – the industry has defined and owned the future’s brand for as long as I can remember. Arguing about how that future might play out used to be a full time gig for many of us. It was at the center of our editorial mission at Wired – to paraphrase founding editor Louis Rossetto, our job was “to make a magazine that felt like it was mailed back from the future.” But around a decade ago, arguments about the future subsided – what was the point, given that future had consolidated into a handful of technology titans like Facebook, Tesla, Apple, Google, Netflix and Amazon? Whatever gifts or perils the future might bring, one thing was certain: The tech giants owned it. Where’s the fun in that?
This turn of events was profoundly dispiriting for some, particularly those of us who had taken the red pill at the dawn of the commercial internet. Sure, I moderated a conference on Web2, and I wrote a book on search and Google, so watching Web2 businesses grow into the most successful firms in the history of business was … cool, for a while. But by 2012 or so, I had lost the optimism and excitement I once had for the industry. It felt like our dreams for a better world had been hijacked by centralized models of capital, and the future had become predictable again. Boring.
As has been my practice for nearly two decades, I penned a post full of prognostications at the end of last year. As 2021 subsequently rolled by, I stashed away news items that might prove (or disprove) those predictions – knowing that this week, I’d take a look at how I did. How’d things turn out? Let’s roll the tape…
My first prediction: Disinformation becomes the most important story of the year. At the time I wrote those words, Trump’s Big Lie was only two months old, and January 6th was just another day on the calendar. A year later, that Big Lie has spawned countless others, culminating in one of the most damaging shifts in our nation’s politics since the Civil War. The Republican party is now fully captured by bullshit, and countless numbers of local, state, and national politicians are busy undermining democracy thanks to the Big Lie’s power. A significant percentage of the US population has become unmoored from truth – and an equally significant group of us have simply thrown our hands up about it. Trust is at an all time low. This Barton Gellman piece in The Atlantic served as a wake up call late in the year – and its conclusions are terrifying: “We face a serious risk that American democracy as we know it will come to an end in 2024,” Gellman quotes an observer stating. “But urgent action is not happening.” I’m not happy about getting this one right, but as far as I’m concerned, this is still the most important story of the year – and the most terrifying.
Marketers – especially brand marketers: Too many of you have lost the script regarding the critical role you play in society. And while well-intentioned TV spots about “getting through this together” are nice, they aren’t a structural solution. It’s time to rethink the relationship between marketers, media companies (not “content creators,” ick), and the audience.
If you’ve read Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism, you likely agree that the most important asset for a data-driven advertising platform is consumer engagement. That engagement throws off data, that data drives prediction models, those models inform algorithms, those algorithms drive advertising engines, and those engines drive revenue, which drives profit. And profit, of course, drives stock price, the highest and holiest metric of our capitalistic economy.
So when an upstart company exhibits exponential growth in consumer engagement – say, oh, 3,000-percent growth in a matter of two months – well, that’s going to get the attention of the world’s leading purveyors of surveillance capitalism.
As the coronavirus crisis built to pandemic levels in early March, a relatively unknown tech company confronted a defining opportunity. Zoom Video Communications, a fast-growing enterprise videoconferencing platform with roots in both Silicon Valley and China, had already seen its market cap grow from under $10 billion to nearly double that. As the coronavirus began dominating news reports in the western press, Zoom announced its first full fiscal year results as a public company. The company logged $622.7 million in revenue, up 88 percent from the year before. Zoom’s high growth rate and “software as a service” business model guaranteed fantastic future profits, and investors rewarded the company by driving its stock up even further. On March 5th, the day after Zoom announced its earnings, the company’s stock jumped to $125, more than double its price on the day of its public offering eleven months before. Market analysts began issuing bullish guidance, and company executives noted that as the coronavirus spread, more and more customers were flocking to Zoom’s easy-to-use video conferencing platform.
But as anyone paying attention to business news for the past month knows, it’s been a tumultuous ride for Zoom ever since. As the virus forced the world inside, demand for Zoom’s services skyrocketed, and the company became a household name nearly overnight. Zoom’s “freemium” model – which offers a basic version of its platform for free, with more robust features available for a modest monthly subscription fee – allowed tens of millions of new users to sample the company’s wares. Initially, Zoom was a hit with this new user base – stories of Zoom seders, Zoom cocktail parties, and even Zoom weddings gave the company a consumer-friendly vibe. Just like Google or Facebook before it, here was the story of a scrappy Valley startup with just the right product at just the right time. According to the company, Zoom’s monthly users leapt from 10 million to more than 200 million – an unimaginable increase of 2,000 percent in just one month.
Google’s (and now Alphabet’s) CEO opines in the FT (sub required) on why AI needs to be regulated, joining the chorus of tech leaders who have taken the apparent high road when it comes to regulation, even as governments around the world have shown next to no ability to actually regulate anything (well, I guess the Chinese have certainly regulated tech…in a not so great way). Astute readers will note that an op-ed in a paywalled publication, on a holiday no less, is not exactly placed to go viral. However, look a bit deeper, and you’ll realize that the Financial Times is very well read by Wall St., number one, and number two, it ain’t a holiday in Europe, where the most powerful people on the planet are gathering for Davos this week. Indeed.
While most of the op-ed is pretty weak sauce, a predictable call for governments to “work together” to “harness this technology for good,” I found this quote the most interesting: “Companies such as ours cannot just build promising new technology and let market forces decide how it will be used.” I wish Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple had that point of view before they built the AI-driven system we now all live with known as surveillance capitalism.
If predictions are like baseball, I’m bound to have a bad year in 2019, given how well things went the last time around. And given how my own interests, work life, and physical location have changed of late, I’m not entirely sure what might spring from this particular session at the keyboard.
But as I’ve noted in previous versions of this post (all 15 of them are linked at the bottom), I do these predictions in something of a fugue state – I don’t prepare in advance. I just sit down, stare at a blank page, and start to write.