No one can say for certain what new apps will arise and what companies will fade away this year, but our tech columnist Michael Thomsen makes three bold predictions for the tech world in 2014.
Predicting the future is one of the inescapable affects of people who follow technology. The industry is founded on a belief in improvement, and it can be irresistible to claim the role of head soothsayer, standing before a roiling chaos of startups, swindlers, and conglomerates, claiming to see what will come next. Because all technologies presume to be solutions to some great or small problem with the present, all predictions about technology end up being seen as either pro- or anti-progress. But it’s also possible to read the future of technology as something cyclical, bound to patterns of over-excited optimism and abandonment at the first signs of trouble.
Many have argued the tech industry has been an inflating bubble over the last decade, and the last few years of record-breaking revenues from Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter offer evidence of the Western world is nearing a saturation point for apps, streams, networks, and devices. Combined with an increasing skepticism sprung from waves of bad press about government spying, unscrupulous data harvesting, and the clamoring noise from interchangeable competitors, it could be that we are on the verge of an epochal course correction.
2014 could be a year of great progress, in a way, shuttling off the worst excesses of the last decade of tech industry build up. Here are are three of my predictions for what 2014 will bring. I have no idea if any of this will actually turn out to be true, but everything a writer claims to be true is a reflection of what he wants to be true. In that spirit, accept these three called shots as prescriptive hopes for how the tech world might be a healthier, and less exploitive place in the coming year.
Microsoft Begins Its Transformation Into a Zombie Company
Did you know that Friendster still exists, and that you can Like it on Facebook? The company has a Twitter account and a YouTube channel as well, though odds are you’ve never been to any of those places. This is what death is like for technology companies, they don’t go away, people just stop caring about them until they forget they even exist. Microsoft once predominated the entire computer industry, a simple software manufacturer that somehow managed to become more important than the machines its operating systems and programs ran on. For long while, just saying PC meant Windows PC and not OSX, Linux, Dell, or HP.
[Microsoft] is still a behemoth, with an estimated $77 billion in revenue for 2013, but much of its money is zombie profit, living on a legacy of old invention and without any real case to make for itself in the future. The company will not go bankrupt or collapse in 2014, it will just begin a long fade into the background.
Today, everything is different, in large part because “computer” is no longer the monolithic term it was in the 80s and 90s. Computers are everywhere now, and fewer and fewer of them run Microsoft programs, from iPhones and iPads to GPS machines and fitness bands. Last year, the company finally accepted the resignation of Steve Ballmer after a decade of lost opportunities and outright failures, including the failure to beat iPad to market with J. Allard’s Courier project , the woeful sales of Surface, and the widespread disinterest in Windows 8. The company is still a behemoth, with an estimated $77 billion in revenue for 2013, but much of its money is zombie profit, living on a legacy of old invention and without any real case to make for itself in the future. The company will not go bankrupt or collapse in 2014, it will just begin a long fade into the background.
Data Mining Fatigue
One of the most genuine thrills of early social networking was seeing all of the taken-for-granted bits of one’s life suddenly quantified into orderly lists. Our lives all seemed like they might be worth something more when they could be counted with likes, retweets, check-ins, calories consumed, or miles run. Being able to plug in our minutiae to overarching networks that inflated their sense of meaning was hypnotic for a time, but the gold rush on services that prey on the eagerness to be quantified has peaked.
Matt Skenazy describes the disenchantment with the data mining industry in a story for Pacific Standard, about his use of the run-tracking software Strava to structure his exercises. Strava was crucial in helping him train for and finish a marathon in under three hours. “I finished in 2:52:07,” he wrote. “But I was so so physically depleted that there was no joy in the accomplishment. I stared blankly at the clock showing my time, and felt nothing. When I got home, I put Strava, the metronome, and the GPS-equipped watch aside, and, for the first time in half a decade, stopped running.” 2014 may likely bring a new flood of similar stories, in which people come to realize the gains in performance and efficiency they got from their add-on apps and devices came with even greater compromises that ultimately weren’t worth it.
Technology Will Mean Carpentry and Maintenance Not Yearly Upgrades
Our lives all seemed like they might be worth something more when they could be counted with likes, retweets, check-ins, calories consumed, or miles run. Being able to plug in our minutiae to overarching networks that inflated their sense of meaning was hypnotic for a time, but the gold rush on services that prey on the eagerness to be quantified has peaked.
The 2010 iPad announcement was a whirlwind of repetition, with the words “magical,” “beautiful,” and “incredible” used to describe a device that, three years later, can’t run Apple’s current version of iOS and is very close to being totally obsolete. Magic has an incredibly short shelf life when it comes to technology, and nowhere is it more apparent than in the insistence on incremental yearly upgrades that are sold with life-changing hyperbole but only deliver variations on email, web browsers with a video streaming. The nature of the yearly upgrade is that all subsequent years must, by nature, be made inadequate by progress, and it seems more and more obvious that the magic we are buying this year is only just a ghost of next year’s dilapidation.
As the economy continues to flag, there may be an increasing shift away from the fixation on magical daydream technologies to more practical technologies like carpentry and electrician work. In an article for BuzzFeed, Drew Philp describes his experience buying an abandoned home in Detroit for $500 and teaching himself all of the forgotten skills of craftsmanship necessary to maintain a place when there’s no super to call. The experience left him with a different kind of magic, learning to work together with neighbors to rebuild a community without any larger narrative other than simple friendship and interdependency. “I’m not certain I’ve become an example to anyone or necessarily changed a whole lot for the better,” he writes. “But I’m still here. I go to bed and I wake up every day in Detroit, in a house I built with my own hands. Sometimes success means just holding on.” You probably couldn’t sell an iPad with that kind of talk, but someone capable of talking like that would probably be better company over a lifetime.
Michael Thomsen is Complex's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, NewYorker.com, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.