Apple’s WWDC developer conference this week marked the conclusion of the period each year when some of the biggest technology companies lay out their agendas for the future of their platforms.
Compared with past years, the message from Silicon Valley was far more muted this time around. Last year, for example, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple were all focused on the next big things in technology, each in its own way laying the foundation for the inevitable death of the smartphone.
This year, by contrast, the companies focused on important but decidedly less flashy topics including security, privacy, and their responsibility to their users and society.
There are a variety of reasons for the tech giants’ reduced ambition. Facebook, Google, and Apple each spent much of the last 12 months in various states of crisis and are now trying to patch things up. Growth in the markets for the technology products that led to the rise of the current behemoths is slowing down to a crawl. And the next generation of technology gadgets and services isn’t ready for prime time yet.
That may sound depressing and disappointing. After all, much of the excitement surrounding the tech industry stems from the bold visions of the future it often offers. But from where I’m standing, this lull is a good thing for the industry and the world.
Technologies under development right now could lead to some potentially terrifying changes. This boring period in the industry gives us the time and the attention to hold the tough conversations we need to have about where the industry and society are heading.
It’s clear from the past year’s scandals in the industry that those conversations are overdue. Because there’s growing concern about the tech industry’s role in society.
Facebook was caught up in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where as many as 87 million people had their data used improperly, and faced continuing fallout over its role in distributing Russian propaganda during the 2016 election. Google and its YouTube service saw criticism over their role in spreading hoaxes and conspiracy theories. And Apple dealt with a storm of criticism over Batterygate, its belated admission that it slowed down some iPhones with older batteries without informing users.
The future is slowing down
This concern is coming amid a transition time for the industry.
The first few slides of Kleiner Perkins investor Mary Meeker’s newest State of the Internet report tell you everything you need to know, which is that overall, the growth in many of the most important tech products and services is flat-lining. Global smartphone shipment growth? Almost precisely flat. Global internet user growth? Flattening out, with a relatively meager 12% year-over-year-growth.
Additionally, both the PC market and the tablet market are declining.
Oh, sure, there are some bright spots in tech. Meeker’s report estimated that the installed base for the Amazon Echo line of smart speakers hit 30 million users by the end of 2017. Other technologies, including streaming video, smartwatches, and cryptocurrencies, are also growing in fits and starts.
But as big a number as it is, 30 million Echo users is a drop in the bucket when you compare it to the more than a billion devices in use running Apple’s iOS software, and the more than two billion gadgets in use that run Google’s Android.
Likewise, the total value of all the bitcoin in circulation — about $131 billion — sounds like a lot. But it’s still less than a tenth of the US dollars in circulation in the form of coins and paper bills. And its less than one one-hundredth of the M2 money stock, a measurement of the amount US dollars in use that includes those held in savings accounts and mutual funds as well as in the form of travelers checks and checking accounts.
That’s not to say that some of these newer technologies will never replace the old. It’s just that right now, even though many of the older technologies are seeing stagnating sales or use, the Next Big Things aren’t close to displacing them.
In other words, things are changing super slowly, and what we have now is roughly what we’ll continue to have for a while to come.
What’s next isn’t ready
We’ve already gotten glimpses at what the next wave of technology will bring.
Many companies are focused on technologies that will immerse us in digital images. Facebook has bet big on virtual reality. It’s already been selling its Oculus Rift VR headset and is promising big things for the next iterations of it. Microsoft, which is betting on both virtual and augmented reality, is already offering its HoloLens AR smart goggles. Google and Apple are both working hard to incorporate AR features into their smartphones.
At the same time, many tech companies are investing heavily in artificial intelligence and in trying to bring AI to consumers. Amazon and Google, in particular, have been going toe-to-toe with Alexa and Assistant, their respective smart voice assistants.
The problem is that so much of this forward-looking stuff just isn’t that useful yet.
Oh, I have no doubt that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is right that by 2027 or so we’ll have smart glasses that are as thin and light as a pair of normal sunglasses. And I’d bet that Amazon will one day succeed in its quest to turn Alexa into the superintelligent supercomputer from “Star Trek.”
But back here in 2018, those cutting-edge technologies are still lacking.
Using augmented reality on a smartphone means waving your phone around and looking silly. Trying to use AR via smart glasses means dealing with some significant technical limitations — and looking even sillier.
Alexa and Assistant can be helpful at times, but they’re not nearly as all-around useful as a smartphone or a computer.
Cryptocurrencies come with too many complications and too much overhead to be truly useful as a replacement for regular money.
And despite all of its own investment in AI, Facebook is staffing up with thousands of humans because artificial intelligence isn’t nearly as good at detecting hate speech as good, old-fashioned people.
All of that stuff will probably get fixed one day. But right now, the result is that our older technologies are growing stagnant and our newer technologies aren’t ready to replace them.
The scandals are good
Ultimately, though, this stagnation may prove to be beneficial. This slowdown in the tech industry has given the world a chance to take a breath. And we’re already using that lull to consider the roll of tech in our lives.
The string of scandals at Facebook and Google were unequivocally bad, with user privacy and perhaps the fate of democracy itself put at risk by decisions made by those tech titans. But they’ve triggered real and important conversations about the role of these major technology companies in our lives. Even the companies themselves seem to agree that it’s time for the broader society to play an active role in shaping how technology affects our country and the world, potentially even through government regulations.
And with folks inside and outside the industry raising alarms about how our devices and apps are affecting us at a personal level — encouraging addiction-like behavior and even leading to depression among teens — there’s growing discussion about “digital health.” Companies including Google, Facebook, and Apple are starting to respond, giving us ways to measure and limit the time we spend with our various gadgets and services.
This is an opportune time to have those conversations. Because the next generation of tech devices and services could be even more dangerous.
When the smartphone dies and augmented reality devices replace it and we’re all wearing our Apple AirPods all the time, the technology companies will have unprecedented access to our brains. When you wear a pair of Facebook’s — or Apple’s or Google’s — smart goggles, you’re going to be letting the company behind them determine what you see and hear. The company and the other tech giants will, in a very literal way, be controlling your perception of reality.
Now is the time to think through the implications of that control — and what could go wrong.
I’m hopeful. Now that we’ve started talking about how to fix our relationship with technology, I don’t think we’re going to stop the discussion anytime soon.
That’s a good thing — as long as we all get on the same page before the next generation of tech is finally ready.