OROne of the challenges of writing about technology is how to escape from what sociologist Michael Mann memorably called “the sociology of the last five minutes”. This is especially difficult when covering the digital technology industry because one is continually inundated with ‘new’ things: viral memes, shiny new products or services, Facebook scandals (a weekly staple), security breaches, etc. The last few weeks, for example, have brought industry enthusiasm for the idea of a “metaverse” (carefully dissected here by Alex Hern), El Salvador flirting with bitcoin, endless stories about central banks and governments beginning to worry about regulating cryptocurrencies, Apple’s possible rethinking of its plans to scan phones and iCloud accounts for child abuse images, countless ransomware attacks, antitrust lawsuits against app stores, Theranos trial, etc., apparently to infinity.
So how do you get out of the fruitless syndrome identified by Professor Mann? One way is to borrow an idea by Ben Thompson, a veteran tech commentator who doesn’t suffer from it, and whose (paid) newsletter should be a must-have daily email for any serious observer of the tech industry. Way back 2014, suggested We think of industry in terms of “epochs”: important periods or epochs in the history of a field. At the time, he saw three epochs in the evolution of our networked world, each defined in terms of its core technology and its “killer application.”
The first time in this framework was the era of the PC, inaugurated in August 1981 when IBM launched its personal computer. The core technology was the open architecture of the machine and the MS-DOS (later Windows) operating system. And the main application was the spreadsheet (which, ironically, had actually pioneered, like VisiCalc, on Apple II).
The second era was the Internet age, which began 14 years after the PC age began, with the Netscape IPO in August 1995. The core technology (the “operating system,” if you will) was the browser. web, the tool that turned the internet into something non-geeks could understand and use, and the era was initially characterized by a fierce struggle for control of the browser, a battle in which Microsoft destroyed Netscape and captured 90% of the market, but he eventually ended up facing an antitrust lawsuit that nearly led to his breakup. In this day and age, search was the killer app, and in the end, the dominant use became social media and the dominant market share was captured by Facebook.
Epoch three under Thompson, the era we’re in now, was mobile. It dates back to January 2007 when Apple announced the iPhone and launched the smartphone revolution. Unlike the previous two eras, there is no single dominant operating system: instead, there is a duopoly between Apple’s iOS system and Google’s Android system. The main application is the so-called “sharing economy” (which, of course, is nothing of the kind), and messaging of various kinds has become the dominant means of communication. And now it seems this smartphone age is reaching its peak.
If that is really what is happening, the obvious question is: what comes next? What will the fourth epoch be like? And here it is worth borrowing an idea from another keen observer of these things, the novelist William Gibson, who observed that “the future is already here; it just isn’t evenly distributed. ” If that’s as deep as I think it is, then what we should be watching out for are things that keep bubbling up in disjointed and seemingly disconnected ways, like hot lava jets in Iceland or other geologically unstable regions.
So what can we see bubbling up in the tech world right now? If you believe in the industry, metaversos (plural) – basically conceived as massive virtual reality environments – could be a great thing. That seems to this observer like an illusion for psychotics. In any case, at its extreme, the the metaverse idea is a vision from an immersive video game-like environment to keep rich humans entertained in their air-conditioned caves while the planet cooks and less fortunate humans have trouble breathing. In that sense, the metaverse might just be a way to avoid unpleasant realities. (But then, as a prominent Silicon Valley figure recently joked, maybe reality is overrated anyway.)
Two more plausible candidates for what will drive future ages are cryptography, in the blockchain technology sense, and quantum computing. But an era in which these are dominant technologies would embody an intriguing contradiction: Our current cryptographic tools rely on creating keys that would take conventional computers millions of years to crack. However, quantum computers would decipher them in nanoseconds. In which case, we will eventually have to admit that, as a species, we are too smart for our own good.
What i’ve been reading
There is a sobering opinion piece in the New York Times by historian Adam Tooze called What if the coronavirus crisis is just a test?
Proust’s Panmnemonicon is a meditation on rereading Proust by Justin EH Smith on his blog. A reminder that if you want to read Proust in your life, you must start now.
Public Books has an excellent piece by Erin McElroy, Meredith Whittaker, and Nicole Weber on Surveillance Tool Intrusion into Homes.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism