A sense of optimism is built in to technological innovation. We hope that with each new round of devices, each update of our gadget ecosystem, our world will get that much better. Facebook is flying drones to bring Internet access to sub-Saharan Africa? Great! Google’s self-driving car is making its way down the roads of San Francisco? Excellent.
If we weren’t so hopeful about these ambitious projects, they might start to seem at best absurd and at worst exploitative. If 2013 was the year of surveillance paranoia following the Edward Snowden leaks, then 2014 was the year we started to process those fears and accept that, along with technological optimism, we need a strong sense of cynicism as well.
It’s up to users to protect themselves with digital tools like encryption, though the FBI is pushing for the mandatory inclusion of "backdoors" that would make even that unsafe.
It’s not only the latest round of smartphone releases or Internet-enabled toilet-paper dispensers we need to cast a skeptical eye on. It’s the way technology is changing the infrastructure of our world, and how often that technological infrastructure is controlled by private companies rather than the government, which, it must be said, has proven more than capable of abusing technology on its own.
As Christopher Mims put it in the Wall Street Journal, “2014 was the year we became more connected than ever. And it was also the year it became apparent that this connectivity will have terrible costs.” Next year—2015—will require mainstream users of technology to become more aware of safe practices than ever before, to avoid those costs. Here are five trends in technology to look for next year—with the appropriate mix of hope and skepticism.
Over the course of this year on Pacific Standard, I’ve been tracking how technology is changingmoney (or isn't as the case may be). This past year proved Bitcoin an unstable bet—the digital currency that was supposed to change everything ballooned in value and then collapsed. As a $1,000 commodity, however, Bitcoin wasn’t useful as an actual currency, because no one wanted to get rid of it. The collapse is the only way Bitcoin’s actual purpose—as unmediated, international money accepted everywhere—can be tested, the results of which we might see by the end of 2015.
Elsewhere, companies like Apple moved into the financial technology space, trying to make your wallet less necessary than ever before. Change is slow, but the tide is turning away from cash as ever more retailers and banks adopt digital payments.
It’s really easy to unlock the iPhone 5 with your fingerprint! Unfortunately, that means Apple also has access to your identity. Biometrics, the science of quantifying unique biological characteristics, is quickly becoming the method of choice for proving you are who you say you are, whether using your phone or crossing international borders.
You might be able to open your front door with a biometric lock, but can you keep that data secure? In 2015, the United States government will ramp up its Next Generation Identification program, which is building the largest biometrics database the world has ever seen. As that database is scanned to identify possible criminals, abuse seems imminent.
This year, troll efforts like Gamergate and rampant sexual harassment have become public problems on large social networks that are slow to implement powerful blocking tools. To deal with this reticence, we’re increasingly turning toward private social platforms, including group chat apps like GroupMe and Slack. In 2015, Facebook and Twitter have to prove they’re capable of policing the spaces they’ve created—otherwise, we’re going to create our own alternatives.
Digital surveillance depends not on tracking data in real time, but on storing and analyzing it. The National Security Agency is constructing huge data farms for just that purpose in Utah. With NSA reform bills stalling in Congress, stopping the collection of data seems unlikely. It’s up to users to protect themselves with digital tools like encryption, though the FBI is pushing for the mandatory inclusion of “backdoors” that would make even that unsafe.
Yet “there’s absolutely nothing wrong or illegal about a person encrypting their information,” Liza Goitein of the Brennan Center for Justice told me earlier this year. In 2015, I hope that realization sticks and more users understand that they have a right to their own data.
If 2014 was the year the job failed, then 2015 should be when we start to re-build it and decide what we think it should look like going forward. We can choose the Uber model, in which workers are exploited for cheap labor and even misled into making poor business decisions by a company that’s loosely employing them. Or, we can choose to move back toward the not-so-disruptive, older corporate model of encouraging long-term employment with support for employees in the form of salaries, benefits, and bonuses.
Technology companies are driven to “scale”—to grow as fast as possible, as quickly as possible. But we’re missing out on how the innovations outlined above can also help us create a more sustainable society, where the rewards of Silicon Valley’s success are shared equitably. That’s my wish for next year.