The year in technology: eight charts for 2019

Tiktok, the suddenly popular short-video app from China’s ByteDance Inc, launched a thousand memes. — AFP

Technology continues to change everything in both hopeful and harmful ways. As in prior years, Bloomberg Opinion is assessing the eight top themes in technology for 2019 and what they tell us about the industry and beyond. Here’s the list, in reverse order of importance:​​​​​​

8) Fractures Inside Tech Companies: It’s hard to know how widespread it is, but there are more signs of tech worker discontent with their bosses and with each other. Some technology employees are speaking up about what they believe are workplace inequities or destructive company decisions in areas such as harmful online activity, environmental damage and tech products’ use by government entities. In a potent symbol of the fissures of ideals meeting the reality of large organisations, Google management ended its weekly question-and-answer session with employees.

7) Unchecked Data Collection and Control: The Internet economy has become an arms race for ever-more inventive and aggressive human surveillance by companies, workplaces, educational institutions and an unseen web of middlemen. There is little accountability or true consent from those involved and too little attention on balancing benefits and risks. At the same time, citizens are reckoning with governments and law enforcement that have honed technology techniques to influence opinion, surveil critics, quash dissent or harness potentially problematic tools.

6) Apple’s Year of Transition (Maybe): Apple Inc started 2019 stung by long-gestating changes in smartphone buying habits in China and elsewhere. The year ends with Apple’s market value hitting a record US$1.3tril (RM5.34tril) as investors believe it is reinventing itself with Internet add-ons and hardware other than the iPhone. I give Apple credit for finding fresh ways to grow. But new smartphone sales are likely in permanent stagnation, and other companies will be more influential in shaping the future.

5) TikTok Is Everything Good and Bad: The suddenly popular short-video app from China’s ByteDance Inc launched a thousand memes, minted hit songs and gave us a pop culture treasure that no one hated (I think). Nothing is good and pure in 2019, though. TikTok has been forced to confront how it handles online misinformation, censorship in the app and dangers to young people. ByteDance also is part of the tug of war between the United States and China over the future of the Internet and the global order (see No. 4). And TikTok, which is spending a fortune to land users, may not defy Internet gravity forever.

4) Tech and Its Fissures Go Global: Tensions between the United States and China reflected a tug of war over technology and everything else. The two superpowers are increasingly diverging in tech with potentially profound implications. In India, South-East Asia, Africa and other spots, low-cost smartphones and improving mobile Internet are bringing millions of new people online. Locals are creating novel tech habits and stars. And in some cases, the Internet newcomers are just as unprepared as counterparts in richer countries for the downsides of technology.

3) Amazon’s Might and Blind Spots: The milestone of Inc handling about half of its deliveries showed the company’s skill at transformation – and its congenital inability to reckon with its shortcomings. There has been more attention on the pressures faced by Amazon warehouse workers and delivery drivers; the potentially harmful products sold on its site; environmental damage from e-commerce habits it helped ingrain; privacy compromises of company software and devices; and how Amazon flexes its power to its advantage. Amazon may believe the attention is unfair and wrong, but that doesn’t negate the downsides of the company’s products, strategy choices and hubris.

2) The Humbling for Unicorns: Uber Technologies Inc and Lyft Inc became the symbols for tech unicorns that landed with a thud as investors doubted their economic models and strategies. That suggested elite technology newcomers have been overvalued for years. Unglamorous business software startups have typically done well, although they are untested by economic stresses and their high valuations may not be justified. WeWork, the office leasing startup that encapsulated every 2010s tech excess, flipped from hyped to nearly dead. It’s possible that entire categories – on-demand services, new breed retailers and streaming video, for example – may prove mirages of investor cash and regulatory loopholes.

1) Can We Have Tech Without the Dark Side? Technology has brought us useful and surprising products that reshape how people live and businesses function. But as with big energy companies, those valued products also are harmful. And as energy companies did, tech companies weren’t honest with themselves and the public about the trade-offs.

Once naivete about technology went away, all the standard operating procedures were open to questioning – unchecked digital surveillance, computers that decide what information people see or jobs they get and companies’ choices to tolerate harm in favor of prioritizing other goals. Many Americans, including some technologists and political leaders, are worried about technology’s power and its side effects. A version of this has been the top theme in each of my last two annual roundups, and it remains the existential question: Can all of us – citizens, elected officials and technologists – nurture the good elements of tech while mitigating the downsides?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners. – Bloomberg

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