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My Wrong Turns And Right Thinking In 2015

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Good Lord. I have been a TechCrunch columnist for five years now, filing a piece every week, rain or shine or hail or flu, for 260 consecutive weeks. (Well–I might have missed one week when I was in Myanmar.) Can you believe it? Me neither. And so it is time, once again, for my annual self-flagellation column, wherein I itemize all the mistakes I made over the last year.

Let’s start with the big one. I’ve been writing–for some years now–that automation and machine learning will transform the economy as we know it, leaving masses of people without “jobs” as we know them. Unusually, I think this is an optimistic prediction, in the long run. Most jobs-as-we-know them are dreary drudgery, after all. If robots do them for us, great! …But if technology destroys jobs faster than it creates them, our socioeconomic system built around the assumption of mass employment will be in serious peril.

So how’s that transformation going? Well. Not so well, thanks for asking. Yes, technology is eating manufacturing jobs, even in China, but I see no evidence in the rich world (particularly in America, generally the canary in the coal mine) that automation has caused a permanent structural economic shift of the kind I predicted.

Maybe I was too early. Maybe, I have since speculated, I was too simplistic. My new theory; technology won’t directly eat jobs — it will instead drag our economy from Mediocristan into Extremistan, wherein power laws rule, a minority of people do very well, and a majority get by, barely, as part of the precariat, taking gigs and contract work without ever really having anything like a career. But that is still just speculation too, thanks for asking. Uber is an interesting bellwether, but so-called “sharing economy” gigs are still just a sideshow in the larger economy.

I still believe the transition to Extremistan is very real, and underway, albeit slowly. But I don’t have any actual hard evidence for this — and I thought I would by now — so let’s not ignore the possibility that I could, in fact, be completely wrong.

Moving on to cheerier subjects! In June 2012, I predicted that by mid-2017, most Africans will have smartphones. At the time, trust me, most Serious People thought that notion incredibly Pollyannaish and naïve. But IDC reports that 47% of the phones shipped in Africa in Q1 2015 were smartphones, and Statista predicts that smartphones will outsell feature phones in the Middle East and Africa as of 2016. When will this translate into a majority of the installed base? It’s touch and go … but mid-2017 seems like at least a vaguely plausible date. Score one for yours truly.

In last year’s scorecard, I wrote : “My other big call is that BitTorrent and Bitcoin are the vanguard of a slow transition to a much more decentralized Internet […] Bitcoin’s blockchain could help turn the cloud inside out, which is why I’m excited about sidechains, Ethereum, and Zerocash.” Well, it’s too soon to be anything close to sure, but everyone’s talking about blockchains, and both Ethereum and a production sidechain have launched. The trend, at least, is hopeful.

A few other predictions to watch in years to come: that we’re moving towards hardware as a service. That Rust will slowly replace C for low-level programming. That we’re not in a tech bubble, but we are in an online advertising bubble. I’ll follow up on those things next year, God willing and the creek don’t rise. In the interim, I hereby instruct myself to make more testable predictions in the next year; and in the meantime, I’m sure I can always count on TechCrunch’s much-beloved commenters to keep me honest.

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