Where I Went Wrong, Again

Dear readers: can you believe I’ve been writing this weekly column for four years now? Me neither. But I have, and it’s time for my annual self-flagellation piece, in which I iterate over my opinions and predictions of the previous year, trumpet my triumphs, and confess all the things I got completely wrong.

This year, though, my two biggest predictions remain stuck in no-man’s-land.

The first is that technology is leading us into an economic Extremistan in which a minority of people have extremely productive and lucrative jobs, while a majority have no job at all outside of occasional piecework sharing-economy gigs. What’s more, despite increasing inequality, in the long run this is a good thing … but in the medium term, until we move to a universal basic income and maybe even a postcapitalist economy, the transition will be wrenching and painful.

Now, I could be wrong about all of this. It’s possible that technology will create good new jobs, available to anyone, as fast or faster than it destroys bad old ones. It’s even possible (though I think extremely unlikely) that we’re not moving into an Extremistan world after all. And it’s hard to tease out the effects of technology from the effects of outsourcing or economic cycles. All that said, I’m pretty confident that software will soon begin to eat away at the fundamental economic assumptions of our society.

My other big call is that BitTorrent and Bitcoin are the vanguard of a slow transition to a much more decentralized Internet. Right now, the five companies that Bruce Sterling calls “the Stacks” — Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft — control most of the online landscape. This is bad. We’re doing the Internet wrong, and we should fix that. Bitcoin’s blockchain could help turn the cloud inside out, which is why I’m excited about sidechains, Ethereum, and Zerocash.

I’ve also been writing about the tech industry bleeding into, and infecting, the larger culture around us. I argued that the rise of irreverent online discourse has made the language used by old media seem staid, boring, and untrustworthy. I observed that the tech industry is actually completely ridiculous, and suggested that this is infectious. And I claimed that technology has annihilated the notion of “mainstream” culture and turned us all into weirdos. Pretty happy to stand by all that.

OK, let’s talk about a couple of bad calls. I suggested that subscription models for books would take off, but the sad truth is that, while more and more such services exist (Oyster, Kindle Unlimited, etc.) as far as I can tell they’re not really getting traction. Books are not like songs, and it seems that one of the ways they’re different is that people like to own their books, not stream them.

I also predicted–twice!–that by June 2017, most Africans would have smartphones: the latest data indicates that’s looking excessively ambitious. There’s still time to turn the growth trend upwards, but right now it seems like 2019 is more likely. Not writing this off yet, though.

On the other hand, I wrote about the shoddy state of online security, and even specifically called out the OpenSSL library that gave us the Heartbleed bug, two weeks before Heartbleed erupted into the world. I’m pretty pleased about that one.

I’ve also been writing about the abuses of technology, and the tech industry, by the powers that be: from the war on hackers to techno-militarization to software patents to the farcical gerrymandering to that den of iniquity called the security-industrial complex. Despite my choice of headline, though, I don’t really think the USA will ever award Edward Snowden a medal of freedom, so that doesn’t count as a prediction. Alas.

Let me finally just highlight my piece “Dear Clients, Please Stop: Ten Ways Founders Sabotage Themselves.” By day I write apps, sites, and services for startups, and this was a quick precis of things I’ve learned the hard way. I predict that many, many startup founders will go onto make those same mistakes again this year. Please don’t be one of them. Please go forth and make new mistakes, instead. They’re way more fun.

We won’t know for some time yet whether my two biggest predictions–a tech-driven transition to Extremistan, and the decentralization of the Internet–were brilliantly prescient or horribly wrong … but hopefully we’ll have a significantly better idea come next November. In the interim, I promise to make more and bolder predictions. See all y’all next year!