We haven’t quite dealt with all of the repercussions of tech’s domination of the past decade — there will be regulations, a lot of tech is still addictive, and digital hate will continue to travel halfway around the world before the truth gets out of bed — but there are some big, positive ideas that I think you will hear a lot more about in the coming years.
While I have been a strong critic of tech, and it is easy to chew over what’s gone wrong — it makes for a large meal — I think it is more helpful, as 2020 dawns, to put forth five predictions that I hope will allow us to live more peacefully with the tech that we love and hate.
More investment in tech that addresses climate change. With all due respect to Greta Thunberg and the efforts of young people across the globe to bring attention to climate change, governments may never agree on how to properly address our lurch toward environmental suicide. Which is why it is critically important that tech turn its focus toward creating products that will save us. The amount of investment in green technology remains stubbornly low compared with other tech sectors. Bill Gates and Elon Musk have been making more investments in this area, but they remain the only big names doing so. That’s too bad, since I think the world’s first trillionaire will be a green-tech entrepreneur. There are many areas to explore, including battery storage, renewables, software and artificial intelligence to help us understand climate data, the food ecosystem and even the way we construct our buildings. The most important challenge is finding a way to keep carbon in the ground — and figuring out the best way to do that provides a golden opportunity for entrepreneurs.
Automation for good. There has been a lot of discussion about the job-killing potential of tech, including how an unholy combination of automation, robotics and artificial intelligence will be the death of employment. Many jobs will, in fact, be replaced by tech, especially ones that are rote and also many that are high paying in medicine, law and more. But this is also an opportunity to rethink the entire way we imagine employment and education. The smartest minds in tech should be thinking about reformulating and recalibrating the workplace and the structure of businesses. And rather than accept that poor pay and poor protections for gig workers are inevitable and that the pressures of a global work force are too hard to push back, tech companies should figure out how to creatively and humanely deploy talent across the world to show that they are interested in dealing with the consequences of their inventions.
Is there a business in depolarization? I get that the forces of cynicism, manipulation and hate are forever on the digital march, but I am convinced that there is money to be made in appealing to our weariness with how our tech lives have been shaped. There are ways to foster digital interaction that do not have to incite rage. The reason much of social media feels so toxic is it has been built for speed, virality and attention grabbing rather than for context and accuracy. While it seems impossible to imagine a new kind of social-network product in the shadow of Facebook, TikTok, for all its controversy as a Chinese-owned company, has been a runaway success (the first big social success since Snapchat arrived in 2011), and there is room for more. There are opportunities to create new forms of communication that give the advantage to users — by strictly enforcing behavior standards and eliminating anonymity, and most of all, with advertising-based business plans that are not predicated on taking advantage of our personal data.