We are about one month from a new decade, and that is scary or exciting depending on your point of view. What is beyond subjectivity is that the speed at which the world changes is accelerating because of the proliferation of digital.
Normally at the end of each year I have taken a moment to look back at the big moments and trends that came to pass. Since the calendar will switch to 2020, let’s take a look at the decade and how monumental it was in the history of mankind.
All we see are smartphones, smartphones everywhere
The first iPhone launched in 2007 but it was really the advent of 3G connectivity around the start of the decade that allowed smartphones in general to unlock the utility that has made them such an integral part of our lives. The improvements in cameras combined with the roll out of wireless networks laid the foundation for new types of social networking that has upended the classic Facebook and Twitter model (see next point).
The importance of the rise of smartphones cannot be overstated. They have completely changed everything about our lives. Texting turned into Whatsapp which has become the scaffolding that holds groups and society in general together. And now with Live broadcasting anyone can broadcast anything to the entire world. On a communcations level, the smartphone was the tool that unlocked the promise of the Internet. We have never been more connected – to people that we want to connect to, of course.
Social media matures and curdles
Facebook was great until it reached a saturation point and became a receptical for the connected world’s baggage. Anyone anywhere became a product reviewer, a political pundit, a witty social critic. Whenever anyone pointed something out and got rewarded in the form of likes, they were encouraged to dig a little deeper, and find another gem again. But more people are not product reviewers, political pundits, and especially not witty social critics, so social media became flooded with trash while algorithms served up the only thing that got likes: Nike videos with Ronaldo and videos of cats that aren’t afraid of water. It was no longer about hearing from a long lost friend or relative, it was about letting people connect around topics that interested them, and as benign as that sounds, it actually has had severe consequences on modern society.
Facebook (and the Internet in general, no one here is spared) enabled selective connecting. People were no longer bound to their physical social confines. They were able to find sympathetic people on the other corners of the globe, finding their same wavelength in terms of thinking and belief structure. They were also free of identity and proximity: two very important factors that keep most people from saying whatever crosses their minds out in the open.
Hate minorities? There are a plethora of groups for you. Hate progressives? Hate conservatives? Hate stepping on Legos? There are groups for all of those things. The radical web, powered by the likes of 4chan, provided extremism a place to be rewarded, where (like Facebook) witty memes racked up the likes and moderation was drowned in the pile of used Kleenex next to all of these single white men.
So when the likes of Instagram and Snapchat came along, the Internet’s influential abandonned Facebook to the newest channels of engagement. Instagram launched in 2010 and Snapchat in 2011. Enabled by the advancement of smartphones and connectivity, there were now better ways than a simple status update to be present online. Instagram was only photos so it left out people complaining about a cancelled Delta flight or third photos of ultrasounds. Snapchat was closed groups so young people could express themselves without their parents seeing what they were up to.
Then, as people flocked to those platforms before they were seriously monetized by their creators, the influencer culture kicked in. Why create ads and pay for impressions when you could get someone beautiful with lots of followers to do it for you? The past decade saw the rise and the beginning of the fall of influencers, a fad that tried to equate followers to dollars. A few influencers broke through to celebrity status, and the game continues today although more and more brands are ever more wary about how effective it actually is.
I’ve also written about TikTok but I feel like the next decade will see a continuing shift away from what social media used to be towards more creative and innovative formats. And I don’t want to be negative either, social media’s megaphone has done a lot of good, from creating instant fundraisers like the Ice Bucket Challenge, to addressing natural disaster relief, to enabling the disgusting male dominance culture to come to its reckoning with #MeToo.
But at the turn of the decade, we are clearly in a sour mood over social media and as the next US election ramps up, everything that is ugly about social media will rise to the top.
Information Paradox: twisted between deep learning and fake news
Just like everything that is digital there are two sides, and in the case of information, two ends of a spectrum that is rapidly splitting apart like the assumptions that Tim Berners Lee had when he invented the Internet. On the one end, sources like Wikipedia provide an authority of record for the world’s information, and thanks to donations and hard work, it’s totally free. Is it perfect? Of course not, but it’s the closest thing we have to a realization of the promise of freedom of information. And it provides the basis for a lot of my faith in what humanity is capable of doing together.
Then there are endless blogs, learning websites, and how-to videos that enable anyone to learn how to do pretty much anything. A woman in Botswana can learn how to sell her products online. A teenager in Japan can learn a dance move. New parents can learn about helping their baby fall asleep with an upset stomach. You get the idea. All of this is beautiful.
Even deep learning is possible. Coursera, the massive online open course platform, launched in 2012 and that whole sector of start ups up-ended traditional higher level education. Universities soon jumped on board, offering courses and certificates in technical subjects entirely online. The access to most of these services are free. And it’s not just computer software, it’s also not strategy, finance, even emotional intelligence subjects. Not even the Ivy League schools are staying away. No one want someone else eating their lunch.
The otherside of deep learning is deep faking, the latest trend in misinformation that is plaguing the Internet and arrived in a huge way during the 2016 US Presidential election. People have always been taking advantage of how trustworthy we are as a species to pull the wool over gullible eyes, but misinformation on the Internet is a real menace because of how quickly people make snap decisions. It’s also highly profitable and only now are the major tech players trying to find ways to address the problem because of how much of an impact it can have in the coming 2020 election.
So it is ironic that the ability to have the world’s information at your fingertips is being eroded by people flooding the Internet with fake news.
Cryptocurrencies came to challenge real financial markets
People have been making money online for the past thirty years. Hard to believe but we are almost two decades out from the dot com bubble burst. Now making money online is common place and the business model for some of the world’s biggest companies. But the advent of blockchain technology (enabled by the vast amounts of computer power available in cloud networks) really flipped the script on how money can be traded online.
Bitcoin officially launched in 2009 but it ended up creating wealth until the buzz popped at the end of 2017/beginning of 2018. While there are many other coins out there, Bitcoin is the most representative of the cryptocurrency trend that is truly one of the most fascinating things to emerge from the past decade.
I say fascinating because it was a true exercise in applying the philosophy of the Internet to one of the most centrally controlled aspects of our society: money. The promise of creating a decentralized structure based upon computer technology while at the same time protecting the identity of people who used it found a lot of fans, from entrepreneurs to drug dealers.
In the end the bubble burst but Bitcoin is still on the scene and services like Coinbase that manage virtual currencies for its users have racking in real cash. Will cryptocurrencies ever be able to provide a viable alternative to traditional money? Will Facebook’s Libra currency create a bridge between the offline and online money markets? Only time will tell.
“Alexa” and “OK Google” might be two of the most uttered words over the past two years. Whatever your assistant, the last decade bore witness to the rise of voice. Siri was launched with the iPhone 4 in 2011. Amazon‘s Alexa followed in 2015. Speakers with software embedded started to proliferate, and in the American and UK markets, voice-activated devices now number in the tens of millions.
The frontier of voice is all about interacting with smart devices in a new way, one that doesn’t require typing in a passcode or wiping of your hands first. When you see how the trends are moving, it’s hard to not imagine it taking a bigger share of all of our digital interactions during the 2020s.
Is it perfect? Far from it, but the potent combination of machine learning and increasing utility will make voice the preferred way of commanding digital capabilities. And it will be nothing short of a revolution.
“Siri, what is that statue in Paris that people take pictures of when there is a flood?”
“Alexa, how do I make that cupcake that Jamie Oliver made in that episode with the girl with pink hair?”
“OK Google, buy me the lowest calorie greek yogurt from Kroger’s.”
And that last example is where the money comes in. Voice shopping will be seamless and natural, letting people add items to their basket no matter what the type of product or where it comes from. “Oh yeah, Alexa I need more toilet paper.”
And the biggest advancement in voice over the next decade will have major implications on the thing that I am most excited for, augmented reality.
Virtual and Augmented Reality take off
But not that far. The promise of Google Glass and Snapchat Spectacles were never realized. The technology necessary to push us into the augmented world is just not ready yet – and neither are the people who want it. Yet incredible strides were made, particularly in the virtual reality space.
The coming decade will see the installation of augmented reality as the new cornerstone of digital. Screens will start to disappear as voice integrates with cameras to allow hybrid gestures that enable us to layer a powerful new interactive zone on top of the world in which we live. Our minds cannot even fathom what the changes will mean to how we interact with the world.
Imagine having the ability to see information about people you know float around their head. How many kids they have, the last conversation you had with them, or the fact that tomorrow is their birthday. How much richer could our relationships be?
Just think of the e-commerce implications. In realtime as you look at products in your real world, you can overlay Amazon so that each book that you see has a price tag. Each outfit someone is wearing you can buy a version of it. Advertisers could layer deals over products. Like that Toyota Landrover? The nearest dealership is offering 15% cashback and there are two test drive appointments available tomorrow.
For where there is attention, there will always be people competing for it.
Digital surpasses other media across most of the world
2019 was an inflection point. For most regions of the world, time spent on digital devices surpassed all other types of media (especially TV). This is true in North and Latin America as well as across Asia. This trend shows no sign of slowing down. Digital is taking over the word and continuing to install its place as the way that people interact with it.
The biggest companies in the world are now all tech. Apple and Amazon both flirted with $1 trillon dollar market capitalizations this past year. Even Microsoft is still often on top of the world’s most valuable companies. Alphabet and Facebook are profit generating machines.
Digital is here to stay, and even if we don’t have flying cars yet, we will soon. The coming decade will change the world in ways that even the past decade could not predict. If it’s terrifying or exciting, one thing’s for sure, you will need to hold on tight.