Eventually, the current chaos will subside. What will the tech industry look like over the next four years? What should we expect?
These aren’t predictions as much as possibilities. The point here is not to magically assert the future, but rather to think about places where pressure is building up, and where things might change as a result. Also, after a year of mounting bad news, it’s very therapeutic to imagine some good news. Here are some things I’ll be watching.
The Big Changes
Regulation: There’ll be more
This one is obvious: There are going to be many more congressional hearings about social media, app store guidelines, platform lock-in, and the like. Policymakers will draft new regulations around transparency and labeling media sources. Maybe protecting consumer privacy sounds good, but much of this policy will simultaneously peck away at user privacy in the interests of law enforcement.
As this unfolds, copyright holders (news and other media) will line up asking for kickbacks from the social networks, and also will ask in many ways for the government to break (especially) Apple’s 30% lock on in-app purchases. European efforts like the GDPR or even the Right to Be Forgotten will be mined for inspiration.
All of this will come as a relief at first, and then cause a massive internet freakout as we see just how many things are being horse-traded in tech regulation’s name. Eventually, sure, the industry will just code the legislation into terms of service, make everything opt-in, and keep printing money. But there’ll be a lot to work out first.
Silicon Valley: It’ll be weird
It’s going to be an odd stretch for Silicon Valley. Lots of tech leaders abhor regulation, so there’ll be a lot of stomping around on Twitter and Clubhouse and Parler and wherever else tech libertarians go to farm their rage. Simultaneously, half of the USA sees “tech” as a democracy-destroying monster, which is bad for the brand. And, meanwhile, the pandemic has shown people how to work at home — and the FAANG companies will only become more physically decentralized, even as the services they provide (and acquire) will become more digitally centralized.
If I were being cynical I’d say that it’s a shame Halt and Catch Fire is already a TV show, because it’s a great way to describe Silicon Valley’s geopolitical future. And yet…I’m bullish, as usual. City-states are an ancient technology that work really well. A lot of people will work from home, and a lot of Twitter-account VCs will complain about the fascism of any form of regulation. But then they’ll invest in new startups that create marketplaces to trade around the new regulations, and everyone will go to The French Laundry to celebrate their C round, or whatever it is that VCs do. In the long run, tech is everywhere — when you pick up your phone, you don’t care that AT&T was a New York City company — but it’s still a long run, and Silicon Valley has a lot of money and ideas to go. It’ll keep breeding unicorns.
Civic tech: Lots to build on
The good people of the US Digital Service, 18F, and other civic tech ventures have all been working steadily over the past four years, like ambulance drivers in a bad hurricane. Many thanks to them!
Now it looks like a lot of energy is going to go into making a better, more responsive digital government, and instead of starting from scratch, this time there’s a ton of work done around accessible design systems, basic tech infrastructure, authentication and identity, and so forth. Which means that people working in civic tech with broad mandates should be able to ship meaningful services to civilians or servicemembers with months, not years, of work.
And you can increasingly expect government orgs to ship good stuff: open source code, scalable APIs optimized for reuse, and so on, rather than monolithic software. As a result, the U.S. government “platform” is going to keep growing and getting more valuable, month over month, and lots of people who wouldn’t have wanted to serve under Trump are going to want to help. Which is great, as long as they listen and learn before starting to code. (Check out Cyd Harrell’s book, A Civic Technologist’s Practice Guide.)
There’s one huge caveat here: Contracting. It’s still ridiculously difficult for smaller, more nimble organizations to work with the government. (For example, a few years ago I started talking with a government agency about some work it wanted Postlight to do, and it dragged on so long that my contact…retired.) So even if the tools are good, and the desire for progress is real, execution will be hard. Giant orgs will still take government money, burn it, and ship a month’s work in a year. And of course, we’ll still only be talking about a few systems out of thousands. Still! Fun to watch, with big impact.
Climate work: Here it comes
As climate guidelines get baked into law, and thus into business requirements, and money frees up to implement new climate guidelines, climate sensitivity will need to be baked into technology platforms. For example, if you’re a giant company deciding where to buy your aluminum, you’ll need to factor in the carbon involved in mining, refining, and shipping, and weigh that against a bunch of other factors. If you gain any kind of credit for that, how do you exchange it? (In Kim Stanley Robinson’s new book he posits a sort of blockchain for carbon credits, and I mean, whatever works.)
A lot of this has started already. But much more will need to happen in the big sleeping whales of software: inside enterprise resource planning systems, mapping tools, and the like, built into SDKs. It’ll be dry stuff, but there’s a lot to do. Judging from Postlight’s inbound queue of work, I expect this to be a major growth area for client services over the next…well, probably forever.
Social fragmentation: We can hope
The monolithic hold of social media over the internet’s attention is starting to fragment. First, self-regulation by orgs will change some dynamics — like Facebook’s promise to stop running political ads (eventually), or Twitter’s labeling of “disputed claims” on Trump’s tweets. Government regulation will change it further.
It seems inevitable that “third places” will show up — the “first place” is email and chat, the second is established social platforms with all their rules, and the third are places that are somewhat public but not open to all, new platforms where people can yell and stomp around and be themselves, like the far-right Twitter clone Parler, which will probably implode due to infighting but will lead to a lot of Mother Jones articles in the meantime. Or Mastodon instances, or small Slack communities. Ultimately it’s a pretty small percentage of people who want to fight all the time; most humans want to trade recipes, say stupid stuff about sports, and engage in mild piracy without anyone yelling at them. In addition to severely damaging democracy, the big social platforms are doing a bad job of filling that market need, so I’d expect other solutions to arise.
Be mindful, though: The social giants aren’t going away. Trump will still be tweeting in 2024, and hundreds of millions of people will be engaged/enraged. But the platforms can’t remain this monolithic and centralized; humans are just too inconsistent to keep this mess going.
So, what to do?
So how will this trickle down to we the people, who make the platforms and apps with our keyboard-typing and mouse-moving? This is obviously even more of a set of guesses than the above, but consider some new probabilities.
Expect a lot of opting in
The idea that you can track someone around the internet — because…well, because you want to — could fade away, partially because of moves by Apple, and probably because of some influence from the government. You’re going to have to ask people for data, not just help yourself, and you may need to give people the right to manage and erase their own data. I could even imagine that being automated — imagine a really big DO NOT EMAIL list controlled by the government, but with teeth. The right time to have started collecting opt-in email addresses that can be used as unique account IDs was 20 years ago; the second best time is today.
Start looking for ways to “climate enable”
Climate science is hard, and if you’re a tech-oriented person, it’s a little…well, boring. There’s no IDE or YouTube tutorials, just a lot of science. But it’s pretty likely that the next four years will involve a lot of global warming mitigation efforts, and that means lots of sensors out there, lots of data to analyze, lots of machine learning models to evaluate, lots of supply chains to optimize in new ways. It won’t all be carbon calculators.
It’ll trickle down. You might build accelerated insurance claims software for people whose homes are damaged by increased flooding. Or tools for notifying people about weather events. Or build tools for hardware chains to help people pick more sustainable, resistant home repair materials. Better fire notification systems. Platforms for emergency preparedness. Tools to help farmers manage and predict drought.
I know this sounds kind of dystopian. That’s because it is. But it’ll happen bit by bit, and as it happens, people will still be buying things through their phones and filling out forms. When you see that McKinsey is coming down hard on the need for organizations to adapt to climate change, you know that the rest of capitalism will eventually follow.
Light a candle in hopes of app store changes
This is a stretch, and wishful thinking, but just imagine for a moment if Apple suddenly was forced to charge 5% for in-app purchases instead of 30%. You’d see a vast, thriving ecosystem bloom in hours. It’s just a huge tax we all pay. Fun to think of what you’d do if you could get a quarter of your revenue back! You could do so many more interesting things with that money, whereas Apple will just use it to hold more events announcing updates to Apple Watch.
Fun fact: Just before we hit “publish” on this post, Apple announced that small businesses will have their app tariffs lowered to 15%. I wonder why they made that decision right now, after 12 years? Hmm!
Experiment with new distribution strategies
Social media plus Google ads have taken all the air out of every room and it’s essentially impossible to make something new and share it with an audience, without paying tons of money to billionaires, or turning everything you make into memes. Plus, no one visits home pages.
That’s why newsletters are big now: Because they provide reliable, predictable, cheap means of distribution since social won’t and can’t. Another means of distribution is phone notifications; the New York Times, for example, is hiring a full-time mobile notifications editor.
So even though one-off apps are weak sauce, people will keep making them because they let you regularly ask for attention and engagement without paying Facebook or Twitter for the privilege. You could even see a renaissance in RSS feed readers (Substack is apparently building its own!).
Creating audience without paying a huge tax to some utterly disinterested gatekeeper is the great challenge of our age.
Somehow podcasts will ignore all of this but keep doing fine.
Maybe over the next four years little changes: The social networks and Google agree to behave a little better. Fake news flare-ups are a normal part of life, but everyone follows a more transparent rulebook. The newsletter fad crashes because no one wants to pay for that much media, and big players like The New York Times and The Washington Post keep growing. There are more privacy rules to follow, but in general, if you use well-known user tracking and analytics platforms, you don’t get into too much trouble.
Or perhaps it will come down to a change in tone: The Biden administration focuses on “de-polarization” (a little different than bipartisanship) and makes social media a big target of action while encouraging the Republicans to reject Trumpism, in the hope that America can just chill out. The FCC starts to keep closer tabs on a lot of FAANG companies, including bigger telecoms. As a result, the giant platforms go on a charm offensive and start working together around pandemic preparedness, climate, and so forth — i.e., helping the administration with its policy goals in their own self-interest. The changes start to trickle down at the API and SDK levels, with things like Apple’s CarbonKit.
For fun, let’s turn the dial all the way. Maybe we’re headed to a huge climate-driven economic reboot: VCs funding climate mitigation marketplaces, the option for every Amazon purchase to be offset, huge amounts of government spending, vast changes in finance, insurance, and real estate. Partnerships with China on climate start to change the trade relationships as well, and more Chinese software platforms get relaunched in the U.S., à la TikTok. TPP gets resurrected. Huawei is forgiven and buys the state of New Mexico!
Or maybe there will be pressure from all corners, leading to increased regulation and pressure to break up major components into multiple companies: Amazon to split off cloud, Apple to manage in-app purchase rates, rules about lock-in, everyone managing their own data. That’s a lot of change for four years, though.
And of course I’ve mostly neglected the gaggle of black swans out there flapping around. I’m assuming vaccines, stability, a relatively stable market — I left out a lot of the bad stuff, because I think we’ve been playing those scenarios out for years now. We already know what it looks like when tech treats humans like a cheap natural resource.
What’s obvious to me is that the next four years will be an opportunity for tech to de-center itself from every single conversation about politics and culture. It can do that by accepting that it’s…infrastructure. (I love infrastructure.) I know we’re supposed to be the most disruptive industry, but the world doesn’t seem to be craving any more disruption. Maybe we could focus on stabilizing institutions instead of destroying them. Just for a minute. Even half a minute. One can always hope.
Paul Ford is the CEO and Co-Founder of Postlight. Talk to him about digital transformation at firstname.lastname@example.org and find him on Twitter @ftrain.
Story published on Nov 17, 2020.