We’re now on the threshold of the 5G’s era. What can we expect in the unfolding 2018? There are some cringeworthy moments about tech in the past year, however, looking forward, the whole society is very likely to witness faster and more achievements in more alluring entertainment, treatment tailored to cure disease and green energy exploited as the more realistic replacement. Last but not least, the revival of social conscience as the victims’ blog post blasts the sexual harrassment into public consciousness. All in all, a better life that deserves optimistic attitude.
A few weeks ago, my colleague Shira Ovide, a longtime tech reporter and columnist, said what many of us have been thinking: Silicon Valley sucks these days. “I’ve fallen out of love with technology,” Shira wrote, noting that this felt like the year when much of America began to seriously confront the downsides of the new economy. “The same qualities that made the internet so thrilling for a couple of decades—eliminating gatekeepers, making information instantaneous and connecting people with different points of view—now sometimes seem more threatening than alluring.”
The novelty of social media has given way to concerns about misinformation. Smartphone mania has become tougher to distinguish from outright addiction. Smart speakers are convenient, but could also double as scarily effective surveillance devices. The robots are going to take our jobs. Oh, and some of the guys responsible for these problems increasingly seem like a bunch of misogynistic creeps.
Yes, 2017 has been full of betrayals and unforced errors by people in the tech industry. A shocking number have revealed themselves to be even more greedy, petty, and narcissistic than common sense would suggest.
But some other stuff happened, too. I’m not saying it was a great year, but I am saying it wasn’t all awful. Here are some reasons not to go looking for a telegraph:
1. Faster Cellphones
These days it’s tough to rack up a $62,000 cellphone bill just because your nephew wants to watch Wall-E, but data fees and caps are still a prime consideration for lots of wireless customers. That should come to an end under the fifth-generation (5G) cellular standard, a set of improvements expected to make data transfer up to 100 times faster than it is today while dramatically increasing bandwidth. Once the system is that efficient, worrying about how much data you used in a given month will seem as silly as worrying about the cost of a long-distance phone call.
In November, Verizon said it’d bring 5G service to as many as five U.S. cities by the end of next year. T-Mobile promises nationwide 5G coverage by 2020. 5G may also serve as a credible alternative to local monopolies maintained by traditional internet service providers and cable companies, eventually adding an additional $3.2 trillion to the global economy and creating 22 million jobs worldwide by 2035. This should cheer you up if you’re depressed by last week’s net neutrality rollback.
2. Smarter Stuff
When it comes to 5G, faster phones are the least exciting part of the story. Right now, many developments in artificial intelligence tend to be stuck in the labs where the biggest, most powerful computers are located. Even self-driving cars have to carry trunks full of expensive electronic brains. Reliable 5G could allow enough of that computing power to be done remotely to make driverless cars safer and cheaper, and make internet-connected medical devices genuinely useful. Imagine, for instance, smart bandages that monitor the healing of a wound, alerting your doctor if it becomes infected, or internet-connected glucose monitors that use sophisticated machine learning algorithms to tailor treatment for diabetes patients. (There will be security concerns, of course.)
3. Bigger Batteries
Partly because phones keep getting more powerful, most still need recharging before the end of the day. Improved manufacturing processes, however, have made batteries cheaper and much more useful than they’ve ever been. Earlier this year, while blackouts were plaguing southern Australia, Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk boasted on Twitter that he would build a 100-megawatt battery facility in 100 days, “or it is free.” The Aussies took him up on it, and despite Musk’s tendency to set unrealistic goals, Tesla delivered the world’s biggest battery one day early. (This might count as two reasons: Elon Musk hit a deadline!)
There are other large-scale battery projects on the way, including an even bigger one Hyundai is building in South Korea, scheduled to open in February. The speed with which these facilities are being built suggests that wind and solar power are a more realistic replacement for fossil fuels than most people realize, as long as Tesla and others are able to work out manufacturing kinks.
4. A New Space Race
Musk’s other company, SpaceX, hit a big milestone Friday. For the first time, it sent a reused spaceship to the International Space Station on top of a reused rocket, which in the long run could mean dramatically reduced launch cost. SpaceX’s next-generation rocket, Falcon Heavy, could fly as early as January. Meanwhile, Planet Labs is democratizing satellites, Rocket Lab is trying to further slash launch costs, and Jeff Bezos is doing what Jeff Bezos does best on behalf of his rocket company, Blue Origin.
5. Cheaper Stuff
Economies of scale are an underappreciated side effect of Bezos’ growing wealth and power. Recently, New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo described how the online retailer—which just so happens to be trying to jump into pretty much every other industry and increasingly looks like a target for antitrust regulators—had enabled no-name startups to undercut the big electronics companies. Wyze Labs, for instance, makes an internet-connected video camera and sells it for $26, including shipping; a similar product sold by Alphabet’s Nest division costs $200.
As Manjoo wrote, Amazon has essentially superseded the typical value of product brands (building trust, setting up a sales infrastructure, marketing). Customers who don’t go to stores and buy based on Amazon reviews essentially get to keep the money brands once invested in those things. That’s sad for Nest, I suppose, but it’s arguably pretty great for cash-strapped parents who can get an internet-connected video camera for the same price as a traditional baby monitor.
You can’t use bitcoin on Amazon, or for much of anything at the moment besides speculation. But that’s only half the story.
For a second, let’s forget the crazy runup, ignore the bitcoin lottery winners, and just marvel that bitcoin mania happened in the first place. At a time when a handful of giant companies and their billionaire founders control the technology landscape, a group of misfits led by a creator nobody knows managed to popularize a technology that may fundamentally change how Wall Street moves money around, how we vote, and how we organize ourselves. Bitcoin could turn out to be a total bust in every way, but the fact that it happened shows the internet is still capable of producing things that are genuinely new.
7. New-New Media
Outside of patent lawsuits, the big tech companies often act like rent-seekers in the media business, where Google and Facebook swallow most of the new digital ad money and wield that power poorly. Squint hard enough, though, and you’ll see some reasons for optimism. While Snap Inc. has performed poorly as a public company, Snapchat has done an admirable job of keeping free of fake news. Another bright spot: Patreon, which combines aspects of Kickstarter and the NPR pledge drive to help support tens of thousands of podcasters, filmmakers, and other artists. And then there’s the hot startup of the moment, HQ Trivia, an interactive game show that you can play on your iPhone. It’s not world-changing stuff, but it’s entertainment that feels genuinely novel without sucking up huge amounts of time.
7½. Tech Gets a Social Conscience, Maybe
As cringeworthy and depressing as the stories about sexism in Silicon Valley have been, it’s possible to see the outrage they’ve provoked as a sort of turning point for an industry that finally seems to be getting serious about its place in the world. Susan Fowler’s blog post about sexual harassment at Uber drove investors and the press to confront the company’s moral failures, helping to pave the way for the flood of revelations about men in other industries. And while Facebook has never looked worse than it does today, Mark Zuckerberg is showing signs of the humility that his company, and the broader industry, desperately need.
It may not be much, but it is something. Here’s to a happier 2018.
By Max Chafkin