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What did tech do for us in 2013? It made us think about privacy and the future
With every passing year, the line between technology news and the news becomes harder to distinguish. That’s because technologies like smartphones, the internet and its phenomena — social media and ecommerce for example — has started to permeate our lives so readily and effortlessly, that concepts that seemed outrageous a few years ago now seem everyday. The democratisation of news? Meh. The death of TV. Likely.
In 2013 technology has continued its relentless development pace and brought us many new services and things, but it’s also made us think about topics like privacy, what kind of future we want to live in and what still has the ability excite us and rattle our desensitised, information-numbed cages.
Perhaps most importantly, as technology settles into our lives, rather than it appearing distinct from us, technology has started taken on more subtlety, allowing us to document life more seamlessly, setting us free to experience humanity and forget about the tools that make that possible. Bring on the smart watches and Google Glass. We’re ready.
With 2014 poised to finally be the year of “the internet of things,” a future where technology disappears completely and helps us to thrive appear to be near.
Let’s take a look at how exactly technology shaped our lives this year.
It made us think about how it affects our privacy, more than ever before
The undisputed king of 2013 tech stories, is the revelation by former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, Edward Snowden, that the NSA and other international bodies are involved in a structured, government-backed, mass surveillance programme. In short, everything that passes through US-based servers are stored for a certain amount of time and can be inspected without a warrant. That includes email, video and voice chat, videos, photos, file transfers, and social networking posts.
While the news probably came as no surprise to veteran security experts, online privacy once again, took the spotlight when Snowden leaked 200,000 classified documents to the press, detailing how the NSA’s PRISM programme monitors the world’s live communications and stored information. It especially piqued the world’s interest when the documents referred to the cooperation of Google, Microsoft and Yahoo and Facebook.
While the NSA maintains that its surveillance efforts are aimed at protecting US citizens, the revelations stirred people to discuss their views on online privacy. On the one side, some view data collection as the price we way pay for security and on the other side, some wonder about how much we still don’t know about how our data is being used.
Eager to mend their blemished reputations, the year drew to an end with eight big tech companies including Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook, calling for governments to address the practices and laws regulating government surveillance of the companies’ customer bases.
With the demise of Tor-based, not-so-secret online black market, Silk Road and Google dropping support for pseudonyms on YouTube, 2013 might be remembered as the year we realised that there is no such thing as privacy on the internet.
A ray of light however, is that privacy watchdogs are not letting CISPA the controversial US bill that would allow data about digital threats to be shared between government , slip through the cracks. It’s receiving strong resistance, despite landing up in the US senate (again).
Finally, taking everything into account, it makes sense that Snapchat, the temporary social media king of the moment is attracting so much attention — shunning a US$3-billion offer from Facebook and securing another US$50-million in funding. Too bad it’s so fallible.
It reminded us of the importance of the human element in the Information Age
At least 55 different contractors had a hand in building HealthCare.gov, the centerpiece of the US’s plan to overhaul its healthcare system.
It is considered to be one of the most complex pieces of software ever created for the federal government, and yet, despite the complexity and intended scale — it received 14.6 million unique visits — its failed launch could have been avoided if its development had been better organised.
The project had no lead contractor. While 55 companies collaborated on the project, each perfected their task in isolation, without an overall view of how the system would operate and perform as a whole. When it was time to run it all came tumbling down.
The White House called on Silicon Valley big shots like Oracle, Google and HP to clean up the mess and signups were delayed into 2014.
It was a people problem. Not a technology problem.
It showed us that people still care about console gaming. A lot.
Despite reports of a decline in console gaming, 2013 reminded us that there is still great demand for couch-based interactive entertainment.
Both Microsoft and Sony reported record sales for their next generation consoles. Sony lead the charge with a jaw dropping 2.1 million sales in the first two weeks of launching the PlayStation 4, while Microsoft just about matched sales of its Xbox One at 2 million units sold in roughly the same time frame.
While Nintendo’s Wii U hasn’t been as popular as its predecessor and the quirky $99 Kickstarter-backed Ouya console getting off to a slow start, 2013 hasn’t stopped new contenders from stepping into the ring. Steam announced its Steam Machine, a console set to compete against Sony and Microsoft by luring PC-gamers into the living room.
It reminded us of the pace at which the technology advances and that nothing is forever
BlackBerry continued its extraordinary fall from grace, and is now on life-support. Despite axing another CEO, failing to woo consumers with BlackBerry 10, and not attracting buyers when it briefly explored a sale as a “strategic alternative”, the embattled company is still defying reports of an imminent death. Ex-Sybase CEO, John Chen is the latest man saddled with the monumental task of resurrecting the company — his main play at for moment, going back to BlackBerry’s roots, the enterprise, a real challenge for iOS.
In the world of Android, HTC have found itself in an increasingly uphill battle against the juggernaut that is Samsung. In a effort to reverse a market share slide that recently resulted in the company’s first quarterly net loss (US$101-million) in more than 10 years, staff cutbacks and CEO Peter Chou giving the reins to Cher Wang in and attempt to focus on innovation and product development.
Then there’s Dell. Its founder, Michael Dell paid US$25 billion to take the company private in an attempt to stunt the spiralling fortunes Dell largely incurred as a result of failed consumer devices.
Dell, like BlackBerry will re-focus on enterprise services as the PC industry continues to slow in the wake of tablets and smartphones.
Halfway through the year, Yahoo went on to pay US$1.1 billion for Tumblr in an attempt to inject new life into the ageing tech company, but its profit shrank in the quarter ending in September, showing that it might be a while before we see Marissa Mayer’s strategy paying off.
Finally, Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer bid farewell to the company he’s lead for over decade. While his tenure saw Microsoft’s revenue grow from US$22 billion to US$78 billion, Ballmer admits that Microsoft missed the boat on mobile while he was in charge. His departure was more sudden than expected, with apparent reasons such as the company’s stagnant stock price, falling business performance and Ballmer’s form of leadership accelerating his resignation.
It showed us the future
Elon Musk shared his dream for the future of public transportation with the Hyperloop and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made us think about an imminent future where the sky is filled with delivery drones — a sky, that according to New York’s Mayor Bloomberg, will inevitably accommodate surveillance drones.
Destined to operate under a different sky, NASA showed us Valkyrie, a six foot two robot called that will pave the way for human Mars exploration.
While some accepted these big ideas readily, there were signs that we remain reluctant to embrace change. Apple’s iOS redesign was met with resistance, Windows 8 continued to show slow adoption and Google’s most determined attempt at an everything-in-the-cloud desktop computer, the Chromebook Pixel remained an interesting concept rather than gaining mainstream adoption.
Perhaps 2013’s most uneasy preview of the future came with the introduction of the first lab grown hamburger and miniature human brain.
A technology that people does seem to be unanimously excited about however, well apart perhaps from intellectual property watchdogs, is 3D printing. The technology arguably had its best year yet with Stratasys Incorporated acquiring MakerBot in a stock deal worth US$403 million.
Oh, and if LG’s G Flex is anything to go by, 2014 will be the year where the iPhone’s likeness might finally no longer lead the industry, as flexible displays go mainstream.
It reminded us that online security is a myth
If the NSA’s exploits didn’t convince you that little is safe online — not even under SSL — just about every major tech company‘s online facing services suffered a security breach in some form or another.
38 million user accounts were affected during an Adobe security breach and for a hot minute, hackers had access to the internal networks of Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter when malware from an iPhone development site found its way into corporate networks.
Apple had a particularly rough year with iOS 7 leading to security lapses, and its push for biometric security proving to be easily circumventable, when the fingerprint reader on the iPhone 5s was bypassed soon after the phone’s launch.
Seemingly in perpetual hot water, Facebook made headlines when it scrambled to fix a bug that inadvertently exposed the private information of over six million users.
Evernote, LivingSocial, Drupal, Yahoo Japan, LinkedIn, Last.fm and eHarmony also suffered breaches.
While not as loud as previous years, hacker groups continued to infiltrate large private and government organisations. From newspapers (The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal) to government institutions like the US Federal Reserve, The Department Of Homeland Security and the Washington State Court System, hackers continued to breach security systems for fun or for causes.
The year raised a debate on the severity of punishments doled out to convicted hackers. NSA-leaker Edward Snowden was forced to become a fugitive, Chelsea Elizabeth Manning (born Bradley Edward Manning) was sentenced to 35 years confinement following the leaking of classified documents to Wikileaks in 2010, and digital activist Aaron Schwartz committed suicide after facing a lengthy jail sentence many considered unfairly harsh.
The aforementioned Federal Reserve hack was done in retaliation to Schwartz’s punishment and exposed the credentials of more than 4000 American bank executives.
It made us excited about wearable tech
While there probably is a loftier ideal for the category — Google Glass — seemingly every large and indie consumer product company‘s idea of wearable tech in 2013, was a smart watch.
Illustrating demand, Samsung managed to sell over a million of its Galaxy Gear, despite less than favourable reviews, and 190,000 Kickstarter-funded Pebble watches found their way to people’s wrists.
Qualcomm and Sony both put out smart watches, and although rumours of imminent releases from Apple, Google, Microsoft and Nike are making the rounds, we’ll have to wait for 2014 to hear anything official.
It put us in the front row of major world events
Do you remember the spectacular meteorite explosion over Chelyabinsk in Russia?
Like the recent years before it, technology brought us closer to the news and even gave us a few new ways to document our lives and the world around us. Twitter, which had a breakout year with its successful IPO — despite still not being profitable — launched Vine, and Facebook rolled out Instagram Video.
The Boston Marathon bombings, the hostage nightmare in Kenya, Super Typhoon Haiyan, Syria’s civil war, the Egyptian revolution, were viewed in unprecedented detail through high definition smartphone cameras and reported through social media channels by people who inadvertently found themselves in the middle of it all.
Photos, videos and messages became digital clues that gave rise to the word “clicktivism” and provided an extra layer on which authorities could build their manhunt for bombing suspects, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
It reminded us that there is still work to be done to bring about gender equality
There were no women on stage at Sony’s PlayStation 4 preview event.
A month later at the Galaxy S4 launch, Samsung was lambasted for its one-sided portrayal of women — it included women noting how the phone’s Air Gesture feature would come in handy while their nails dried and an intoxicated woman lewdly staring at a shirtless gardener.
Days following the fiasco, Samsung committed another faux pas in at the Africa Forum in Cape Town when it “demoed a range of fridges with bikini-clad dancers handing out water bottles and launched a range of ‘Wobble’ washing machines complete with the same barely pubescent dancers shaking their stuff in swimsuits.”
A situation spiralled out of control, causing people to lose their jobs when a woman, Adria Richards, took to the internet to shame two male Python PyCon attendees for telling jokes about “forking a repo,” and the benefits of a large dongle. Tweeting a picture of the two, sent the internet into a frenzy, sparking the most vicious of flamewars. Richards as well as Alex Reid, one of the men in her picture lost their jobs and suffered criticism, but that didn’t stop the tide from turning unjustly against her, leading to death threats, racial slurs and a disruption in her online life following DDOS attacks of her personal blog.
The Wall Street Journal noted a n in-depth study by Fenwick & West which showed that just 11.5% of top executives in top publicly traded Silicon Valley firms are women, but the year ended with a positive signal as Twitter gained its first female board member after mounting accusations of sexism, but there is work yet to do.
It brought us a new bubble to consider
Bitcoin’s popularity rose to great heights in 2013, which meant that much of the year was spent educating people on what exactly it is and isn’t.
The increased interest in the crypto currency lead to what can be considered a bubble of epic proportion. The buzz around Bitcoin sparked a gold rush with online prospectors doing their damnedest to secure these virtual bartering chips, subsequently leading to the value of a whole unit of Bitcoin increasing from US$20 at the beginning of the year to around US$1 200 in December.
The volatile currency played with early adopter hearts when Bitcoin value fell to US$660 when China’s central bank, and five government ministries stood up against the adoption of Bitcoin as a real currency.