The early months of a decade are always a time of prospective thinking, and it is invariably afflicted with one of the twin cognitive biases associated with such anticipatory thoughts: optimism or pessimism. The world of tech is congenitally optimistic, however, what passes for innovation, or just novel, rarely plays out how boosters think. As tech venture capitalist and tech skeptic — ironically, given that his wealth came from co-developing an online substitute for an 1870s innovation, wire transfers — Peter Thiel famously said:
We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.
Indeed, in the post-smartphone era, what counts for innovation seems disappointing compared to our Edison-ian ideals. While much has transpired in the world of technology development over the nine years since Thiel first uttered these remarks, few things can retrospectively be counted as innovative. Indeed, the maturation and stagnation of the hallmark technology of the century so far, the smartphone, has left many looking for The Next Big Thing™️. So far, the search has turned up nothing by dry holes, all the while burning massive amounts of VC cash. The ‘innovation’ trajectory appears to be headed towards more frivolous conveniences, not life- and society-enhancing improvements; more like Uber and Netflix than the PC and television.
The boring, regulated 20s?
One of the sages of Silicon Valley, Benedict Evans, regularly ponders such weighty issues as the generational, epochal changes we should expect from the world of tech. He frequently dispenses his wisdom to the annual congress of the 'masters of the universe' at Davos. Here’s how Evans describes his effort:
Every year, I produce a big presentation digging into macro and strategic trends in the tech industry. This year, ‘Standing on the shoulders of giants’ looks at what it means that 4 billion people have a smartphone; we connected everyone, and now we wonder what the Next Big Thing is, but meanwhile, connecting everyone means we connected all the problems. Tech is becoming a regulated industry, but we don’t really know what that will mean.
There is much to ponder in Evans’ 128-slide deck, but he concludes with thoughts on what might define the next wave of technology. He offers a three-phase, S-curve model for these technology cycles, proceeding from stupid - “why would anyone need that?” - to exciting - “I can’t wait to get my hands on one!”- to boring - “I can’t imagine what more it could do that’s useful.” - and where the vertical axis represents user adoption from 0 to 100 percent saturation. The smartphone has been in the boring phase for a while, leading to angst among tech watchers about what comes next.
Plenty of technologies have been put forth as inheritors to the crown of The Next Big Thing, but whether it’s VR/AR headsets, smartwatches and earbuds (i.e. wearables), chatbot-enhanced speakers or personal robotics, all have been poseurs. Instead of being defined by a category of device or service, Evans posits that the next wave of tech might be characterized by its adaptation to and compliance with escalating and continually changing regulatory pressures that span countries, industries and technologies.
Evans points out that every new technology from the birth of railroads through the industrialization of food processing gets regulated. However, information and software tech is different since it permeates every industry and part of society, making the regulation much broader and often ambiguous. Indeed, software has become the way business processes and by inheritance, business values and policies get expressed. As such, the collision of tech, i.e. software developers and service providers, with organizations and governance structures built to enforce societal values via laws and regulations is destined to increase, but the resulting regulatory issues — like fraudulent deception, advertising hyperbole/misinformation and propaganda/disinformation — are bound to be ambiguous and perplexing.
A broader era of societal lethargy?
Is that all there is? Have we run out of good ideas - or just the will and determination to pursue them? That’s an obvious and understandable reaction to the supposition that the next era of tech ‘innovation’ and development might be defined by regulations, governance and red tape. Sure, there continues to be significant advancements in medicine (portable gene sequencers, AI-enhanced image diagnostics), aerospace (low-cost rocket boosters), EV transportation and robotics (mechanical hands that learn by doing). However, except for Musk’s ventures, which exploit his outsized personality for publicity, most are smaller, almost niche efforts that don’t garner headlines nor 10-figure VC investments. Contrast these with some notable tech unicorns with all the VC money they could ask for, like:
- Uber, the aforementioned combination taxi company cum gig workforce facilitator that lost $8.5 billion last year despite a decade of growth, almost $25 billion in VC funding and a $70 billion market cap.
- Theranos, the startup once valued at $9 billion, which promised to revolutionize blood test collection and analysis with a system never worked as promised and ended up defrauding investors out of at least $700 million.
- WeWork, the glorified office leasing company that was privately valued at $47 billion before filing for an IPO, letting accountants see its farcical balance sheet, pulling the IPO and ignominiously firing its founder.
These are examples of what New York Times columnist Ross Douthat calls an Age of Decadence. Note, that Douthat doesn’t use the term pejoratively to describe some Bacchanalian period of narcissism and orgies, but rather as shorthand for an era of decline:
Following in the footsteps of the great cultural critic Jacques Barzun, we can say that decadence refers to economic stagnation, institutional decay and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development. … Note that this definition does not imply a definitive moral or aesthetic judgment. (“The term is not a slur,” Barzun wrote. “It is a technical label.”) …. Nor does this definition imply that decadence is necessarily an overture to a catastrophe, in which Visigoths torch Manhattan or the coronavirus has dominion over all. History isn’t always a morality play, and decadence is a comfortable disease.
What counts for innovation in tech in recent years doesn’t precisely match the definition, since there are many impressive achievements over that span. However, these were often (typically?) in areas of fundamental technology, like AI algorithms, new processors, miniaturization of components. Where decay rears its head is in the applications of these developments: paper-thin TVs, social network software and SLR-quality phone cameras that feed them, addictive video apps, ‘reinvention’ of century-old processes, micro-targeted adtech funneling customers into frictionless shopping sites. Here’s how Douthat describes it (emphasis added):
[Uber is] an example of a major 21st-century company invented entirely out of surplus, and floated by the hope that with enough money and market share, you can will a profitable company into existence. Which makes it another case study in what happens when an extraordinarily rich society can’t find enough new ideas that justify investing all its stockpiled wealth. We inflate bubbles and then pop them, invest in Theranos and then repent, and the supposed cutting edge of capitalism is increasingly defined by technologies that have almost arrived, business models that are on their way to profitability, by runways that go on and on without the plane achieving takeoff… But what this tells us, unfortunately, is that 21st-century growth and innovation are not at all what we were promised they would be.
Here, I would add the prospect of regulation Evans describes being the defining characteristic of the next tech cycle as a sign of intellectual exhaustion and physical contentment. Douthat illustrates the contrast with past eras of innovation (emphasis added):
Take a single one of the great breakthroughs of the industrial age — planes and trains and automobiles, antibiotics and indoor plumbing — and it still looms larger in our everyday existence than all of the contributions of the tech revolution combined.
We used to travel faster, build bigger, live longer; now we communicate faster, chatter more, snap more selfies. We used to go to the moon; now we make movies about space — amazing movies with completely convincing special effects that make it seem as if we’ve left earth behind.
Tech today suffers from a surplus of gadgets and gimmicks and a shortage of transformative innovations that significantly improve the lives of those in either the developed or developing societies. For every development tackling significant global problems like technology for low-cost energy storage, faster/cheaper modes of long-distance travel or robotic construction systems, we get a hundred new smartphones, social sharing apps or app-ified service providers duplicating existing, mature systems. If the next tech cycle ends up being defined by regulation and red tape instead of life-improving and life-extending products and disruptive technologies and services, then it will indeed be a lost, one might say decadent, era.