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Thursday, May 16, 2024

I Thought Tech Would Take a Pandemic Hit. I Was Wrong

Hi all. Lauren Goode here filling in for Steven Levy, who has already teleported into 2022 (one of the perks of living in the metaverse, I’m told). With the holidays approaching and a new year upon us, I’ve been reflecting on all the ways tech seeped into our lives over the past 20 months. And the TL;DR is this: Everything is connected, and there’s no going back.

The Plain View

In April of 2020, the world was melting down, and new iPhones were on their way. Would people even buy them? I asked in a WIRED article. Surely we were on the precipice of a downturn. A Bank of America note warning of a recession was especially dire. One tech analyst told me, “In just three weeks our thinking has changed from there being supply-side issues with devices like phones and PCs to focusing on the demand side.”

WIRED doesn’t have a “Bayesian” tag for stories, but this one might be filed in that category if we did. In those early days of mind-scrambling uncertainty, I relied on priors. I recalled how millions of people lost their jobs and how consumer spending declined during the Great Recession. And this wasn’t even primarily a financial crisis—it was an anguishing, once-in-a-century pandemic. I assumed people would deprioritize new tech, whether because they were cash-strapped or because they truly had more important things to worry about.

I was wrong. Tech—both as a sector and in terms of our usage—has soared. Apple is closing in on a $3 trillion market cap. Meta’s (aka Facebook’s) profits have grown, and more people are using its apps than ever. Amazon became that much more massive. The advertising market rebounded, which was great news for Google. And Microsoft’s revenues from its cloud computing product grew 50 percent from last year. We’ve Zoomed. We’ve Netflixed. We’ve Bumbled. Yes, we bought new iPhones. And PCs—so many PCs! We can’t get enough of them, literally. Demand-side concerns? Nope. The problem was, and still is, the fractured supply chain.

In the US, tech consumption has been at least partly enabled by the American Rescue Plan, an economic recovery bill that delivered stimulus checks and extra unemployment benefits to people. “We printed so much money and put so much money into the economy that some people ended up spending it on durable goods, not saving it,” says Pat Moorhead, founder and chief analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. A lot of people also realized that in order to effectively do their jobs, homeschool their kids, or keep in touch with family, they’d have to “buy Chromebooks and PCs and Macs,” Moorhead says. “These weren’t just businesses buying PCs; schools and governments realized they needed work-from-home tech too.”

But technology, itself, has evolved so much over the past decade that it has become the connective tissue between all of our experiences. It moves with us as we go about our days, whether we’re going from one screen to another within the confines of our homes or doing essential work outside of the home. “Tech is not just the hard goods anymore,” Moorhead says. “Behind every one of these products is software-as-a-service. A cloud play. And all of these interconnected pieces came together and turned this into a boom.”

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Technology historian and author Margaret O’Mara attributes this new boom to the rise of the supercomputer in our pockets. “You just cannot leave your phone behind,” she says. “I think about how many hours a day we spend staring at these screens, and it’s alarming.”

But again, the twin of this is the growth of cloud technology, according to O’Mara. It has simultaneously allowed us to become unmoored from tech devices while also enabling technology to follow us everywhere we go. The rhythms of work culture and communication have changed—and you can’t opt out. Meanwhile, some of the largest tech players, when they’re not selling us on productivity suites or two-day shipping, are quietly raking in billions by providing cloud services for the many other apps we use.

So where does it all go from here? (I won’t say “post-pandemic,” because we are not beyond it.) I’m hesitant to make bold predictions about what will happen in a new year; that hasn’t gone so well before. But Moorhead expects that workers who return to offices will find themselves disappointed by their tech setups there, as many have upgraded and personalized their systems at home. “2022 is about optimizing the workplace for hybrid work,” he predicts.

O’Mara says tech consumers have established habits that aren’t likely to change anytime soon. “Even if everyone declares, ‘I’m tired of Zoom,’ that form of communication has established itself,” she says.

“I’m a history professor, so I don’t traffic in the future. But I think maybe at the beginning of Covid, we were thrown into a new crisis mode, and then we thought it was going to end and that we would go ‘back’ to the way things were before,” O’Mara says. “But what this has made clear is that we are even more embedded in a technological web, literal and figurative, than we were before.”

Time Travel

Twelve years ago, in the December 2009 issue of WIRED UK, Clive Thompson wrote a prescient piece about digital forgetting. “Have we forgotten how to forget?” he wondered, after reading the book Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age. “Digital tools have eliminated this: Google caches copies of blog posts; networking sites thrive by archiving our daily dish. Society defaults to a relentless Proustian remembrance of all things past,” Thompson wrote. The author of Delete, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, suggested that “all social software should be designed” with a bias toward forgetting, “as we'd be more inclined to ask if something ought to live forever.”

Thompson and Mayer-Schönberger were onto something. Apps have completely co-opted our memories. As I wrote in a feature story back in April, digital memories are “incessant, haphazard, intrusive.” Thompson’s 2009 story features a cameo by Sam Lessin, then the chief executive of a fledgling cloud company called drop.io. It was billed as a “private sharing” service where users could upload files and generate a URL to share with whomever they’d like, “wormholes that pop in and out of existence for a specific purpose.” A novelty at the time!

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Of course, everything now lives in the cloud. (We’ve covered this.) And rather than this tech giving us more control over our lives, we’re subjected to the algorithmic whims of cloud services. Drop.io no longer exists, but like digital memories, it lives on in some form. Less than a year later, Facebook acquired it.

Ask Me One Thing

A reader name Mike sent in this excellent question via Twitter DM:

My question is about TikTok. I remember when it first came on the scene there was a lot of concern because of it being a Chinese company. If its popularity is any indication, few seem to be concerned about the China connection anymore. What changed?

I’m not a TikTok expert, and while my 13-year-old niece seems to be, she didn’t reply to my Snapchat asking her to weigh in on national security and foreign policy. So I posed this question to my WIRED colleague Will Knight, who covers artificial intelligence for WIRED, often with a focus on China.

Will says that the initial panic over TikTok was amplified by the Trump administration, as the app was caught in the crosshairs of the US–China trade wars. In 2020, TikTok owner ByteDance insisted that it was enacting certain measures to keep US user data “walled off” from company employees in China.

But, Will says, China policy experts have suggested that the current administration is still uneasy about TikTok and the fact that the hottest social media app in the US is run by a Chinese company. In June the Biden administration revoked Trump-era bans on both TikTok and WeChat, but the US Commerce Department was still ordered to conduct a months-long review of apps from foreign adversaries. That deadline was set for early December. Last week Reuters confirmed that the departments of Commerce and Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence have submitted their initial analyses and recommendations for app security; but we don’t yet have details on the content of these reports.

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It’s also worth noting, Will says, that ByteDance is also in a tricky spot when it comes to the Chinese government.

You can submit questions to mail@wired.com. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.

End Times Chronicle

Two weekends ago the king tides rolled in, and with them came a glimpse of our flooded future.

King tides are super-high tides that occur during a perigean spring tide—when a full or new moon coincides with a perigee, which is when the moon is closest to the earth. This occurrence is unrelated to climate change, but scientists still see the tides as an opportunity to study how rising sea levels will affect coastal cities like San Francisco.

I have an amateur but real fascination with waves: ocean waves, human-made waves, light waves, tattoos of waves … so when King Tides happen, I get a little excited. Well, maybe excited isn’t the right word: I also feel a sense of dread when I see what our coasts and other low-lying lands might look like in 50 years. A few years back, the WIRED video team produced this video on king tides, which I recommend checking out.

P.S. The next king tides are January 2 to 3, 2022, and if you’re able to survey them—from a safe distance—you can play citizen scientist and submit photos to the California King Tides Project.

Last but Not Least

A website that generates deepfaked nude photos has managed to expand its reach, despite bans placed on its payments infrastructure.

More good news: A recently discovered flaw in the open source Apache logging library Log4j is expected to have catastrophic consequences for years to come.

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One of WIRED's Ideas contributors says that the requirement for constant connectivity has spread from the white-collar workforce to workers up and down the income ladder—and it's an unfair tax on the poor.

The WIRED Gadget Lab team has taped our final podcast of the year, and I’d love it if you gave it a listen. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and all that.

As a reminder, Plaintext is off for the holiday next week but will be back with a special New Year edition the following Friday. Until then, happy holidays. 

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