This past year in technology has been as busy as Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. It feels like everything shifted on us: news, ports, emojis, bots, virtual reality and mainstream media.
Let’s start there.
The demise of mainstream media has been predicted for years now. But 2016 saw some dreadful retrenchment, tragic errors and outright lies. And a lot of it resolves down to the phrase “doubling down on digital.” In the case of Torstar, that doubling down meant pink-slipping a good chunk of the team that put out Star Touch — surely a doomed product despite the talk of increasing dedication two-fold. Meanwhile Postmedia has become a debt-ridden penny- and laughing-stock. Despite Paul Godfrey’s bonus, the chain is really just a husk waiting to be blown away or ripped apart by hedge-fund jackals. If Postmedia were a subprime mortgage tranche, it would be rated AAA, the way a collection of defaulted housing debts were in the 2009.
Other media outlets in North America bet the farm on Facebook’s distribution channel, only to have Facebook shift its propriety algorithm so that much of mainstream media’s video content was less likely to show up in users’ newsfeeds. Perhaps nothing highlighted the panic and desperation of media than that ill-fated deal with the devil.
The sour fruit of that decision was sadly revealed during the U.S. election. That’s when Facebook’s arcane algorithm surfaced fake news from teenagers in Macedonia over legitimate news from established media outlets. Injury, meet insult.
And 2016 was the year the wall fell. Not the Great Wall of China, but the Chinese wall that was supposed to separate the business interests of newspapers and journalists. Now it is a shared understanding in the business that native advertising (i.e. bullshit puff pieces) are a vital part of the business and that journalists should stop whining, assume the position and think of England.
But media wasn’t the only thing in flux, so was the medium. 2016 was a year when artificial intelligence came into its own along channels we didn’t expect. AI didn’t arrive as a robot overlord. It inhabited not only our smartphones and tablets, but also our online chat, via semi-intelligent bots. It showed up in our homes via devices like the Amazon Echo that listened for its name, Alexa, and gave answers and carried out tasks like a robot butler. And, AI also came in the form of Google Photos which got the ability to identify objects and activities in photos that users stored in the cloud. Ask for all your pictures of a red canoe or a birthday party, and Google Photos will serve them up.
And, this past year hinted at the promise of hearables, in-ear devices that will be able to monitor blood pressure and glucose levels as well as serving as digital valets in your ear canal. Apple’s much-delayed AirPods may be the first example of Siri-in-your-ear coming into its own.
Speaking of Apple, late this year Microsoft seemed to don the mantle of “innovative company,” stealing that vestment from Cupertino. Its Surface Studio, a huge, tiltable touchscreen computer, made Apple’s delayed MacBook Pro line look like weak sauce as far as innovation was concerned.
Apple also seems late to the game in the augmented and virtual reality space. And, virtual reality seems to be drifting out of the public imagination as augmented reality steps in. Nothing demonstrated that more this past year than Pokemon Go, a wildly popular mobile game that overlaid the real world with Poke Stops and Pokemon characters that had millions of people dashing about towns and cities (and into cars) to join gyms, collect characters and level up.
There were other characters that made it big in 2016 — emojis. Once the darlings of Japanese teens, emojis showed up in all sorts of chat and messaging applications. They were rampant on Facebook and iMessages and even developed their own secret meanings, especially when used during sexting sessions.
Even computer ports got a makeover in the past 12 months. First Google’s Chromebooks started sporting the multi-purpose USB C port. Then the ports showed up in other laptops, and finally in Apple’s most recent MacBooks. It will soon be a universal standard for digital devices, but it got its coming-out party in 2016.
Finally, privacy. It was a year when the divide between folks who care about privacy and those who don’t widened. As Google’s AI and services got better and better, more people were willing to sacrifice their personal information on the altar of expediency. It’s not hard to see why. Google Assistant, only available on the Pixel smartphone, is a boon for folks who want to let their devices make their day a little less stressful. Meanwhile Facebook kept mining user behaviour to deliver addictive hits of news and posts — regardless of whether any of it was true. On the other hand, with Donald Trump’s election, larger numbers of tech-savvy users are looking more seriously at end-to-end encrypted email and chat applications.
So, it was year a lot shifted — our perception of who we are, what we share, how intelligent we want our devices to be and what truth and news really are. It’s a little like waking up in Westworld, or a Black Mirror episode — two hits of 2016. You don’t know who’s real, what consciousness means and how far you can trust yourself or what you truly know. Some year.
Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author, here.
Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.