PC, internet, smartphone: what is the next great technological age? | John Naughton

OOne of the challenges of writing about technology is how to escape what sociologist Michael Mann memorably called “the sociology of the last five minutes.” This is especially difficult when covering the digital technology industry because one is continually inundated with “new” things: viral memes, shiny new products or services, Facebook scandals (a weekly staple), security breaches, and so on. The last few weeks, for example, have brought industry enthusiasm for the idea of ​​a “metaverse” (perfectly dissected here by Alex Hern), El Salvador’s flirtation with bitcoin, endless stories about central banks and governments that They are beginning to worry about regulating cryptocurrencies, Apple’s possible rethinking of its phone scanning plans and apparently, iCloud accounts for child abuse images, eleven ransomware attacks, antitrust lawsuits against online stores. applications, Theranos trial, etc. to infinity.

So how do you get out of the unsuccessful syndrome identified by Professor Mann? One way is to borrow an idea from Ben Thompson, a veteran tech commentator who doesn’t suffer from it, and whose (paid) newsletter should be a mandatory daily email for any serious observer in the tech industry. As early as 2014, he suggested that we think of the industry in terms of “epochs,” periods, or important epochs in the history of a field. At this point, he saw three eras in the evolution of our networked world, each defined in terms of its core technology and its “killer application”.

The first era of this framework was the PC era, opened in August 1981 when IBM launched its personal computer. The main technology was the open architecture of the machine and the MS-DOS operating system (later Windows). And the killer app was the spreadsheet (which, ironically, had been a real pioneer – like VisiCalc – in the Apple II).

The second era was the Internet age, which began 14 years after the beginning of the PC era, with the IPO of Netscape in August 1995. The basic technology (the “operating system “, if you will) was the web browser, the tool that turned the Internet into something that non-geeks could understand and use – and the era was initially characterized by a cruel struggle to control the browser, a battle in which Microsoft went destroyed Netscape and captured 90% of the market, but eventually ended up facing an antitrust suit caused its rupture. At that time, search was the killer app, and in the end, the dominant use became social media, with the dominant market share captured by Facebook.

The third epoch in Thompson’s frame (the epoch we are in now) was the mobile. It dates back to January 2007, when Apple announced the iPhone and launched the smartphone revolution. Unlike the previous two eras, there is no single dominant operating system: instead, there is a duopoly between Apple’s iOS operating system and Google’s Android system. The killer app is the so-called “shared economy” (which, of course, is nothing of the sort), and messaging of various kinds has become the dominant media. And now it seems that this era of smartphones is reaching its peak.

If this is what is happening, the obvious question is: what comes next? What will the fourth season look like? And here it is worth asking another insightful observer of these things, the novelist William Gibson, who observed that “the future is already here; it just isn’t evenly distributed. ” If this is as deep as I think, that is, what we should keep in mind are things that continue to boil in unknown and seemingly unconnected ways, such as hot lava springs in Iceland or other geologically unstable regions.

So what can we see bubbling in the land of technology right now? If you believe the industry, metaverses (plural), conceived basically as massive virtual reality environments, can be an important thing. To this observer, this seems like a psychotic desire. However, at its extreme, the metaverse idea is the vision of an immersive environment, similar to a video game, to entertain rich humans in their air-conditioned caves while the planet cooks and less fortunate humans have problems. to breathe. In this sense, metaverse can only be a way to avoid unpleasant realities. (But, as a prominent Silicon Valley figure recently joked, perhaps reality is overrated anyway).

Two most likely candidates for what will be ushered in in the future are cryptography (in the sense of blockchain technology) and quantum computing. But an era in which these are dominant technologies would embody an intriguing contradiction: our current cryptographic tools depend on the creation of keys that would take conventional computers millions of years to break. Quantum computers, however, would break them into nanoseconds. In this case, we should finally recognize that, as a species, we are too smart for our own good.

What I have been reading

Get ready
There is an opinion piece on the subject New York News of historian Adam Tooze, and what if the coronavirus crisis is just a test?

Get to read
Proust’s Panmnemonicon is a meditation on Justin EH Smith’s Proust rereading on his blog. A reminder that if you want to read Proust during your lifetime, you should start now.

Domestic spies
Public Books features a magnificent work by Erin McElroy, Meredith Whittaker and Nicole Weber on the intrusion of surveillance tools into homes.

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