I think of the internet industry in generations. First, we had the early days of the commercial internet, when Gopher was still a thing and Windows users launched Trumpet Winsock and waited for their modem screech before they connected with the world. Then, the Netscape era; a world dominated by Yahoo and the early days of the social web. There were the corporate years between the dotcom crash and the Great Recession, powered by banner ads. And then, the iPhone and everything that came next.
We have some contenders for the next great wave - blockchain, intelligent assistants - but no definites, yet. Blockchain is still lost in its own consensus and the myth that technology built before a specific human need can still change the world. (Thank you, Unlock, for keeping real humans in mind.) Intelligent assistants have been caught by the business models of their corporate parents and are simultaneously too closed and too freaky to become real platforms. So instead, this has been the era when startups retreated into the enterprise world and made money through bringing data insights - and data-driven influence - to business interests.
When I say data, let me be clear: I mean our data. Some businesses call it Personally Identifiable Information, or PII. But it's the intimate details of our lives, taken in aggregate. Our beliefs, predictions about our intentions, and a granular record of our past actions are stored in schemas that people who have never met us believe can build a psychometric profile which will accurately foretell our future actions.
It's an inherently asymmetric state of affairs: while these companies aggregate millions or billions of profiles that predict how we'll act, we don't have a hope of profiling them. Profiling requires near-constant surveillance and combining thousands of different data sources in sophisticated ways, which can then be abused by governments or political parties that want to influence our political decisions. We don't have a hope of surveilling them.
Corporate power has traditionally been counterbalanced by a few different measures. The first is government, which is supposed to look out for the well-being of its citizens. Let's set that one to the side and hopefully come back to it sometime in the future. Another is unions: when employers had outsized influence over the lives of their employees, the labor movement organized itself in order to create better routes for advocacy. The result of the original labor movements was that we were introduced to innovations like the weekend and the eight hour day. In the modern era, they continue to advocate for stronger benefits and better pay. Not every union is great, but the idea of unions is important and generally good.
I believe the next great wave on the internet is agency. Or to put it differently: I believe the tech industry is finally finding a soul.
As individuals, our privacy has been violated, our data has been aggregated, and we've been reduced to faceless consumers at best, chum for the enterprise data machine at worst. Social media makes us unhappy and destabilizes the communities we live in. Freedom of speech - which is essential for democracy to function - is being undermined by the chilling effect of constant surveillance. (To be clear, this is different to "freedom of speech" in the Gab and Breitbart sense, which is the modern equivalent of armchair racists complaining that they can't use the N-word anymore.) Crucially, the startups that have been growing as fast as possible without regard for human well-being are beginning to fail, and fail hard. Meanwhile, the influence of high net worth negative influences like the Kochs, the Mercers, and pervasive creeps like Jeffrey Epstein are beginning to fade.
The top down trends (the influence of hateful money, the financial fortunes of some of the fastest growing startups) are combining with the bottom up trends (our own dissatisfaction with technology, a growing unease with giant tech companies) to create the conditions for more ethical startups to emerge and thrive. We're worried about the climate crisis; we're worried about our own health; we're worried about what the hell has happened to our politics; we're worried about our futures and the futures of our families and friends.
These are trends that companies like Apple have already identified and capitalized on, but we're still only at the beginning stages. The ventures that emerge will be more ethical, will protect our health, will give us agency over our data, and will once again empower us by counterbalancing corporate aggregation. This isn't a technical development - it's a social one. But I'm convinced these innovations will change the world.