Global culture is changing rapidly as technology advances.
It’s fair to say that in many ways 2015 was not a high point for the world, or the internet.
Two of the world’s greatest economic powers went into recession. The Middle East and much of Europe fell apart.
If 2013–14 saw the internet used as a tool to facilitate social uprisings, 2015 put an end to that. Far from being a democratising force, this year saw the internet come under the control of the same forces of law and capitalism much of the world abides by.
Piracy was regulated; so was ride-sharing. And though the year in technology brought about many potentially world-changing innovations — including the floating solar raft that’s powering remote communities; the driverless car; and the Tesla Powerwall solar battery — it also gave rise to cultural and gendered factionalism as seen in the spillover from #GamerGate; Donald Trump; Clock Truthers and the #Notallmen movement infiltrating Q&A’s domestic violence special.
Not to mention we began to see the power of ISIS recruiters using encrypted messaging services and social networks to target at-risk teens around the world.
A lot has happened in the last 12 months; here’s where some are predicting the world of technology will take us in the coming year.
Culture is changing rapidly, and now more than ever the internet is being used not just as a form of communication and commerce, but increasingly as a propaganda device. Much of this content is produced for free by internet users themselves.
Thanks to social platforms like Facebook and Twitter, we’re witnessing a fragmentation of self-contained online social groups that define themselves by their world views, and which are increasingly at war with one another.
The potential for disinformation, therefore, is massive. Despite the abundance of information offered on the internet, being well-informed requires more time and research than ever before.
Virgil Griffith, the co-founder of anonymous encrypted browser service Tor, told Fairfax that social media has created an “explosive environment that is perfect for evolving and spreading ideologies”, as witnessed in the rise of the Social Justice Warriors movement and Men’s Rights Activism.
“My prediction here is that movements of this kind — evangelical, aggressive; symbiotic with reactionary groups; complex and self-reinforcing with clear in-group and out-group signals, their own world view and values and news streams — will be increasingly common and well-defined going forward,” he says.
To combat these forces, Griffith predicts 2016 will see the Effective Altruism movement — which takes a practical approach to improving the world — gain in popularity.
“It’s a nascent movement that will grow, and promoting it will do actual good for the world,” he says.
“GiveWell is one of the organisations that’s doing the leading work in the movement. The coolest result from the Effective Altruism movement is a malaria-prevention non profit which straight up saves about one life per a marginal $800 donated.”
Australian philosopher Peter Singer is associated with the Effective Altruism movement.
David Kanter, principal analyst and editor in chief at Real World Tech, told Fairfax that the era of hypervalued Silicon Valley tech darlings may be drawing to a close.
“Some of the large private companies may need to mark their valuations to market,” he says.
“That will have a trickle-down effect on everyone else hoping to be an upwards of $1 billion-valued start-up.”
Jackson Palmer, the creator of crypto-currency Dogecoin, predicts “big developments” in India as its population becomes increasingly connected.
“We’re going to start seeing some awesome start-ups out of both India and China, and less of a centralisation of innovation in Silicon Valley,” he says.
“You don’t have to be in an expensive, douchey Silicon Valley accelerator to build something people love, and this is going to become increasingly clear in the future.”
This also represents huge potential for the Australian economy, which must find new revenue sources to replace the mining boom.
The internet of things and the death of privacy
Palmer predicts 2016 will bring further growth in the internet of things (IoT); or, as he likes to describe it, the “put a computer in everything” space.
He argues there are legitimate situations where connecting objects makes sense, such as connected surfaces that charge or sync your phone when it rests on top of them.
However, as we begin to introduce more and more technology and sensors into our everyday lives, Palmer warns of an end to the “I value my privacy phase we’ve been going through since the Snowden leaks”.
“At the end of the day, human beings are lazy and will forego security or privacy in the name of convenience,” he says.
“So I wouldn’t bank on actual innovations in security in 2016, but I do expect lots of products to just market themselves as ‘secure’ with some buzz words like ‘SHA512 encryption’ (online hash encryptions), and consumers will take that on face value.”
Don’t believe the hype.
Speaking of sensors, what happens when the IoT connects with drones and artificial intelligence? According to futurist Shara Evans: nothing good.
This year we saw leaks to The Intercept detail the inner workings of US President Barack Obama’s drone assassination program.
While drones have shown some really amazing applications over the last year — including monitoring for hazardous air chemicals; planting and weeding crops; and even planting trees to combat deforestation — they have also been used to surveil and kill people.
“There is tremendous danger putting advanced technology on a remote switch, especially when it has a very destructive weapon,” Evans says.
She warns of hazards around hacking, due to the frequent use of wireless transmission for drone control, and the potential for radio interference, “which could prevent the person controlling the drone manually from achieving the control they were trying to effect”.
Earlier this year researchers discovered that sound waves could be used to disrupt drone gyroscopes and make them crash.
Evans’ other worry is autonomy: “We are going to see a lot of discussion about the use of autonomous weapons in artificial intelligence,” she predicts.
Researchers have already expressed concern about security vulnerabilities brought about through the IoT, given many back-end systems are not adequately protected against attacks.
“Facial recognition databases can be hacked,” Evans says.
“What if somebody put your face or my face in a database and substituted tags for a known terrorist, and suddenly we’re attacked?”
On the upside, the futurist also predicts more commercial and consumer drone devices will be used by restaurants to deliver food, and by mobile phone users taking selfies. Say goodbye to the double chin!