Every December going back to 2004, I've done an end-of-year review of the top Internet technology trends. As a source for this year's review, I'm using the nearly fifty weekly columns I've written over the course of 2018. They're a good indicator of what I've focused on during the year, and what has defined this year in terms of online technology.
1. Privacy: turns out it's important
The big tech companies have had a terrible public relations year, in large part due to privacy concerns. From Facebook's ongoing troubles, to Google harvesting our personal data to train its AI's, to an epic Amazon Echo fail, to the hidden dangers of facial recognition software, it's been one privacy story after another this year. It's given us all a heightened awareness of our privacy - and the need to preserve it.
These days, I'm wary of apps that want too much access to my personal data; like this app that wanted read/write access to my email (no, just no!). I'm also keeping a close eye on what the government is doing with my data.
The good news on the privacy front this year came from the European Union, with the introduction the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Such regulation is needed in an era where big tech companies have unprecedented power.
2. More social media hell; indie web offers hope
In last year's annual review, I wrote that I'd reduced my social media usage over 2017. While I continued to use social media this year, I adopted a 'horses for courses' approach to keep it in check. I used Facebook primarily to keep in touch with family and real-world friends, I used Twitter for tech discussions and networking, I used LinkedIn sparingly, and I dropped any social media that didn't fulfill a specific function for me.
In the wider online world there's been a minority movement to shift to indie web tools, as a replacement for social media platforms. Services like Micro.blog and Mastodon have attracted a small but growing user base, and long-standing tools like WordPress have evolved to meet the challenge of combating social media. It's early days for this trend, but I for one will be using these tools more in 2019.
3. Crypto crashes & blockchain stalls
In January I started a new blog, called Blocksplain. My goal was to profile new blockchain and cryptocurrency startups, and explain how they fit into the emerging blockchain ecosystem.
Despite the promise I saw (1, 2, 3), the crypto ecosystem failed to emerge during 2018. It remains difficult to use cryptocurrencies, regulation has been messy, and decentralized apps (Dapps) have for the most part been a dud - except perhaps for Cryptokitties(!). In addition, my blog Blocksplain struggled to gain traction because, as it turned out, crypto fans weren't interested in blockchain products. They were only interested in price and market speculation.
However by the end of 2018, coin prices had turned to custard too. Bitcoin was over $17,000 in January, only to fall back to less than $3,500 in December. Ethereum's fall was even worse: over $1,300 in January, less than $100 now. Let's not even mention the altcoins.
Is there any hope left in crypto and blockchain? Perhaps the technology will yet prove useful, but the crypto community has a lot of work to do before that happens - not the least in re-focusing on product, rather than price.
4. AI is now everywhere; so are the dangers
A big trend this year was the proliferation of virtual assistants, chatbots and even digital humans. Many of these services are powered by AI software. In fact, AI tools and techniques are now being used routinely in business - from large organisations like Xero, to small startups like Thematic.
Of course AI has its dark side too. I'm not talking about a future Terminator-like scenario of AI taking over the world. I'm talking about how AI is being manipulated right now, by human beings. AI has led to nasty trends like "deepfakes" and "automated laser phishing." The former means using software to create fake celebrity videos, the latter is creating believable imitations of people using their publicly available online data. So, never mind the AI apocalypse: manipulation of AI by our fellow people is what we should be wary of.
5. The triumph of digital (except for VR & AR)
My final top trend of 2018 is about how everything around us is being digitized. For example, I recently wrote about how libraries are no longer the academic, dusty and quiet places of our youth (okay, my youth). Modern libraries are accessible, fun, and increasingly digital.
This trend is most noticeable in the media we consume every day. Many of us watch more Netflix than cable tv, we stream music on apps like Spotify rather than buy CDs, we're buying more and more stuff online, and of course we no longer read newspapers.
Finally, it's worth pointing out the big unknown with this shift to a digital world: how it is impacting our children. Generation Z are the first to grow up in an overwhelmingly digital world, and we don't yet know the full ramifications of that.
There you have it, my top technology trends for 2018. It's been a relatively dark year for online technology, as my first three trends showed. Perhaps in 2019, we can collectively re-discover the joy of using technology for good.