PC, web, smartphone: what’s the subsequent massive technological epoch? | John Naughton

ÖOne of the challenges of writing about technology is escaping what sociologist Michael Mann memorably called “the sociology of the last five minutes.” This is especially difficult when covering the digital tech industry as one is constantly being inundated with “new” things – viral memes, shiny new product or service, Facebook scandals (a weekly issue), security breaches, etc. the last few weeks have had For example, the industry’s enthusiasm for the idea of ​​a “metaverse” (here neatly dissected by Alex Hern), El Salvador’s flirtation with Bitcoin, endless stories about central banks and governments worrying about regulating cryptocurrencies, Apple’s possible rethinking of its plans To scan phones and iCloud accounts for pictures of child abuse, umpteen ransomware attacks, antitrust lawsuits against app stores, the Theranos trial and so on, apparently ad infinitum.

So how do you break out of the fruitless syndrome identified by Prof. Mann? One option is to borrow an idea from Ben Thompson, a seasoned tech commentator who doesn’t suffer from it and whose (paid) newsletter should be a mandatory daily email for any serious tech observer. As early as 2014, he suggested looking at the industry in “eras” – important periods or epochs in the history of an area. At that point in time, he saw three epochs in the evolution of our networked world, each defined by its core technology and its “killer app”.

Epoch one in this context was the PC era, which opened in August 1981 when IBM brought its personal computer onto the market. The core technology was the open architecture of the machine and the MS-DOS (later Windows) operating system. And the killer app was the spreadsheet (which, ironically, was actually developed – as VisiCalc – on the Apple II).

The Metaverse is a vision of an immersive environment to entertain wealthy people in their air-conditioned caves while the planet cooks

Epoch two was the Internet era, which began 14 years after the beginning of the PC era with Netscape’s IPO in August 1995. The core technology (the “operating system,” if you will) was the web browser – the tool that changed the Internet into something non-geeks could understand and use – and the era was initially of a vicious battle for browser control coined a battle in which Microsoft destroyed Netscape and captured 90% of the market, but eventually faced an antitrust lawsuit that nearly resulted in its resolution. In this era, search was the killer app, and in the end, social networks dominated, with Facebook taking the dominant market share.

Epoch three of the Thompsons – the era we are in now – was the mobile. It dates back to January 2007 when Apple announced the iPhone and ushered in the smartphone revolution. In contrast to the two earlier epochs, there is no single dominant operating system, but a duopoly between Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android system. The killer app is what is known as the “sharing economy” (which is of course nothing of the sort) and various kinds of messaging have become the dominant communication medium. And now it looks like this smartphone era is reaching its peak.

When this actually happens, the obvious question is, what’s next? What will the fourth epoch be like? And here it is worth borrowing an idea from another astute observer of these things, the novelist William Gibson, who remarked that “the future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed ”. If this is as profound as I think then we should be on the lookout for things that bubble up incoherently and seemingly incoherently, like hot lava bursts in Iceland or other geologically unstable regions.

What can we see gushing in Techland right now? If you believe the industry, metaverse (plural) – basically designed as massive virtual reality environments – could be a big deal. This looks to this observer like wishful thinking for psychotics. In any case, the Metaverse idea at its very end is a vision of an immersive, video game-like environment to amuse wealthy people in their air-conditioned caves while the planet boils and less fortunate people have difficulty breathing. In this sense, the metaverse could just be a way of avoiding uncomfortable realities. (But then, as a prominent Silicon Valley figure recently joked, the reality may be overrated anyway.)

Two other plausible candidates for future epochs are cryptography – in the sense of blockchain technology – and quantum computing. But an era in which these technologies are prevalent would embody a fascinating contradiction: Our current crypto tools depend on creating keys that conventional computers would take millions of years to crack. However, quantum computers would crack them in nanoseconds. In this case, we may finally have to admit that we as a species are too smart for our own good.

What i have read

Prepare yourself
Historian Adam Tooze has a sobering opinion article in the New York Times entitled What if the coronavirus crisis is just a test run?

continue reading
Proust’s Panmnemonicon is a meditation on re-reading Proust by Justin EH Smith on his blog. A reminder that if you want to read Proust in your life, you must start now.

Domestic spies
Public Books has a great article by Erin McElroy, Meredith Whittaker and Nicole Weber on home surveillance tool intrusion.

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