On November 9, 2016, I wrote an essay defending the relevance of covering technology. It was the day after an election result had dangled our world by the feet over a high balcony, not even holding it tightly by the ankles. Defying depression, I called the piece “The iPhone is Bigger Than Donald Trump,” noting that the true game changers in history have been technological advances, not political upheavals. Galileo, James Watt, and the woman who invented the wheel changed humanity more than the leaders who ruled those inventors, scientists, and makers. Ultimately, I claimed, our time will be remembered by the rise of computation and its effects, not who sits in the White House. That’s the big story of our time, and Backchannel feels privileged to cover it.
Indeed, 2017 offered us lots of opportunities to do just that. In some senses, our work turned to culture, policy, and ethics: It was a year when the big companies in tech had to reckon with their huge and not-always-salutary impact on society. And 2017 was a year when issues of diversity and sexual harassment finally rose to the top of the attention stack. We covered these subjects and also dug deep into narrative stories that shed light on the zeitgeist: feuds among venture capitalists, surveillance software used by police departments, and the personality behind the Uber-Alphabet lawsuit.
Look, not all is well in techland. The huge companies employing armies of engineers have to do more than acknowledge the criticisms against them. Like it or not, they have to serve not only their business interests and the transitory desires of their customers, but also society in general. Though “don’t be evil” may have served its purpose for a while, it’s now too vague a term for services so deeply interwoven into the daily lives of billions of people, many of whom are up to no good. It doesn’t exactly have the same ring, but maybe its replacement could be, “Is this algorithm toxic?”
What gives real pungency to this issue is the power of the tech itself. After all, if those companies weren’t so good at rolling out unprecedented, irresistible products, we wouldn’t care so much about their corporate cultures. And, as always, the significant developments covered in Backchannel last year—the news destined to stay news—involved ever-improving and transformative tech. Artificial intelligence was this year’s obsession; we dove into how it was practiced at Microsoft, Baidu, and Salesforce, and also published thoughtful essays on its impact by Kevin Kelly, David Weinberger, and Kai-fu Lee. We broke news about the revival of Google Glass. We stared agape at the blockchain. And after declaring in April that 2017 would mark the start of the brain-machine interface era, in September we introduced the world to a company that might make a difference. And not to forget that iPhone is bigger than Trump, Backchannel was the first tech publication to actually field test the iPhone X.
And as you can see by the seven essays we published this week that look forward to 2018, there’s plenty more to come.
The stock market could bottom out, venture capital could dry up, and Elon Musk could leave his companies and join a monastery. The arc of tech progress will continue on a steady rise, independent of temporal fluctuations. That trend is locked in.
Except for one thing. Though the new administration is in many senses irrelevant to technological progress, governments do have some degree of power to accelerate or thwart innovation. There’s a high correlation between, say, funding of basic research and scientific breakthroughs that lead to new technologies. Innovation is lubricated by an open internet that gives budding startups the same access to the world’s online population as that granted to multi-billion dollar companies. And considering that the Silicon Valley phenomenon is overwhelmingly dependent on the brilliance of immigrants who come to our shores, maintaining that flow is utterly crucial.
So it is horrifying that the people running this country have taken the wrong, and tragically unproductive, stances on every one of those issues. The Obama White House understood the issues of tech progress and even was beginning to embrace the concept, championed by our national Chief Technology Officer, of having engineers (or at least people who thought like them) in the rooms where decisions happened. No more. These days the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is reportedly a ghost town. No one sits in the CTO seat, because the administration has yet to suggest someone for the post.
None of this will stop the advance of technology. But much less of that progress will happen in the United States. In future decades, the vital tech stories will keep coming. American journalists covering those innovations may need fatter passports and a bigger travel budget.