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- It is a time of great tech stagnation, in part due to the scandals that have rocked Silicon Valley over the last year.
- Part of the stagnation, too, is that current technology is stalling out, and the next wave just isn't ready yet.
- After a decade-plus of the tech industry causing near-constant disruption and turmoil, the lull is offering the world a much-needed break to consider how technology is affecting society and to try to figure out what to do about it.
Apple's WWDC developer conference this week marked the conclusion of the period each year when some of the biggest technology companies lay out their agendas for the future of their platforms.
Compared with past years, the message from Silicon Valley was far more muted this time around. Last year, for example, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple were all focused on the next big things in technology, each in its own way laying the foundation for the inevitable death of the smartphone.
This year, by contrast, the companies focused on important but decidedly less flashy topics including security, privacy, and their responsibility to their users and society.
There are a variety of reasons for the tech giants' reduced ambition. Facebook, Google, and Apple each spent much of the last 12 months in various states of crisis and are now trying to patch things up. Growth in the markets for the technology products that led to the rise of the current behemoths is slowing down to a crawl. And the next generation of technology gadgets and services isn't ready for prime time yet.
That may sound depressing and disappointing. After all, much of the excitement surrounding the tech industry stems from the bold visions of the future it often offers. But from where I'm standing, this lull is a good thing for the industry and the world.
Technologies under development right now could lead to some potentially terrifying changes. This boring period in the industry gives us the time and the attention to hold the tough conversations we need to have about where the industry and society are heading.
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It's clear from the past year's scandals in the industry that those conversations are overdue. Because there's growing concern about the tech industry's role in society.
Facebook was caught up in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where as many as 87 million people had their data used improperly, and faced continuing fallout over its role in distributing Russian propaganda during the 2016 election. Google and its YouTube service saw criticism over their role in spreading hoaxes and conspiracy theories. And Apple dealt with a storm of criticism over Batterygate, its belated admission that it slowed down some iPhones with older batteries without informing users.
The future is slowing down
This concern is coming amid a transition time for the industry.
The first few slides of Kleiner Perkins investor Mary Meeker's newest State of the Internet report tell you everything you need to know, which is that overall, the growth in many of the most important tech products and services is flat-lining. Global smartphone shipment growth? Almost precisely flat. Global internet user growth? Flattening out, with a relatively meager 12% year-over-year-growth.
Additionally, both the PC market and the tablet market are declining.
Oh, sure, there are some bright spots in tech. Meeker's report estimated that the installed base for the Amazon Echo line of smart speakers hit 30 million users by the end of 2017. Other technologies, including streaming video, smartwatches, and cryptocurrencies, are also growing in fits and starts.
But as big a number as it is, 30 million Echo users is a drop in the bucket when you compare it to the more than a billion devices in use running Apple's iOS software, and the more than two billion gadgets in use that run Google's Android.