Here’s what bothered us most in tech this year, from the surveillance state and 5G hype to too many streaming services. May they end up in the 2020 trash heap.
Covering the tech industry every day tends to make us a bit cynical. So toward the end of each year, we like to get it out of our systems by writing up our saltiest hot takes on the tech trends we want to see wiped from the face of the Earth.
Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way. We often end up decrying the same tech-industry scourges year in and year out. But that doesn’t mean we’ll stop yelling about them.
Marketing the Surveillance State
Distrust in the government is as American as apple pie, and there’s a long tradition of the public railing against efforts to surveil them. The most recent, of course, are the Snowden leaks, which led to the termination of NSA spying programs and (supposed) reforms to the FISA courts. But while we were all so worried about the government building a massive surveillance apparatus in secret, we’ve allowed it to grow on our phones and in our consumer electronics. The close ties between Amazon’s Ring products anda program that encourage customers to voluntarily turn over footage to local police, is just one example of how consumer products are being used to let Big Brother keep an eye on us. Companies need to put privacy first, and consumers need to be as suspicious of friendly corporations as they are of their own government. — Max Eddy, Senior Software and Security Analyst
People buy Ring doorbells for all sorts of reasons — a sense of security, a way to deter porch pirates, the novelty of seeing who’s at the door without even being home. But connected doorbells with a direct tie to police departments and ICE are turning consumers into modern-day Stasi informants. Ring has partnerships with over 400 local police departments, and its Neighbors app lets users share footage of anybody who comes to their doorstep. People distributing leaflets or campaigning for a candidate can be subject to scrutiny and suspicion by those in the surrounding area on the app or — if footage is put on social media — much worse. And undocumented family members, friends, delivery people, or domestic help are subject to facial recognition which is shared with local police departments and ICE. — Chandra Steele, Senior Features Writer
Political Ads on Social Media
Political ads on social media spread misinformation, but while Twitter has banned them, Facebook has no interest in doing so. It’s time we hold companies like Facebook accountable for the damage it has done to our society. Political ads on social media need to go, because the audience they reach are being misled. — Jason Cohen, Associate Editor, Help & How-to
Virtual reality is a huge pain. Most of that pain is the need to tether your head to a computer and then dance over a cable while you flail around the room. The Oculus Quest proves that isn’t necessary. So why are we seeing more tethered VR headsets? Why are the HTC Vive Cosmos and Valve Index things at all, instead of HTC and Valve putting all of their VR resources into the Vive Focus and… whatever wireless headset Valve might come up with? Let’s ditch cables in 2020. — Will Greenwald, Senior Consumer Electronics Analyst
Wireless carriers spent the year promoting 5G networks that almost no one can use. They overpromised and underdelivered. The carriers should shut their mouths until they have networks with affordable service plans, easy to read coverage maps, and devices that actually work on the full networks.
The Proliferation of Payment Apps
For money to work, the same dollar has to be able to buy anything from fighter jets to six packs. Unfortunately, the growth of digital payments is splitting cash into a kaleidoscope of services that don’t work with each other. You want to split a check with friends? Everyone needs the same app, which means yet another company will have your personal information. A new experience I have learned to dread in recent years is the inevitable fight that comes at the end of the meal, where everyone dukes it out for which app they’ll use to pay each other. Money is money, and I should be able to use Zelle to send a dollar to your Venmo account. With so many options for payments, now including Facebook Pay, cash is fast becoming the less confusing and less controversial. — Max Eddy, Senior Software and Security Analyst
Private Equity Demolishing News Sites
In the span of a month, two of the biggest names in sports journalism — Deadspin and Sports Illustrated — were all but obliterated by their new private equity owners. G/O Media’s progressive politics blog, Splinter, was also shuttered in October. The circumstances are different in each instance, but in both cases, the owners decided that their websites didn’t need fancy features like “beloved writers” or “content that readers actually want.” In Deadspin’s case, it’s Great Hill Partners, while SI’s operations are now licensed to media company Maven and owned by Authentic Brands Group, which is controlled by BlackRock’s private equity fund.
They assume that readers will just keep coming back anyway because they’re very attached to…the domain name? The logo? The growing wall of ads? It’s unclear what the actual business plan is. But even if these private equity firms manage to turn a profit in the end, the fact remains that the journalism is poorer for their efforts. — Peter Haas, Social Media Manager
The VPN industry has exploded, thanks to a perfect alignment of cheap cloud server hosting, affiliate marketing, and global paranoia. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, since this once-niche technology can now easily and cheaply be used by anyone, but this white-hot market hasn’t always led to moral choices by VPN companies. Bogus free VPNs that steal your data plague mobile platforms, and even the legitimate companies engage in misinformation campaigns against their competition that ranges from the sophomoric to the nefarious. The chaos is hurting this still-young industry and making consumers (and reviewers!) distrust VPN companies. The industry badly needs to declare a truce, and recognize that when it comes to protecting consumers everyone is on the same side. — Max Eddy, Senior Software and Security Analyst
Streaming Service Balkanization
Streaming media has two big, opposing problems. One is a bunch of content getting fractured into loads of different subscription services. On one hand, it’s a horrible pain to track which services have the shows you want to watch when they’re spread across multiple video-streaming services. Too many companies are trying to carve out their own little niches and get their own monthly fees, and that will sour everyone on the very idea of cord-cutting to begin with. We need more bundle services like VRV, which takes several services at once and provide a single monthly fee and app to access content on them. — Will Greenwald, Senior Consumer Electronics Analyst
In the other direction, we have Disney swallowing every major cinematic moment of the last half-century and locking it up in its vault. With the acquisition of Fox, the company now has a terrifying amount of control over American cinema. When Disney was just “Disney,” tossing movies into its vault was irritating but limited. So some animated classics had timed windows of access. That sucked, but fine. Now the Disney vault includes Marvel, Star Wars, and 20th Century Fox, so a massive swath of movie history and culture is under the control of a single company with a single service and the ability to limit the availability of previously widely available classic films on a whim. — Will Greenwald, Senior Consumer Electronics Analyst
Pop sockets are surprisingly versatile, giving you a better grip on your smartphone and letting you conveniently prop it up on a table to watch videos. These holders, which attach to your phone case and retract when not in use, nevertheless need to die. Why? They’re powerful enablers of tech addiction, practically ensuring your phone is glued to your hand at all times, ready to scroll through social media feeds and avoid face-to-face interaction. — Tom Brant, Senior Hardware Analyst
Silicon Valley Saviors
Drunk on the success of creating smartphones, and the mobile computing revolution that followed, Silicon Valley convinced itself that the same skills for making apps and tablets could solve any problem. It hasn’t turned out so well. We’re festooned with expensive devices that need constant replacing, inundated with data we can’t interpret, and torn apart by the social media that was supposed to bring us together. I can tell you exactly how many steps I took yesterday, and can get an Uber across town, but neither me nor the Uber driver can afford our medical bills. If technology companies want to fix the world, they need to do it for the public good and without a profit motive. And we need to stop hoping the luminaries of tech will save us from the problems they created.
All Rights Reserved for Rob Marvin