At the beginning of 2011, aging dictators ruled Egypt and Libya, and despotism was the nearly unquestioned reality in most of the Middle East. The eurozone was seeing trouble at its edges, but wasn’t heading toward collapse. News International had successfully covered up most of its rampant bad acts, and Rupert Murdoch was on the verge of even greater control over British media and politics.
Anyone who might have predicted how utterly and rapidly those realities would change might have been branded a lunatic. Which is one reason why the annual journalistic ritual of making predictions about the year ahead is a fool’s errand.
With that in mind, let me offer instead some observations about the technology and media trends we’ve seen in past months, and how they might play out in 2012. In many cases, the trajectory is deeply worrisome. But I remain an eternal optimist in the face of often daunting reality.
Social revolutionaries No, Twitter and Facebook did not create revolutions. Yet those and other tools of communication and collaboration were essential in the fomenting and carrying out of the uprisings in the Middle East, and then in the Occupy movements that changed the terms of debate in Europe and the United States. People are still learning to use these tools, the power of which is unprecedented but not irresistible.
Tools for repression Governments around the globe, assisted by the beyond-cynical leaders of technology companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, learned that the internet and mobile communications can be not just useful for the dispossesse,d but also for dictators. The willingness – no, eagerness – of industry to supply tools of government terror would shame people capable of being shamed. As we’ve seen, however, the almighty dollar (pound, euro etc) transcends honor.
Information cartels Hollywood and its allies in the “intellectual property” cartel will never give up on their determination to restore control of media to where they believe it rightly belongs: in the hands of a few mega-corporations that get to decide what the rest of us may consume and create. The grotesque Stop Online Piracy Act and its companion legislation in America were only the latest, if most brazen, measures designed toward that end – never mind that the result would be a fundamentally broken Internet. There is bipartisan support, albeit dwindling, in the US Congress for this outrage, and some kind of law of this sort seems inevitable in 2012 or soon thereafter.
Patent insanity The global patent system is a key element, if misunderstood, of the intellectual property regime. It is entirely out of control, with the US Patent & Trademark Office, in particular, constantly awarding patent protection to non-inventions that give patent holders weapons with which to blackmail each other – and which are a severe deterrent to actual innovation. America’s 2011 patent “reform” law was nothing of the sort, and will only make things worse, as we’ll see in a spate of bad patents and lawsuits that continue in 2012 and the years ahead.
Apple power The world’s most valuable technology has gone from triumph to triumph in recent years, with a collection of products that are almost always world-class and often best of breed. But even more than Microsoft in its most predatory days, Apple has become an enterprise that deploys scorched-earth, winner-take-all strategies and tactics. The death of Steve Jobs – a product genius with an infinite mean streak – has given the company’s leaders a chance to reassess what Apple is becoming, and I hope they’ll take advantage of the opportunity to remain great while moderating the control-freakery.
Mobile madness One reason Apple has done so well is that its competitors have been so inept. Microsoft unaccountably waited to launch its (finally) solid mobile platform. And Google’s alleged “partners” in the mobile space – handset makers and have been the truly evil telecom carriers – are severe threats to the Android operating system’s long-term prospects. The Android fragmentation that Google keeps promising to remedy has only grown worse, and Android tablets are only now – two years after Apple launched the iPad – even starting to show signs of maturity.
Cloudy weather The idea of “cloud computing” – where we run services based in networks and leave all our data in the networks, relegating our personal devices to secondary roles – is alluring. It is also trouble. We are ceding control to entities that have not demonstrated their reliability or trustworthiness. This situation will improve, but I won’t move my life into anyone’s cloud anytime soon.
Journalism’s shame The comeuppance of the Murdoch clan and its News Corp henchmen is one of the few bright spots of the year. In a perfect world it would lead to a) the Murdoch gang’s loss of control of News Corp (and perhaps criminal charges against even more senior people); b) a thorough rethinking of the tabloid culture by media people who have turned honorable journalism almost into an oxymoron; and c) an awakening among the media-consuming public to the reality that they are the ultimate enablers of journalistic sleaze, and that only they, in the end, can end it.
For all of my angst, however, I remain an optimist. I have faith in the power of people to ultimately recognize the risks, and then to work in their own self-interest. If we’re to have a world where we, not the control freaks, are in charge, we have no alternative.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010