Modern technology can be groundbreaking, ingenious, even life-changing – but it can also instil a sense of unease. It didn’t used to be this way. You’d save up for something, spend your hard-earned cash and enjoy the benefits it offered. These days we still save up, and we still buy, but we’re becoming increasingly aware that the money we hand over doesn’t necessarily represent the true cost. These concerns mounted in 2019, as the joy bestowed upon us by technology felt partly cancelled out: our privacy compromised, our mental health affected, our belief in the truth distorted. It’s a mark of the era in which we live; every wondrous new innovation, from 5G data connections to smart doorbells, requires us to assess whether the drawbacks outweigh the positives.
Criticism of social media platforms
Social media platforms came in for more criticism for failing to protect the users who give them most of their value. Facebook had another torrid year, as the US Federal Trade Commission levied a $5 billion (Dh18.3bn) fine on the firm, the largest to ever be imposed for violating consumer privacy. But with Facebook making a cool $22bn in profit in 2018, many felt the fine insufficient and unlikely to prompt any change.
Chief executive Mark Zuckerberg promises "major structural changes" in the way it conducts itself: "Now we're going to set a completely new standard for our industry," he says. But concerns over the way the platform is being used for propaganda and voter manipulation haven't gone away, and with the US presidential election looming next year, it will continue to be a major issue.
For its part, Twitter introduced a complete ban on political advertising last month, although that was criticised for its broad scope and lack of enforceability. The move may have put some clear blue water between Twitter and Facebook, but it had its own problems to contend with, including ongoing concerns about trolling and abuse. President Trump's unrestrained use of his account to colourfully slam detractors continued to provide an unlikely example for the world to follow. Meanwhile, there was close monitoring of the impact of Instagram and Snapchat on its largely teenage audiences, with reports of bullying and abuse coupled with a glut of sponsored content seeking to influence behaviour. The Chinese video-sharing platform TikTok had a magnificent year, with a delightful series of user-generated viral content that lit up 2019 – but it was also criticised over its handling of bullying, sexually explicit content and any outspoken criticism of China.
Anxiety surrounding Chinese technology firms was prominent throughout the year. Back in January, an American think tank described TikTok's ability to store the location and biometric data of its global users – data which is, by law, accessible by the Chinese government – as a "national security threat". But it was tech giant Huawei that caused most consternation. The requirement for Chinese firms to "collaborate in national intelligence work" put a new perspective on Huawei's involvement in the roll-out of 5G technology across the world. 5G is seen as the key to the success of data-rich economies of the future, where as many as 29 billion devices and sensors will be communicating with each other in real time. The US government, concluding that Huawei could not be trusted to keep data safe, placed the firm on a blacklist. Google, meanwhile revoked its license to use the Android operating system on its new smartphones.
The rise of artificial intelligence
5G began its roll-out, with Dubai’s Jumeirah Lakes Towers becoming the first district in the UAE to be 5G-powered. The next-generation network will elevate so-called pervasive computing, with countless sensors gleaning all kinds of information from our surroundings. It will boost the potential of voice recognition and facial recognition systems – but again, the prospect of the things we say and do becoming data points is a worry.
When does providing value to the consumer tip over into fully-fledged surveillance? Why would a company like Amazon be developing a service (called Rekognition) that is capable of assessing facial emotion? Voice assistants such as Siri, Alexa and Cortana refined their abilities over the year, but consumers seemed increasingly concerned about the safety of voice data held by the big tech firms – particularly when whistle-blowers revealed in July that many of those firms employ third-party contractors to listen to material.
All this amassed data will ultimately power new kinds of artificial intelligence, and some amazing progress has been made this year. Voice assistants have become more conversational, robots have improved their delivery skills, smart CCTV cameras can even detect violent behaviour – and then there’s the incredible work being done by Tesla, Uber and others on self-driving cars, although it’s often overshadowed by their much-publicised blunders. Indeed, it was an exciting year for transport all round, with Virgin Galactic (part owned by the UAE’s DP World) successfully testing its commercial spacecraft and setting the stage for space tourism, while advanced drone technology has enabled projects such as Zipline, which delivers vaccines, blood and drugs to remote areas of Rwanda and Ghana.
A prominent technology fail this year was Samsung's Galaxy Fold, whose launch was delayed when its foldable screen ended up creating more problems than it solved. But that aside, gadgets became more sleek and more capable. The new iPhones came complete with a stunning new camera, and it almost became compulsory for any new smartphone to be equipped with multiple lenses and intelligent software to produce hyperreal imagery. Headphones appeared in many shapes – both with wires and without – but the second generation of Apple's AirPods would become the most recognisable headphones since the Walkman: no longer freaky, much celebrated, much imitated.
We haven't fallen out of love with technology. Far from it. It's becoming an extension of the self. It encourages us to be healthy. It streamlines our lives. It gives us untold information about our surroundings. Some of it even becomes high fashion. There were many things to marvel at in 2019, from the first commercial battery-powered light aircraft to the latest robot vacuum cleaners. But when technology companies claim that they only want to make our lives better, we're right to wonder whether their motives are always as altruistic as they appear.