These are things I thought were important in 2013.
NSA Leaks and surveillance society
I always figured the NSA was watching, but it was still a shock to find how extensive surveillance had become – and it was disturbing to see clearly how surveillance of this kind was somebody’s job, something they would inscribe in how-to PowerPoint presentations. This realization via Snowden leaks brought the panopticon home in a big way: as we move so much of our lives into massive databases, we’re increasingly trackable, increasingly exposed to those who know how to capture and analyze the data, and especially vulnerable to government scrutiny. But NSA and government is only part of the story. We’re seeing widespread surveillance by both public and private entities – marketing analytics engines could be or become as robust as NSA tools, meanwhile none of us has ownership of, or control over, our personal data.
In 2013 our level of trust was low and declining. We especially don’t trust governments and corporations with our data because we’re so increasingly aware of the potential for, if not the fact of, abuse. To some extent concerns are legitimate, and to some extent they emerge from a culture of paranoia that has evolved in the wake of mass media and network technology, which have had several relevant effects: greater awareness of abuses when they happen, feeding into myriad fictional surveillance and pursuit fantasies, and more recently the emergence of a social media panopticon. But the Snowden revelations make paranoia feel pretty rational.
Andrew Leonard has a good Salon piece about surveillance/sousveillance: http://www.salon.com/2013/12/27/how_to_defeat_big_brother/
Death of the Internet /DIY/free culture etc.
As the Internet has become the pervasive platform for media and commerce, it has ceased to be the “network of networks” of the 90s. As so many of us predicted, the Internet has been transformed into something more like the cable networks. Content and technology are increasingly locked down behind paywalls and other barriers. Even social media have become more professional, less DIY. Anyone can still participate, but few will capture attention or persistent mindshare as the Internet version of mass media has emerged, more conversational and less top-down than the 20th century version, but nothing like the transitional blogosphere. As small publishers moved from desktop publishing to the web, 2013 saw bloggers moving onto managed platforms like Facebook and Tumblr. We now have a media environment that includes a relatively small number of high-profile content sources, and smaller clusters of online conversation and sharing. Shirkification proceeds (referring to Clay Shirky’s predictions that just such a thing would happen). Question is, how will cream rise to the top? How will new voices emerge and capture attention? Or they be excluded by stricter gateways and media dominance by a limited few. The promise of the Internet was that it could bring a vibrant mix of new perspectives and a cheerfully unmanageable confluence of cultures, but we lose that, if network culture is dominated by a top-down mass media paradigm.
Boston Marathon bombing
The Marathon bombing was similar to the 9/11/2001 attack on the World Trade Center, though smaller scale and evidently involving only two Chechen Muslim perpetrators who didn’t seem to be acting as part of a larger conspiracy or movement like Al Qaeda. This seemed to be more the case of “another nut with a gun” (and some bombs. However I find it just as troubling, maybe more so, to see the bombing as part of an epidemic of random acts of senseless violence. Note also that there were 359 mass shootings in the USA in 2013. (http://www.reddit.com/r/GunsAreCool/wiki/2013massshootings)
The Tea Party gets elected
Through a combination of hard work, effective propaganda, big money, and possibly a heavy thumb on the voting scales, a number of Tea Party politicians have been elected to public office, have been empowered by their supposed popularity, and have managed to freeze Congress from producing any effective legislative solutions. 2013 has been the year of peak Tea Party ascendance, much to the dismay of Democrats and pragmatic Republicans whose business-as-usual has been derailed. The debate about the role and extent of government may ultimately be healthy, if it doesn’t kill us first.
As religious figures go, this is a breath of fresh air. Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope, and the first pope from the Americas, is known for his humility and openness, and the simplicity of his demeanor. These are welcome traits in the leader of the world’s largest, and arguably most influential, Christian religious organization. He hasn’t sold all the Catholic gold, but he’s wearing less of it.
We keep hearing that the economy will tank any day now, and for anyone who’s on the exasperating downside, that doesn’t seem so speculative. Tech is booming (but it could be a bubble), and there are signs of life in the world of manufacturing. Innovation is everywhere. However the American middle class is on the ropes, and much of the world’s money is socked away in Swiss bank accounts, i.e. out of play. And while there are many experts in the infosphere, nobody seems to have a definitive clue. There’s a lot of “next economy” talk, and we may very well see a collapse of traditional means of exchange and the ascendance of new forms – worker cooperatives, alternative currencies and barter systems, resilient communities, etc. These are gathering steam (and may have to be steam-driven, as fossil fuels burn away).
Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) depends on the commitment of citizens and corporations to make it work. However opponents who see in the potential for broad mandated insurance a kind of socialism, where the strong support the weak, have undermined that commitment. Those that are healthy/wealthy don’t want the sick and the poor in their insurance pools, just as they don’t want their tax dollars spent on benefits or “entitlements” for the lower and middle classes. The actual launch of Obamacare was the best they could’ve hoped for: the web technology to support ACA exchanges and enrollments was poorly planned and executed, and this seemed to validate the opponents’ arguments that the ACA would be a disaster. But the botched website development doesn’t say anything about the viability of the ACA system itself. While the law’s not ideal, it’s a step toward universal healthcare and improvement of the whacky dysfunctional American healthcare system. As of this writing, the website’s working better, so we may be past that particular glitch. Meanwhile ideological wrangling over the complex (ergo not well understood) legislation sucked much of the political energy out of 2013.
What happens when an asteroid strikes the earth? We’ve often wondered, and the answer depends on the size of the particular rock. Many think the Tunguska event in Russia was an asteroid or comet strike. The Chelyabinsk meteor, also in Russia, was also thought to have been an asteroid, and the first case where a meteor blast caused documented widespread injuries. I’ve used the word “strike” here, but in the case of both Tunguska and Chelyabinsk, there wasn’t a direct hit. Both exploded above the earth; most of the damage was caused by shock waves.
How can we prevent larger asteroids from striking the earth? NASA’s currently planning an asteroid-tow-and-study mission that would be a step in the right direction: http://www.space.com/22764-nasa-asteroid-capture-mission-candidates.html
Miley Cyrus twerking
Miley’s unconventional, racy MTV Video Music Awards appearance shocked the Twitterverse and escalated her prominence as a pop culture icon, not so much because of the performance itself (which I saw as a clever, entertaining parody of pop culture excess) as her smart handling of the supposed controversy. Can’t say that there was any shift in mainstream commercial pop culture as a result of the furor, but hey, it was just a bit of fun.
I guiltily admit that I haven’t taken any opportunity, and there’ve been some, to give Google Glass a try. I’m skeptical whether I’ll be able to see much of the overlay, but it might be cool to shoot photos and videos on the fly, though a GoPro would be better for that. To me, the real significance is not so much of the specific product or platform but the boost for the wearable computing meme, which we’ve been talking about since the early 90s. However my pocket device is useful enough, I don’t have to “wear” it (though I’m jonesing for a wearable health data tracker like FitBit.)
The point of “wearable” is that computers are increasingly embedded in the fabric of everyday life, via devices like Glass, Nest, FitBit et al, and concepts like the Internet of Things. 2013, two decades after the Internet’s mainstreaming began in 1993, these next generation technologies have arrived. Soon enough, they’ll be commonplace and boring.