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Prognostalgia – Net.Wars by Wendy Grossman

“What seems to you like the big technology story of 2018?” I asked a friend. “The lack of excitement,” she replied.

New stuff – the future – used to be a lot more fun, a phenomenon that New York Times writer Eric Schulmuller has dubbed prognostalgia. While Isaac Asimov, in predicting the world of 2019 in 1983 or of 2014 in 1964, correctly but depressingly foresaw that computers might exacerbate social and economic divisions, he also imagined that this year we’d be building bases on other planets. These days, we don’t even explore the unfamiliar corners of the Internet.

So my friend is right. The wow! new hardware of 2018 was a leather laptop. We don’t hear so much about grand visions like organizing the world’s information or connecting the world. Instead, the most noteworthy app of 2018 may have been Natural Cycles – particularly for its failures.

Smartphones have become commodities, even in Japan. In 2004, visiting Tokyo seemed like time-traveling the future. People loved their phones so much they adorned them with stuffed animals and tassels. In 2018, people stare at them just as much but the color is gone. If Tokyo still offers a predictive glimpse, it looks like meh.

In technopolitics, 2018 seems to have been the most relentlessly negative since 1998, when the first Internet backlash was paralleling the dot-com boom. Then, the hot, new kid on the block was Google, which as yet was – literally – a blank page: logo, search box, no business model. Nothing to fear. On the other hand…the stock market was wildly volatile, especially among Internet stocks, which mostly rose 1929-style at every glance (Amazon, despite being unprofitable, rose 1,300%). People were fighting governments over encryption, especially to block key escrow. There was panic about online porn. A new data protection law was abroad in the land. A US president was under investigation. Yes, I am cherry-picking.

Over the course of 2018 net.wars has covered the modern versions of most of these. Australia is requiring technology companies to make cleartext available when presented with a warrant. The rest of the Five Eyes apparently intend to follow suit. Data breaches keep getting bigger, and although security issues keep getting more sophisticated and more pervasive, the causes of those breaches are often the same old stupid mistakes that we, the victims, can do nothing about. A big theme throughout the year was the ethics of AI. Finally, there has been little good news for cryptocurrency fanciers, no matter what their eventual usefulness may be. About bitcoin, at least, our previous skepticism appears justified.

The end of the year did not augur well for what’s coming next. We saw relatively low-cost cyber attacks that disrupted daily physical life as opposed to infrastructure targets: maybe-drones shut down Gatwick Airport and the malware disrupted printing and distribution on a platform shared by numerous US newspapers. The drone if-it-was attack is probably the more significant: uncertainty is poisonously disruptive. As software is embedded into everything, increasingly we will be unable to trust the physical world or predict the behavior of nearby objects. There will be much more of this – and a backlash is also beginning to take physical form, as people attack Waymo self-driving cars in Arizona. Jurisdictional disputes – who gets to compel the production of data and in which countries – will continue to run. The US’s CLOUD Act, a response to the Microsoft case, requires US companies to turn over data on US citizens when ordered to do so no matter its location. Be the envy of other major governments. These are small examples of the incoming Internet of Other People’s Things.

A major trend that net.wars has not covered much is China’s inroads into supplying infrastructure to various countries in Africa and elsewhere, such as Venezuela. The infrastructure that is spreading now comes from a very different set of cultural values than the Internet of the 1990s (democratic and idealistic) or the web of the 2000s (commercial and surveillant).

So much of what we inevitably write about is not only negative but repeatedly so, as the same conflicts escalate inescapably year after year, that it seems only right to try to find a few positive things to start 2019.

On Twitter, Lawrence Lessig notes that for the first time in 20 years work is passing into the public domain. Freed for use and reuse are novels from Edgar Rice Burroughs, Carl Sandberg, DH Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, and Agatha Christie. Music: “Who’s Sorry Now?” and works by Bela Bartok. Film: early Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Unpause, indeed.

In the US, Democrats are arriving to reconfigure Congress, and while both parties have contributed to increasing surveillance, tightening copyright, and extending the US’s territorial reach, the restoration of some balance of powers is promising.

In the UK, the one good thing to be said about the Brexit mess is that the acute phase will soon end. Probably.

So, the future is no fun and the past is gone, and we’re left with a messy present that will look so much better 50 years from now. Twas ever thus. Happy new year.

Illustrations: New Year’s fireworks in Sweden (via Wikimedia.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard – or follow on Twitter.

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