Arthur C. Clarke’s book 2001: A Space Odyssey painted a portrait of a year that seemed far enough away in the future that it felt safe to speculate about. But watching the film today feels like opening a time capsule into the moment that optimism about the future morphed into disillusionment. At the time the film was made, no one had yet walked on the moon. And yet it realistically depicts a lunar human colony and space transport every bit as banal as today’s passenger aircraft travel. That is the problem with the future. It eventually happens.
And then there’s Isaac Asimov. His predictions for the year 2014, made fifty years ago, are insanely accurate. “Men will continue to withdraw from nature in order to create an environment that will suit them better,” predicted Asimov, making every thirty-something with a copy of “Call of Duty” and a sense of perspective shudder.
We’re not yet prepared to tackle 2064, but from our perch here in the first few days of 2014, let’s peek forward to the coming year based on the nascent trends of 2013.
The monetization of social media
From a financial perspective, Facebook hardly seems to be in trouble. And yet it wasn’t too long ago that many analysts pointed to the lack of a standard business model or tangible product as evidence that social media was a balloon waiting to be popped.
Writing obituaries for Facebook has become a sub-branch of journalism, citing its uncoolness with millennials who now regard it as a platform for the middle aged among other factors. Facebook’s death, however, feels a little like proclamations about the death of television or magazines –greatly exaggerated.
Last December, Toronto company Chango, the real-time advertising bidding platform, partnered with Facebook on its then relatively new FBX ad exchange. If you recall, Facebook was widely mocked then, following a stumble out of the IPO gate, with its share price sliding from $38 to $17.55.
We profiled Chango at that time and can’t help but notice that at the same time that several analysts were saying that Facebook was overvalued, the company’s worth has rocketed north in the interim. Today its share value sits above $54, with a market capitalization of approximately $140 billion. Coincidence? Nope. And with projections for the future of digital marketing suggesting that we are still on the ground floor of a new advertising paradigm involving mobile development and real-time ad sales, betting against a social media pioneer which still has ubiquitous traction seems like a bad idea. That said, Google’s advertising revenue per user now sits at around $30, compared with $8.79 for LinkedIn, $6.12 for Facebook, and $2.66 for Twitter.
The reining in of the Wild West
With the NSA-Snowden blow-up last year making everyone paranoid about government spying, the abuse of private information has come in for a whole lot of media scrutiny. Meanwhile, that same abuse by corporations and data mining agencies has more or less flown under the radar. That will likely change as public pressure to rein in the NSA, and perhaps CSEC here, becomes a prelude to the other shoe dropping in the mind of the public.
Two weeks ago, Pam Dixon, Director of the World Privacy Forum, testified to the United States Congress about the hidden world of data brokers and the implications of their business practice for privacy. Data brokerages are key to the nascent economies of predictive analytics, real-time marketing and Big Data. They also offer for sale lists of the home addresses of police officers, the identities of people with medical conditions or alcohol and drug addiction issues, people who have made use of payday lending services, etc., while making it virtually impossible for individuals to opt out of their data collection methods.
On the one hand, large-scale real-time loyalty applications have been developed by companies like SAP, who have the resources to run all of the privacy implications through a team of German lawyers. On the other, you’ve got start-ups developing self-tracking and mobile applications with a much more laissez-faire approach to the details of citizen privacy.
As the issue of consumer data mining for business purposes begins to attract more and more press attention, you can expect to see governments freezing private interests out of markets because of their imprecise attitudes to the laws of a given land, as New York and Quebec are doing to Airbnb and China has just done to Bitcoin.
Which brings us to Bitcoin, or whichever confluence of virtual currency and government backed money is going to end up in wide circulation.
With Vancouver acting as a hotbed for some reason, perhaps because of its relative ease of access to Silicon Valley and Canada’s more lax regulatory attitude to virtual currency, the future of Bitcoin and Litecoin and Feathercoin all point to a definite future in which our attitude towards money is due for a sea change.
Jesse Heaslip, co-chief executive behind Vancouver-based Bitcoin exchange platform bex.io, makes the case that as Bitcoin sheds its aura of illegality, as well as the myth that it’s somehow anonymous, its frictionless and international appeal can no longer be derailed, as it sees wider and wider merchant adoption. “The convenience and global utility is what is going to make all sorts of electronic currencies more and more popular, especially Bitcoin,” he says.
Obviously, there are other oncoming trends in 2014 that will be worth watching, such as wearable technology, the confluence of bricks-and-mortar retail with mobile and online solutions, as well as machine learning. And as always, fusion power remains a mere five years away.
But here’s a blue sky story that will make 2014 truly exciting: mapping the human brain. For all our sophisticated advances, seeing into the deepest corners of the universe, developing neat gizmos like self-driving cars and tennis rackets that collect data and pizza delivery drones, we still lack even a basic understanding of how our own brains work. This is set to change in the coming year.
Japanese scientists have been imaging the dreams of human subjects as they sleep. And while that’s an impressive trick, it’s merely a prelude to the projects that are about to get underway. With President Obama signing off on a massive brain research initiative, along with the EU’s Human Brain Project also getting rolling, not to mention an intriguing exercise in brain modelling at the University of Waterloo, humanity is set for the equivalent of a moonshot into a frontier that we now barely comprehend – the nature and function of consciousness. And the implications for every aspect of life are enormous.