What can we expect from the digital world in 2016?
Predicting tech trends is a fun but fairly doomed enterprise. The field is vast, riddled with secrecy, and lavishly blanketed in hype. Humans find their own uses for technology, too, which can send trends sideways. There’s also the problem of long-term trends, with our tendency to underestimate long-term effects, and the way some developments can take a long, long time to arrive (cf ebooks).
But we can improve our understanding by examining current trends, out of which many near-future ones spring. This makes it easier for us to plan, to think strategically, and be open to new developments.
So, following up from Tuesday’s education and contexts post, here are some tech trends to watch in 2016. The sequence is, roughly, hardware to software, more or less:
Automation and AI The number of projects and initiatives continues to grow. Let’s open on a seasonal note, with Christmas wishes from Boston Dynamics.
What kinds of approaches are we seeing automation take? Interpreting the world, including human artifacts , human languages, and human sexism. Making content, including news articles and headlines. Assisting or taking over hiring and management of human beings (behold the robo-boss). Running airports without pesky humans. Administering anesthesia.
Privacy and surveillance Late 2015 saw an ISIS- and tv news fueled panic about terrorism, which turned to technology. Now there’s a bipartisan interest in cracking down on social media (thank you Trump and Clinton), plus a drive to weaken encryption so the NSA can have better eyes with which to see you.
Countervailing trend: public libraries supporting the TOR browser.
Mobile ecosystems We continue our migration into the mobile world, with ever-growing use of smartphones and changes in web design. Tablets, various descendants of netbooks, and other handhelds proliferate, although we may have reached, and recoiled from, peak tablet. Other mobile initiatives are working, from fitness trackers to smart watches to medical tools to digitally-enabled cloth. Google Glass went on hospice care, but could return if rebooted in a less offensive fashion. University of Michigan researchers built a networked camera the size of a grain of rice.
Mobile is where Google and Apple continue their bitter struggle. Does anyone see a ceasefire coming up in 2016? Anyone?
Mobile drove messaging apps to new heights in 2015. Maybe they will continue to rise (Google’s entering the game), marking the only real way humans are responding to the Snowden revelations, or else face a Gartner hype cycle moment.
The laptop and desktop worlds struggle. One fate is for them to become niches, devices we use when we need keyboards, big screens, or more horsepower.
I keep using this phrase “ecosystem” because no one device has taken over the world. There’s nothing like the dominance shown of old by laptops and (further back, children) desktops. Smartphones are awesome, but users keep adding other boxes of different sizes for other functions, usually connected by various spectra. Something like 90% of American households have at least three (3) networked devices in 2015. That’s why I refer to our time as the age of disintegrated computing. I’m not seeing any Swiss army knife machine suddenly winning.
3d printing This rising manufacturing technology showed huge promise in 2015, as it hurtled into consumer grade forms and threatened to upturn all kinds of apple carts. Printing also became more ambitious in scale, reaching jet engines and office building size. The growing diversity of materials (like human tissue, animal tissue, prosthetic limbs, and pills) and uses seems likely to continue in 2016. The onset of copyright battles (sigh) suggest 3d printing has come of age.
The internet of damned near everything 2015 saw a lot of hype here, which naturally makes me suspect an upcoming crash, especially via scandal. We also saw a wave of companies, projects, and strategies, all of which could perish in a crash, but might power through to actually presenting us with useful functions.
Social media Obviously social media continue to grow into a world-straddling colossus in 2015. Watch for usage differences based on user gender, age, race, and economic class.
A few details: WordPress has become a monster, powering one quarter of the web (!) according to one report. Will anything hold WP back from supporting 1/2 of the web?
Countervailing forces: rising skepticism. People (i.e., the New York Times) will keep pronouncing Facebook dead (I would love to be 1 billion users strong dead, wouldn’t you?), but maybe we’ll see some small exodus. I doubt it, but always keep an eye out for changes in youth culture and waves of social anxiety. A good scandal, preferably involving a celebrity, might do it.
And Twitter’s investors will probably keep trying ways to make Twitter stupid and/or dead. (How many people are using Ello now?)
Virtual reality There’s a big push to get VR going, to finally realize 1995’s dreams. Several projects moved VR closer to the mainstream. There’s a lot of technical work remaining to make VR semi-decent as a production and consumption platform; perhaps by this time next year we’ll see prices fall and quality rise far enough.
Augmented reality AR is now part of life in various forms, especially the less complicated ones (geolocation). I’m curious to see if Microsoft gets Hololens working in 2016.
Gaming This culture industry should just keep growing, especially as more people play a growing diversity of game types across more devices.
Pro- and anti-gaming attitudes seem to have divided, so we might expect a growing culture war on that front, especially if election campaigns turn to media.
Podcasts This culture industry received an enormous second wave of support in 2015, with not only more fine podcasts appearing, but people actually listening to them, despite the lack of decent podcatchers.
I worry, though, about the fickleness of media attention, and fear a hype cycle crash ahead.
Big data 2015 saw another two-step, with people pushing hard for more use of data, while privacy fears grew.
Cybersecurity threats These just keep coming. The war between attackers and defenders heated up in 2015, and I don’t imagine any sudden Christmas truce ahead.
Will people change their behavior, making it harder for attackers to succeed? Will entities take stuff offline to avoid being hacked? I doubt it.
Copyright Some intellectual property holders continued their love of suing customers and lobbying governments in 2015. I don’t see this slowing down next year, not with the odious TPP threatening to ramp of copyright laws and enforcement around the Pacific Rim.
ebooks and reading This domain is very strange and complex now. Ebooks grew and grew, enabling massive waves of self-publishing and epic pornography, then hit some kind of wall. Our reading habits are now segmented into ebooks (through phones, tablets, laptops, and a shrinking number of readers), print books, and audio (podcasts, “books on tape). Here’s a snapshot of my own current habits. This could end up a status quo for a few years, with people settling into ecosystem niches based on comfort and convenience. Or we could see battles erupt.
Video We simply love this stuff. We consume video through every device we can, from Netflix streaming to YouTube clips. We make video, recording with every device we can, then sharing through YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat. We also continue our migration into videoconferencing. And we shrink cameras way down. I don’t see any countervailing forces in 2016.
Messing with the web Some number of mobile apps continue to carry on their internet functions without using the web. It’s possible we could see a net without web seriously grow. Facebook offered a restricted form of internet connection, so there’s always that form of “net lite”.
Television On the one hand we’re living through a golden age of tv fiction, with the awesome problem of having too much stuff to watch. On the other hand, tv nonfiction (news, or “news”) continues its glide path down to ever more horrendous depths of mediocrity. Perhaps we’ll see a cultural divide on this second point.
More futuristic stuff Let’s consider some unusual developments that don’t fit neatly into these categories.
- Human brain-computer interface work progresses. What shape could that take in 2016?
- I’ve been hoping to see intangible computing grow, but voice and the body (Kinect) have been the only major successes. Maybe light-based keyboards will win an audience next year. Spanish protestors mounted a human-free, all hologram demonstration.
Overall, 2015 seems to be driving a digital world that’s social, filled with storytelling, distributed in our personal spaces, increasingly automated, and moving into the physical world. There are plenty of opportunities for trends to flame out, or for them to elicit opposition in culture and policy. And naturally there’s room for a black swan or two.
Which of these trends seems most likely to shake things up in 2016?