I know, I know: “Not another prediction list …” But stick with me. After all, my first forecast from last year came true — although the Capitol siege moved the timetable forward considerably.
I wrote: “Soon after our forever troller in chief leaves office on Jan. 20, his account will be suspended by Twitter temporarily, and then, since he cannot stop breaking rules, he’ll get tossed off, just like his hideous pal, Alex Jones … after Joe Biden is inaugurated, Mr. Trump should be treated like any other mendacious loudmouth, and Twitter will be well within its rights to put a sock in it.”
Because of Donald Trump’s social media behavior around the deplorable events of Jan. 6, Facebook and YouTube also shoved him off (where he remains in a sort-of purgatory).
Which brings me to my first prediction for 2022: Trump will be posting once again on at least one of the giant platforms this year. My guess is it’ll be Meta that lets him back on, even after announcing a two-year suspension that’s meant to run until January 2023. The company, parent to Facebook and Instagram, said it could restore his accounts at the end of the suspension if “the risk to public safety has receded” — so it’s easy to see how Zuck could justify an early parole. While that would invite a heap of negative attention, it’s time to accept that the company that started as a “Mark Zuckerberg Production” could care less what you or I think of it. If you need more evidence, consider what lasting changes it’s made in the wake of the revelations brought forth this year by the whistle-blower Frances Haugen.
That’s why it really is worth listening to Haugen’s insights in a long Sway interview I did with her recently. TL;DR: The drip-drip-drip of information that the company is eroding society has made nearly no difference in Zuckland. Though the rest of us have been waiting for lawmakers to act (and Senator Amy Klobuchar even promised me it would happen in 2022, in a Christmas card she sent me), I think the penny has finally dropped with increasing numbers of consumers, particularly parents.
Polls show a growing distrust of tech companies — yes, the public distrusts the media too, but that’s not new — and are open to new alternatives if they’re presented. That sounds like a golden opportunity for a round of entrepreneurs to come up with new ways of interaction that don’t rely on sucking up more and more data in exchange for free access to digital services. In 2022, we’ll see new forms of social interaction being built on the blockchain, as well as formidable new search (Neeva) and e-commerce alternatives (Shopify) that will slowly leech at the foundations of the larger operations.
And there will be important legislation to help that soon too — just not in the United States. Instead, it will come from Europe, which is trying to finalize the Digital Markets Act and the Digital Services Act, much as they passed the General Data Protection Regulation nearly six years ago. While imperfect, it did set a tone for regulation that has been used worldwide.
In the United States, which never passes up an opportunity to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, Congress is mulling over several important tech-related bills, dealing with everything from privacy to safety to consolidation, none of which is likely to get moving unless the Biden administration gets more aggressive.
The administration signaled that it would with the appointments of Tim Wu as a White House adviser, Lina Khan as chair of the Federal Trade Commission and Jonathan Kanter as head of antitrust at the Justice Department. But without a big push from President Biden and with the altogether likely possibility of a power shift in Congress to the Republicans, a major opportunity to move will have been lost.
Biden should, for example, push hard for the Klobuchar bill, assembled with Senator Chuck Grassley, which would put the brakes on Big Tech platforms preferencing their own products at the expense of others’. This ought to be an obvious thing to do, right?
That’s why I expect that no significant laws will be passed to dampen tech’s reign and I am even less confident on new stuff heading down the pike. I, too, would like to see where the metaverse, blockchain and Web3 lead us, but it is long past time to clamp down on the excesses of Big Tech.
The next few months offer an opportunity for regulators like Khan to make some bold moves, like suing to stop a merger or going back and trying to unwind one. You can’t win if you don’t play, right?
A few more quick predictions for the coming year:
Apple will vault ahead of Facebook in virtual reality. There’s a new Oculus headset due, but expect Apple to be the one that creates an experience that’s appealing to regular folks. VR takes quality hardware, which is firmly in Apple’s wheelhouse. But for true mass adoption, prices have to come down.
GAS — Gyms as Software. Augmented, rather than virtual, reality will emerge as a major outlet for fitness buffs and regular Joes trying to keep in shape. That said, I have started going to the analog gym again and, refreshingly, use almost no tech at all.
Lastly, it turns out you can use language tech called GPT-3 to create AI versions of prominent podcasters. “Using famous quotes, podcast transcripts and GPT-3, we’ve created AI versions of 10 popular podcast hosts,” like yours truly, according to the folks behind the Shuffle app. Welp, nice knowing ya.
I caught up with Emily Oster, a Brown University professor of economics and public policy, and the author of several books, including her most recent, “The Family Firm: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision Making in the Early School Years.” She gave her thoughts on people’s risk assessment capabilities and the pandemic. I’ve edited her answers.
Everyone now fancies themselves an amateur risk assessment analyst. What tips can you offer to make them better at it, so they don’t drive me — and others — crazy?
I am not sure how to keep people from driving us crazy! The biggest mistake I think people make in analyzing risk is that it’s very hard to understand small probabilities. Humans are just really poor at this. We think of 1-in-100 and 1-in-1,000 and 1-in-10,000 as all kind of similar and small, whereas in reality those are totally different. But since our experience doesn’t give us access to a lot of 1-in-10,000 probability events, it’s not hard to see why we can’t really understand them. The best way I have found to think about small probability events is to find a comparison event. 1-in-30,000 is the risk of an emergency room visit in a given year because of a blanket injury, for example. Another good way to think about it is: “If I took this risk every day, how long would it take before the bad thing would happen?” For a 1-in-10,000 event, this is 27 years.
I just had my fourth child and we really want to protect him, as well as my two-year-old. What is your best advice from an economist’s viewpoint for parents of children who may still be months or years from being eligible for a Covid vaccine?
One of the very lucky things about this terrible pandemic has been that children are much less affected by Covid than older people. For the most part, the older you are, the more dangerous Covid is. Vaccines lower your risk, but given how large the differences in risk of serious illness, vaccinated adults are still at higher risk for this outcome than unvaccinated kids. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t vaccinate kids, but it should give some reassurance to worried parents waiting on the vaccine. With your two-year-old, it makes sense to take the same precautions you do with yourself, but not to be more cautious. Babies are higher risk for all illnesses, so just as in flu season, it likely makes sense to keep the baby a little more isolated if you can, especially from any older sibling’s illness.
You’ve been a proponent of keeping schools open. What should parents and school administrators be thinking in the new year with respect to in-person education?
The biggest issues during the Omicron wave are likely to be staffing and quarantines. Too much sick staff may make keeping schools open difficult. There are a few solutions. One is to replace quarantine with test-to-stay programs, which administrators should start now to think about how to implement, though parents may be needed to help actually implement such programs, given staffing issues. A second key question is how to keep staff in place, a feat which is likely going to be possible only if we shorten quarantine rules for recovered individuals. Basically, I think we should all be prepared for some pretty significant disruptions over the next six weeks.
You recently wrote about what kept you sane in 2021: running, reading and cooking. How will you maintain that in 2022?
Like everyone else I’m desperately hoping for more of a return to normal, but at this point I’m not really expecting it. My big hope for 2022 is less volatility around Covid policy. As the disease becomes endemic, we’re facing a future in which many of these issues — a new variant, need for testing, updated vaccines — will always be present. This next period is the time to face that and figure out how we are going to adapt our policies to those that can be effective in the long term.
Don’t look now, but “The Matrix Resurrections” was actually good
With a small Omicron outbreak in my family, which turned me into a hotel manager, maid and full-time caregiver for 10 days since I did not get a case of breakthrough Covid (yet!), I found myself with time to stream the disaster movie “Don’t Look Up” on Netflix and the newest installment of the “Matrix” series on HBO Max. And let me tell you, I caught endless flack on Twitter when I posted that I liked both of them.
Every movie available to be streamed will be streamed in big numbers, or it will suffer a speedy exile into irrelevance. That’s happened to a lot of films that did well only in their theatrical release this year — as I predicted. A lot of Hollywood types strafed me for saying this, but the nearly two years of a pandemic have made analog filmgoing a lot more niche. That is, unless it is an obvious megamovie like “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” which can attract a younger demographic, unworried about the pandemic, and is just far more entertaining to see on the big screen.
But I digress: The reason I liked the “The Matrix Resurrections” and “Don’t Look Up” is because these are both stories about the limits of big tech, big media and big politics and the importance of heartfelt, real family connections. These are critically important ideas as we move into the next iteration of tech, which will have a lot more to do with virtualizing everything. How we evolve and connect as humans as the world moves to VR is a critical issue.
The first “Matrix” explored the idea of existing in what was essentially a metaverse — though no one used that term in 1999 — that become reality to most people. The notion of becoming confused over what’s real and what’s fake was profound then, and even more so now that we have become consumed by tech to a level that we still don’t quite grasp. The director and co-writer Lana Wachowski was apparently inspired to plumb this idea after the death of her parents, which is why she revived the main characters Neo and Trinity from the last film, “Revolutions,” in 2003. And, anyway, what is “The Matrix” without Keanu?
“I couldn’t have my mom and dad, yet suddenly I had Neo and Trinity, arguably the two most important characters in my life,” Wachowski said earlier this year, adding, “It was immediately comforting to have these two characters alive again.” She said, “You can look at it and say: ‘OK, these two people die and OK, bring these two people back to life and oh, doesn’t that feel good.’ Yeah, it did! It’s simple, and this is what art does and that’s what stories do: they comfort us.”
So, too, Adam McKay’s much-maligned “Don’t Look Up.” If you ask me, you should ignore the critics. Yes, there are some obvious plot points and over-the-top characterizations, but ultimately it’s a story about the gravity of humanity, however doomed it becomes because of its most pernicious members. That includes, particularly, the tech billionaire Peter Isherwell, a part played to geek perfection by Mark Rylance, who has managed to cohesively mash together the worst parts of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Zuckerberg.
Isherwell’s character hits it on the nose with his know-it-all certainty and data-driven lunacy, calling to mind tech’s ruling class, with its proclivity to be frequently wrong but never in doubt. And within the movie is a caution, that we ought not let Big Tech alone govern the world we share. “We really did have everything, didn’t we?” says the feckless astronomer played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie’s last scene.
Well, as it turns out, we do still have everything, so join me and look up in 2022 and beyond. And not at dumb spaceship stunt rides by billionaires, but at the things we really need to focus on — like the humanity in the rest of us.