2016 - The Digital Year in Review - Six Key Themes Chart the Path to the Future

So, as turkeys across America are read their last rites, it’s that time of the year when we take stock of what’s happened in the last 12 months - what we’ve learnt, what we’re grateful for, and what we can expect for the year ahead. 2016 has been one for the history books; in January few people would have bet on Leicester winning the English Premier League, Brexit, Andy Murray being the world’s number one tennis player, and Donald Trump winning the Presidency. Upsets have been in the air and the unpredictable has become almost predictable. The End of History indeed ...

In our wonderful world of technology things haven’t been quite as exciting ... but almost.

Here are the six most important things that have happened during the digital year that tell us a lot about what the future of your work is going to look like in 2017 and beyond.

1 AI everywhere – the Terminator versus Alexa, Siri, Amy, and Viv

What started as a trickle of stories and articles about artificial intelligence in January ends as a raging torrent of news and opinion pieces as we approach December. Fear, panic, excitement, optimism, and uncertainty about the rise of the new machines have found their way into the office of every commissioning editor in every media outlet around the world. For good reason - the pace of AI development is now accelerating at exponential pace. But those looking for the Terminator (i.e. all those commissioning editors) are looking for the wrong thing in the wrong place. The real AI story is literally under our noses – in our phones and devices – as Alexa, Siri, Amy, and Viv (and a host of other charmingly named bots) pop up trying to help, not kill, us. AI is the story of our time. 2016 was the year it got real. Get comfy. Get a snack. This is going to be incredible.

2 Voice - the new run time

2016 will probably come in time to be seen as “Peak Digit” – i.e. the high water mark of typing. The future will be controlled by our voices. NLP (Natural Language Processing) will the dominant UI on top of AI in short order. As Microsoft’s Satya Nadella puts it, voice is the new “run time”. http://slate.me/290ZnPA Of course talking to computers has been the dream of science fiction writers since the times of Shelley, Verne, and Wells (incidentally, the best midfield trio West Ham never had). Now it’s coming true. Soon talking to the wall won’t be a sign of incipient madness; you’ll just be asking it to display the photo of you and Auntie Maud in the three-legged race at school sports day in 1974. New parents are going to have to veer away from using old-fashioned Victorian girls names for their bundles of joy, lest house guests mix up talking to the Tabitha the Toaster with Tabitha the 18 month old in the onesie.

3 Microsoft and LinkedIn – (real, not fool’s) gold in the code mines

Microsoft’s $26bn acquisition of LinkedIn proved beyond doubt that there’s gold in them thar code. Of course, if you’ve read Code Halos http://amzn.to/2gdy9wt you never doubted that in the first place. The direct monetization of data exhaust is still a work in progress (the bank’s not yet taking my “like” of the news of an upcoming Phoenix record http://bit.ly/2fZAvfn as a mortgage payment but Microsoft’s move (in a head to head battle with Salesforce.com) shows that personal data and metadata is going to be extremely valuable in a world of “social selling”. 15 years ago the idea of ad-supported “free” software was a curio that raised sniggers on the shores of Lake Washington. Then Google showed up. Fast forward to today and data-supported “free” software has drained a quarter of Mr. Nadella’s spending money. LinkedIn has become the cloud based company directory for pretty much every modern business. Microsoft will be digging out nuggets for years to come.

4 Pokémon Go – reality is overrated

If you’ve not got teenage children you may have blinked and missed the craze of summer ’16. One moment Pokémon was something you could barely remember from your own teen years, the next, Manhattan’s Central Park was full of people (not just kids) looking for “balls” and “gyms” and Ivysaur’s. Then, seemingly a week later, “normality” (if such a thing exists nowadays) was restored - Pokémon Go was lame, and the kids had gone back to playing their violins and reading again (not). Though at first glance a Tulip-like bout of hot-weather driven hysteria, the Pokémon Go phenomena actually presages a world in which we overlay the reality we want onto the reality we’re presented with (by the real world). If you want your world to teem with Japanese amine characters, fine, it’s your world. I’d like to walk down Fifth Avenue with an architecture history overlay telling me who built the building in front of me and what other nearby buildings that architect built. Download the app, put on your Snap Glasses and Bob’s Your Uncle, we’re both living in the world we want to live in. Augmented overlays are already ten-a-penny in the real-time live streaming world our kids are growing up in; the future literally will look different for all of us, even more now that we all live in our own “post-truth” http://wapo.st/2fwUt3e filtered info-bubbles.

5 It was Twitter wot won it

Back in the pre-information superhighway days of 1992, the controlling heights of the media landscape in the UK (where I grew up) were dominated by tabloid newspapers, Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun in particularly. In the general election of that year the Conservative party unexpectedly won power after The Sun ran an unrelenting campaign to paint the Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, as unelectable. Never shy at coming forward The Sun’s front page headline a few days after the vote was “It’s The Sun Wot Won It”. http://bit.ly/2fnXQcB Nobody disagreed. Fast forward to 2016, and though the controlling heights of the US media landscape are far less concentrated than they were in England 25 years ago, there is a (newish) media platform that shaped the unexpected outcome of the American general election; Twitter. 140 key strokes at a time, President-Elect Trump took down fellow contenders, commentators, grieving parents, beauty queens, and finally his main opponent, using the ne plus ultra medium of the moment. Credit where credit’s due; a 70 year billionaire, in a gold encrusted skyscraper, saw the power of Twitter more clearly than anybody closer to earth. Though to his critics an antisocial media master, Prez #45 used Twitter to connect in a way that everyone and every organization trying to connect could learn a thing or two from. [For better or worse].

6 Massive Attacks – waiting for the end of the (digital) world

A coordinated attempt to undermine the digital infrastructure at the heart of modern day America – or a diabolically clever marketing tactic to drum up interest in the new season of Black Mirror https://www.netflix.com/title/70264888 - the off-the-chart DDoS attacks of October 2016 showed us (yet again) how vulnerable the modern world is to bad people doing bad things. Everything we are building in the Fourth Industrial Revolution rests – it feels like - on systems that we don’t understand, run by people who it’s questionable we can trust, with motivations that are hard to fathom. Barbarians are probably already inside the gate and, if you’re like me, you probably have a horrid feeling that it’s not a matter of if you wake up one day to find your bank account emptied, but when. The questions du jour therefore are What can be done? How can we ensure the White Hats prevail? How can we have the delights of digital without the dread? Is that even possible? Are we sitting ducks just waiting for our Digital Pearl Harbor? I dunno ... do you? No? Thought not. Scary.

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AI, voice-driven software, Code Halos, augmented reality, social media, hacking – the story of 2016 in a nutshell (btw; one of the best books of 2016 http://amzn.to/2ghycFx). Expect a lot more of the same in 2017. More on that in another post before Christmas, when I’ll look ahead to the New Digital Year.

For the moment, give thanks, eat well, and think big.