At Quartz yesterday, Christopher Mims wrote, “All in, 2013 was an embarrassment for the entire tech industry and the engine that powers it — Silicon Valley.” The knee-jerk reaction from many of our readers will be something along the lines of, “What sort of crack is this East Coast writer smoking?” But there’s a lot of validity to Mims’ argument, so let’s take it step by step.
First, Mims rails off a list of hardware disappointments, and indeed 2013 wasn’t a great year for devices. Smartphones became commodities. Wearables were a joke. The Surface RT was a bust.
Next he laments the lack of innovation at the world’s biggest tech companies, citing the loss of Google’s 20 percent time as evidence of this. It’s true. As big companies grow, they tend to become less innovative. The Silicon Valley elite is not immune to this.
Bitcoin and drones were more hype than substance? Check. The NSA scandal? Check. Silicon Valley arrogance? Check, though I’m not sure 2013 was any worse than any other year for assholes both in and out of Silicon Valley. People may have simply started paying closer attention.
There is one major point I disagree with. Mims is somehow perturbed that social media sites have found their business model, writing that “Social media became profitable, if not compelling.” Yes, that means more obnoxious ads. But I think it’s a good thing that social media sites know how to pay the bills. As long as they keep the lights on, we as users will do our part to keep Twitter and Facebook weird. And the fracas over Twitter’s removal of its blocking function proves that the company is still beholden to its users.
That last point notwithstanding, Mims makes plenty of valid points about the sorry state of the tech industry. But here’s the counterargument: Smartphone and tablet penetration is rapidly increasing worldwide. So is social network use. And yes, we saw plenty of lame ads and spam on social media. But Twitter also allowed us to explore all sorts of fascinating linguistic landscapes, including the strange intersections between humans and robots, from @horse_ebooks to @tofu_product to @NYT4thDownBot. And of course @Seinfeld2000 had a banner year. And how about when Iranian president Hassan Rouhani revealed on Twitter that, for the first time since 1979, an American president had directly communicated with an Iranian president? If you thought social media was “not compelling” in 2013 then you weren’t looking hard enough.
Sure, maybe the “tech industry” took its licks this year. But as for our digital lives? They’re rich as ever.