Innovation ahead, approach with caution

2022
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Digital solutions should not be used to paper over real world problems in 2022, writes Jason Walsh

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6 January 2022 | 0

They say predictions are a mug’s game, and not without justification: if I had the ability to predict the future I would have bought Apple shares in March 2020 and enjoyed their ride up to a return on investment greater than that of the moving statue of the investment world, bitcoin (a feat Cupertino achieved with significantly less volatility). Alas, I am writing this from the kitchen table rather than a yacht moored off the Cote d’Azur so it is safe to assume that I did not cast my lot in with the iDevices crowd. 

Nonetheless, it is customary for columnists to offer prognostications as even when they are wrong, perhaps especially when they are wrong, they can at least be interesting. Besides which, readers have full permission to laugh a year hence.

Like science fiction, predictions are not really about the future so much as they are about the here and now, illuminating the dark recesses of our more inchoate thoughts. If we are lucky then we will expose the material that forming the building blocks of tomorrow. 

 

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With that in mind, it is impossible to speak of 2022 without discussing the Covid-19 pandemic. Calling it a curate’s egg would be an understatement. Despite digital connectivity social bonds have frayed, exposing deep divisions that seem to be nurtured by technology. As time passed many people, particularly excessively online ones, retreated to their trenches to lob rhetorical grenades at the other side.

IT continued to be a shout-it-from-the-rooftops success. Despite malware attacks and AWS outages our networks have, by and large, held up. Large numbers of workers were shifted from the office to home and were able to carry on as normal. On the other hand, the quality and availability of services declined – a classic one-eyed mistake to think that everyone is working from home just because ‘we’ are.

It also contributed to a tech investment bubble. Silicon Valley’s ability to package nonsense is hardly news, but after the bumpiest decade since the 1970s (or 1980s in Ireland) another potential economic crisis is not exactly welcome.

Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, who was convicted of fraud the day before I wrote this, is a particularly egregious example. Holmes and her company are hardly representative of the sector but her defence amounted to ‘tech companies spoof all the time’. The jury decided that a medtech company spoofing is qualitatively different to a disappointing smartphone update, but the helium-filled culture of tech boosterism does none of us any favours. From blockchain to AI, everything is a permanent revolution. It would be enough to make Trotsky blush.

In praise of boring

Back on the other side of the Atlantic, it is increasingly common to hear that Ireland is too dependent on foreign-direct investment from tech companies, and, as it happens, this is a complaint I have some sympathy for. A solution is rather tricky to come up with. Should we dump Apple, Google and the rest and build start-ups? Google has not been a start-up for two decades and Apple has not been one since 1980. Any modern sectoral development plan would want to consist of more than ‘throw money at trendy ideas’.

Europe has trailed the United States in Internet technology but it is not as though the continent lacks technology giants; they just tend to be less flashy. Besides, despite the garage mythology, businesses depend on the world outside. Apple and the original HP did start in garages, and the wider technology landscape has always been littered with the work of fascinating dabblers, they just stood on the shoulders of giants.

In the meantime, Ireland’s housing crisis threatens to deal a serious blow to the country’s ability to attract talent to even well-paid tech roles. Add in the potential for water and electricity crises, not to mention a crash in international travel connectivity in the last two years, and 2022 starts to look a bit cloudy at best.

Intel is, according to the Business Post, gearing-up to let Ireland down. The country will not be the site for its new European plant. Intel is interesting, but not in the way that barely existing companies with imaginary products seem to excite many. While investors appear unmoved by Intel’s plan to expand chip design and manufacturing capacity, its capital investments are likely to pay real dividends as, unlike most of its competitors, it will not be left at the mercy of contractors and rickety supply chains built only for good geopolitical weather. It is also a company demonstrating that extracting profit starts with investment, not hype.

Certainly, there is more value in hard tech than in demented Ponzi schemes like NFTs, and arguably more than in largely unwanted developments like the ‘metaverse’, something Silicion Valley has been unsucessfully trying to sell, in one form or another, since the 1990s. 2022 will see these dreams unravel.

So, do I predict wailing and gnashing of teeth for 2022? Not really, but after six years of uncertainty precipitated by the UK’s Brexit vote (arguably it all dates back to the 2007 financial crisis knocking the wheels off debt-fuelled expansion) the prospect of a return to something like normality seems distant.

The domestic software sector holds promise because it is a lot more quotidian than the few high-profile consumer apps that we all use, but for all of technology’s power to change the world it remains part of society and is subject to forces more powerful than code or hype. Jokes about technology’s failure to deliver flying cars obscure the real benefits computers have brought to our lives from communication to healthcare (Theranos notwithstanding), but even golden geese need to be fed.

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