Let’s face it, this has been a crummy year for tech. From the exposition of outright fraud (Theranos), shoddy business practices, numerous examples of inappropriate (and worse) corporate and workplace behavior, data and privacy breaches, concern about the ‘bigness’ and ‘dominance’ of certain companies, worries about about screen addiction…the list goes on. But as we close out the first half of the year and head into the July 4th holiday, perhaps it’s not a bad exercise to step back and recognize some of the good things about tech.
This is not a review of “top apps” or “best gadgets”. Rather, this is my own, admittedly subjective list of some everyday apps, tools and capabilities that are just plain important and useful to most consumers. There are surely downsides to each of these, but a good gauge is how much you would miss them if they suddenly disappeared.
Google Maps. I marvel at just how well Google Maps generally works, and how it just continues to improve, without fanfare. Just think about how generally accurate it is, and how many major and minor features have been introduced that make the Google Maps increasingly useful. There isn’t a huge amount of competition for Google Maps, and nobody really cares.
Smartphones. No doubt there are downsides to the smartphone. But step back and just think about how many different things can be done on this little pocket computer. Even mid-priced smartphones are fantastic. And, given how many hours a day smartphones are used and how many functions they perform, it’s remarkable how generally reliable they are.
WordPress. There are many terrific publishing platforms and content management systems. But WordPress is the granddaddy. It has enabled tens of millions of individuals and small businesses to set up beautiful, highly functional websites with relatively little training. There’s a great ecosystem of add-on tools and features.
Content-a-Looza. We’re all highly aware of how digital and the internet is impacting huge industries, such as print media, publishing, and so on. Not to diminish that at all, but on the opposite side, it’s amazing how low the barriers are to both creating and publishing content across multiple forms of media. Consider how quickly and easily one can publish a long-form story on Medium, upload an innovative clip to YouTube, get a song onto SoundCloud, start a podcast with a colleague, etc. And the hardware and software tools to enable these creations are just so much cheaper and more accessible than they used to be. Sure, there’s a lot of crappy content out there, monetization is challenging, traditional curation and entire industries are being up-ended — but on the other hand, there’s the rise of an entire creative class, be it profession or hobby, that might not have ever been.
Wikipedia. The content might not always be 100% accurate or up-to-date, but Wikipedia is incredibly useful, offering generally good content across a huge number of topics and categories. That it’s a non-profit and exists on average $15/year donations from millions of people is also testament to some of the good things about the Internet. And 99% of people have no idea how the content gets up there…it’s just there.
Travel Apps. On the one hand, the UI of the leading travel apps haven’t changed in, seemingly, a decade. On the other hand, if suddenly a business trip landed in your lap, you could book a flight, hotel, and car – at reliably competitive prices – in less than 10 minutes, and in fewer than 20 total clicks. Seriously, try it. Consider what has to really happen at the back end to make it all happen. And how frequently things change. Dizzying.
The Cloud. I speak about the Cloud here from a consumer, not a business standpoint. It’s probably the most game-changing framework since the advent of the PC. Consider that, ten years ago, if your PC crashed it was a complete disaster. Now, if you’ve taken the right precautions, the PC itself is practically disposable, since everything is stored elsewhere. The cloud has also helped unleash competition to what were seemingly entrenched businesses: think Quicken to Mint, iTunes to Pandora/Spotify, Outlook to Gmail, and the world of streaming content. All of these would be nearly impossible without the unfathomably steep drop in the price of storage and the industry’s nearly universal embrace of this new business framework.
Crowdfunding. Perhaps this is a personal favorite, but I think crowdfunding represents some of the best possibilities of tech and the internet. Crowdfunding has helped fund millions of people/projects that never would have had a chance of getting financed. The projects tend toward the creative side, which is great. Crowdfunding offers a nearly instant feedback loop on an idea’s viability (and not always correct, on either side, but that’s life, too). I’m also impressed that so many people give to projects when what they get back is relatively minor or nothing at all. We see people’s optimistic, generous, and also gullible sides, exposing among the more human sides of the Internet.
There are downsides to everything, and certainly good cause for conversation about the big picture impact of tech. But it is a useful exercise to occasionally step back and appreciate how effective and useful some of this stuff is, and to applaud the millions of bright, honest, hard-working people who helped create it. Happy 4th.