The 10 biggest tech hits and misses of 2013: Peter Nowak

From Edward Snowden to selfies

Vincent Yu (Associated Press)

Vincent Yu (Associated Press)

So what were the biggest technology related stories in 2013? There were quite a few, but here are the 10 most important.

Selfies take over

With the Oxford Dictionaries naming “selfie” as the word of the year in November, the self-portrait’s domination of pop culture was complete. Even U.S. President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt recently got in on the action with their own selfie at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service.

Is the self-portrait, followed by its inevitable sharing on social media, a sign of society’s growing narcissism? It’s a topic that’s now being debated. Over at the Globe and Mail, Navneet Alang argues it isn’t – it’s merely the latest evolution of how people are defining their identities while communicating with each other.

I think it’s even a little more innocuous than that. Whenever I show friends or relatives vacation photos of famous monuments or gorgeous vistas, they always wonder why I’m not in them. People like to see other people in photos – it’s often what makes them interesting.

Netflix wins an Emmy

There’s little doubt this was a banner year for Netflix, when it went from a simple video streaming service to a full-on entertainment force. The driver of that was its original programming, which consisted of stellar triumvirate: the political drama House of Cards, the resuscitated comedy Arrested Development and the prison dramedy Orange Is The New Black. Racking up a host of Emmy nominations and a few key wins for House of Cards, Netflix is suddenly offering up better shows than just about any other network.

Television providers and rival networks are more than a little scared, with the streaming service threatening to upend the traditional system and spur even more people to cut the cable cord. Netflix is single-handedly changing home entertainment – and it’s exciting to watch (literally).

Media continues transformation

Speaking of shifting paradigms, the ongoing transformation of the traditional media world continued to gain momentum in 2013. Three instances pretty much told the story, with the first being Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s purchase of the Washington Post in August for $250 million. Next up was Yahoo hiring NBC and CBS television mainstay Katie Couric to be its new “face.” Finally, closer to home, was Twitter Canada’s recent hiring of the Globe and Mail‘s media reporter Steve Ladurantaye as its head of news and journalism.

With studies naming “newspaper reporter” as the worst possible job, it’s no surprise that so many people are fleeing journalism. But the funny thing is, there are evidently still some companies interested in funding the profession. It’s not crazy to suggest that it could be the likes of Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Twitter and Amazon that will soon be running many of the biggest news outlets.

The rise of Bitcoin

It’s been fascinating to watch the evolution of and debate around Bitcoin, the world’s first true digital currency. One part fluctuating real currency, one part virtual money (like the sort found in an online video game), Bitcoins were the centre of much conversation in 2013. Proponents love it because it’s easy and efficient for doing digital transactions, but critics don’t like its open-source and untraceable nature, which makes it easy to use for criminal purposes.

In the span of a few days in November, the U.S. Justice Department condemned it for its ties to illegal drugs and child pornography while billionaire Richard Branson sung its praises. A growing number of businesses, including his own Virgin Galactic space travel enterprise, are now accepting the virtual currency. The question going into 2014 is whether it will become more widely accepted, or will authorities seek to ban it, as China has?

Obamacare hits glitches

It was supposed to be the dawn of a new era for Americans, but the launch of Obamacare through the website in October was instead an unmitigated disaster. Dogged by glitches and slow speeds, only 27,000 people – out of millions – were able to use the site during its first month. That, despite President Barack Obama promising that it would be as easy to use as Amazon.

The situation got so bad that even porn website owners were offering to chip in. Corey Price, vice-president of adult entertainment website, sent the White House a letter in November with an offer to assist, but he was unsurprisingly turned down. In the meantime, plenty of sick Americans kept hitting refresh on their browsers in the vain hope that things would get magically fixed.

Wearables out of style

And while we’re on the topic of flops, 2013 was supposed to be the year that wearable computers took off. Whether it was smartwatches or eyeglasses, Internet-connected accessories were to be all the rage. They were anything but.

Google Glass – a pair of specs equipped with a data-gathering video camera – got an immediate bad rap, first for looking uber-nerdy and then for privacy and safety concerns, with bars, theatres and traffic authorities passing de facto bans on them before they even became commercially available. Then, Samsung did watch wearers no favours with its Galaxy Gear, an overpriced and underpowered smartwatch that served no real purpose other than uglying up wrists.

Wearable computers may happen some day, but those two devices showed there’s still a long way to go before they’re good enough – and good-looking enough – to be socially acceptable.

Xbox fails gamers

The last flop on this list is Microsoft’s disastrous unveiling of the Xbox One, its next-generation console. When the machine was initially shown off in May, the company made the mistake of putting its core purpose – playing games – on the back burner in favour of hyping its ability to control TV channels via voice commands.

Gamers bristled even more when Microsoft followed up with a list of new policies that all but outlawed used games and required the console to essentially have an always-on Internet connection. After getting trounced in the court of public opinion by Sony at the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo in June, the company quickly reversed course. Its rival said the upcoming PlayStation 4 would allow used games and not contain any draconian measures, a position that likely would have led to a lop-sided battle this holiday season had Microsoft not bowed to public pressure.

The brain’s Manhattan Project

It wasn’t all bad news for U.S. President Barack Obama in 2013. Aside from getting his health-care reforms off the ground (poorly), he also launched a landmark research project in April designed to map the human brain. Described as the most ambitious neuroscience effort ever undertaken, the $100-million Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies project (yes, it spells BRAIN) seeks to understand the mind in the same way that the Human Genome Project scoped out DNA.

Never mind space, the brain is the final frontier. While it will be years before any real benefits are realized, the project is a significant step toward understanding the most puzzling part of human biology. The mind reels – pun intended – at the possibilities that could emerge.

The robots are coming for our jobs

There was a twin undercurrent permeating labour news throughout the year, with the issues of inequality and roboticization seemingly connected at the figurative hip. Rising income disparity between the richest and poorest citizens of advanced countries was perhaps most obvious in the various strikes by fast-food workers, but the issue wasn’t contained to just the United States. In Switzerland, voters took to the polls to decide on pay caps for CEOs. They voted against such a measure, but it’s clear the fuse is lit.

Otherwise, the idea of jobless recoveries – where economies bounce out of recession without creating news jobs, instead replacing workers with better technology – gained considerable currency in 2013. Numerous studies added fuel to the notion that more and more jobs are being replaced by robots and algorithms. Both situations seem to highlight that the world is in the midst of a new industrial revolution, where the fundamental idea of work is changing beneath everyone’s feet.

In 2014, will any of the world’s governments move toward solving this particular problem?

Snowden the whistleblower

He got snubbed as Time magazine’s Person of the Year, but former Central Intelligence Agency employee and National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden was undoubtedly the most important person in technology in 2013. Snowden released a steady stream of documents revealing just how much the governments of certain advanced countries, especially the United States, are spying on their citizens.

While many of the revelations simply confirmed what a lot of people had already suspected, perhaps most alarming was how willing many companies and the governments of other countries were in co-operating with the NSA. Snowden has been hailed by some as a hero and vilified by others as a traitor, but the blowback has only just started. What the reaction and ramifications will be in 2014 is anyone’s guess.