We experienced many things in 2020, too many of them deeply painful. But we also crossed a critical threshold that we’ve been approaching for years–the world finally became “techonomic.” Tech decisively became fully intertwined with the functions and institutions of society, both in the U.S. and everywhere.
This year even the most obtuse could not fail to witness technology’s power all around us, for both good and ill. Tech’s pre-eminence as a force, an agency, a vehicle, and an instrument was everywhere evident.
If we did not live in a society that was digitally interconnected, for obvious example, the pains of the year would have been far more unbearable. For those still omitted from that connected society –like the roughly 30% of American schoolchildren who can’t connect – it was unbearable. Among many essential techno-epiphanies of 2020 is to acknowledge that excluding anyone from a broadband internet connection is like marooning them on a desert isle. Access is now a human right.
Those of us privileged to have such connections used them this year as an isthmus to connect our quarantined homes to the larger world–to work, to shop, to stay connected to friends in myriad ways, to engage in politics, and to do so many little things that make life good. As has often been remarked, if this pandemic had happened even five years ago it would have been much more economically and socially devastating. Tech’s many recent advances and innovations made all the difference.
Pretty much every company, confronted by newly holed-up consumers and customers (even B2B ones), found itself forced to go digital even for functions it had dragged its feet for years to automate. If you didn’t, or couldn’t, enable remote work, you went out of business. If you didn’t do e-commerce, you could hardly stay in retail. Tech kept the economy alive in 2020.
But the dark side is equally evident. The year is ending with a cyberattack so vast as to be unquantifiable, an intrusion that appears to still be lurking in the bowels of a shocking percentage of our most important governmental and commercial institutions. By all evidence the attack was launched by the Russian government. The ramifications are likely to be felt for years, in ways we cannot predict, but that certainly will be malign.
Tech’s pre-eminence helps explain why the stock markets performed almost bizarrely well in 2020, despite the world’s disastrous condition. All the indexes were led higher by tech stocks. Apple alone created, astonishingly, almost $1 trillion in new shareholder wealth during the year, rising a jaw-dropping 79% since January 1. Its market capitalization is now a stunning and historic $2.24 trillion. Amazon soared 74% and is worth $1.6 trillion. Microsoft, up 41%, is at $1.7 trillion, Even Facebook, that bete noire, is up 30% and worth $760 billion. Google, up 29%, which in any other context would seem fantastic, is worth $1.16 trillion. One company’s results seem almost absurd–Tesla rose about 650% during the year, and is now worth $600 billion. Even Square, still relatively tiny but executing brilliantly, now has a market value approaching Citigroup’s.
In 2020, government officials and regulators all over the world finally started to recognize the importance of tech, and to articulate the evils and depredations of many of these same overweening companies. This is very belated, but welcome. And make no mistake—it is a major change that happened this year. If we live in a profoundly digital society, government of course must regulate and oversee the behavior of the companies that define and influence it. Evidence of a new vigilance is everywhere—the U.S. government and many states recently filed antitrust lawsuits against both Facebook and Google, for example, and both the European Union and the UK plan new laws with stringent rules for tech giants and penalties of up to 10% of global revenues if they disobey.
And then there’s the pandemic, and, thanks to technology, the vaccines. In a fascinating podcast interview for Andreesen Horowitz, Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel explains how his company’s just-approved vaccine came into existence. All the way back on January 11, Chinese scientists, using sequencing software, had posted on the internet the complete genome of Covid-19. Moderna did not have any actual virus, and the U.S. had not yet identified a single sick American. But in just 48 hours, two related teams working independently–one at Moderna and one at the National Institutes of Health–had, with software and based on the Chinese virus sequence, “designed and locked down the entire chemical structure of a vaccine,” Bancel explains. (Their designs matched exactly.) The one approved last week is the one designed in mid-January. Technology enabled the near-overnight creation of a vaccine. The delay came from the painstaking process of conducting human trials to prove it worked and was safe.
Now we begin what will certainly be an even more tech-infused decade. When Martin Wolf, eminent economics columnist at the Financial Times, wrote a recent year-end piece on “Five Forces to Define our Post-Covid Future,” the very first one he mentioned was “technology.” He believes the newly enabled at-home workforce even has geopolitical implications, because now workers from abroad, often on lower salaries, will be able to work in any country. “The result,” Wolf writes, “is likely to be a destabilising increase in what might be called ‘virtual immigration.’” Be forewarned: Wolf is usually right.
At Techonomy we have hoped for, and argued for, a more tech-centric view of progress for over a decade. Now, finally, everything is tech-centric. But it’s not certain progress will be the result. We’ve also said for years that “everyone must be a techonomist.” What we meant was that if you don’t take a tech-centric view of what’s happening and what’s possible, your solutions will be insufficient. So all of us now more than ever must think in terms of software, of code, of interconnected systems. To address our many challenges we need even better digital tools–and better governance to go along with them.