It’s pretty hard to eclipse headlines about President Donald Trump, but the tech industry managed it over and over in 2019. From high-flying startups, privacy debacles, everything Uber and even more Facebook, tech was at times a welcome distraction, a terrifying spectacle and, just maybe, a beacon of hope for a better next decade.
In 2019, Facebook was all-encompassing. The word itself became synonymous with the idea of Big Tech — companies of almost unimaginable size, power and influence whose corporate decisions could affect our moods, the stock market, our democracy, global politics and potentially even monetary policy. The four most downloaded apps of the 2010s were all owned by Facebook. CEO Mark Zuckerberg influenced our discourse, our privacy, our ideas about speech — free or otherwise — and our spending habits. Close-ups of his micro-expressions illustrated almost as many news articles as pictures of Trump. Breaking up Facebook became a pillar of Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign. Republicans accused the company of suppressing conservative voices. Everyone talked about regulating Facebook, and no one did. But most of all, everyone talked about Facebook.
Softbank and WeWork
This is … not working
What was not to love about the story of WeWork’s “slowly at first, and then all at once” nuclear implosion? When is the last time a company had to cancel its own initial public offering? You had the insane corporate governance (then-CEO Adam Neumann literally sold the trademark for the company back to the company). You had the profligate millions of SoftBank distorting the entire venture capital economy and propping up the unachievable valuation of $47 billion in the first place. You had delicious details, like WeWork employees spending days downloading movies for the children of Adam Neumann and his wife and company co-founder, Rebekah Neumann, who were using the corporate jet for vacation jaunts. You had cancerous chemicals in WeWork phone booths. Rebekah Neumann is Gwyneth Paltrow’s cousin, and she and her husband apparently imbued the company with a pseudo-spiritual element that would indeed do Goop proud. But the thing that stops this story from being all-enjoyable schadenfreude is that thousands of real people who worked for WeWork lost their jobs, while Adam Neumann and his family walked away with almost a billion dollars. And not only was this not a fictional story, it was apparently all perfectly legal. So while we may have enjoyed the twists and turns of this movie-worthy tale, we should hope that 2020 doesn’t bring a sequel.
Climate: Crisis and opportunity
This year, the world seemed to finally, truly turn its attention to the climate crisis as its direct effects on us — worsening hurricanes, devastating wildfires, drought, heat and extreme weather all over the world — became impossible to ignore. The idea of adapting to climate change, once anathema to climate activists who believe we must focus all our attention on slowing down the warming, started to get more attention. In late 2018, Bill Gates, former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva launched the Global Commission on Adaptation, focused specifically on survival. On “Marketplace Tech,” we spent much of the year reporting on the money, the startups, the nascent technology and the ideas for treating not only the causes, but also the symptoms of climate change. Maybe, just maybe, after all the scary news about tech in 2019, climate is a place where the industry can live up to its oft-repeated promise to change the world — for the better.
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