Early in December, New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet unveiled the photographs the newspaper has chosen as the best of 2020. In his introduction to the series, Baquet opined that some years are “so eventful they are regarded as pivotal in history” and said 2020 will be considered one of those fateful years.
It’s hard to argue with that analysis. Everything has changed this year: the events of 2020 have forced everyone to look at the world with a new perspective — something that is true in the technology and digital industries as it is everywhere else. If anything, given how interwoven technology has become with our everyday’s lives, it’s more true for tech than anywhere else.
We’ll never be the same after this year, and neither will tech. Let’s look at the biggest stories of the year, how they’ve affected the digital world, and how the digital world has affected them.
There is nowhere else to start, of course, than covid-19. The coronavirus pandemic has wrought great destruction: killing millions, making many millions more gravely ill, bringing about a global recession, and viciously exposing existing fractions, divisions and inequalities.
It’s also forced a shift towards working from home that’s so sharp, so severe, that it almost feels like a violent physical jolt. Most white-collar workers found themselves in the office, as usual, one day, and the next working from home — at makeshift desks, in bedrooms, at kitchen tables.
Many expected the change to only last a few weeks, maybe a few months. Now, nine months later, the situation remains broadly the same.
The pandemic has obviously hit the economy hard, including tech companies. But because of enforced digitalisation, driven largely by remote working and a lot of time spent at home, many tech companies — both consumer-facing and business-to-business — have actually thrived.
Black Lives Matter
Tech companies, particularly the largest and most prominent Silicon Valley operators, had to reckon with the deeply important issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer.
In protest at continued police brutality in the US and around the world, the movement involved thousands of people taking to the street and making their voices heard. Diversity issues, as well as contracts with government agencies and law enforcement authorities, have plagued the Big Tech companies for years, and these issues came to prominence again as the protests developed.
Many of the large technology companies publicly came out to declare their support for the movement, though some onlookers accused the companies of only paying lip service rather than backing their statements up with actions. One thing is certain — the technology industry must improve its diversity and protect their Black staff.
The Brexit deadline looms. The withdrawal period will end on 31 December and it’s still uncertain exactly what will happen. In recent weeks, a number of deadlines set by both the UK and EU negotiators have been and gone, with differing views on whether the UK will achieve a vital trade deal.
There’s also a wide range of opinions on the exact effect that leaving without a deal would have, but it seems clear that most industries would suffer — and the tech industry is no different. Important issues include immigration and visas, given the importance of accessing a wide talent pool for the technology industry.
Other technical matters include whether the UK will be able to easily receive data from the EU, which is a highly important aspect of international trade, particularly for the digital, technology, life sciences and financial services industries. Whichever way Brexit goes, it will be hugely significant for the tech industry.
Regulation and scrutiny
The technology and digital industry come under fresh and ever-increasing scrutiny every day. Governments and regulators have fully come to terms with the importance of the technology world and the deep effect it has on every part of life.
The business models and practices of the big technology companies, in particular, have come under attack, which means they may have to fundamentally alter how they do business and make money. This is obviously hugely important for those companies, given their size, but also for the many startups that seek to emulate those business models.
Towards the end of the year, regulators and state attorneys-general in the US hit Google and Facebook with major lawsuits which go to the heart of their businesses — which means that in 2021 they might truly face their reckoning.
Lots, then, has changed in 2020 — perhaps more than any other year in recent memory. The tech industry is going to have to change, too.