This morning’s Observer column:
One of the challenges of writing about technology is how to escape from what the sociologist Michael Mann memorably called “the sociology of the last five minutes”. This is especially difficult when covering the digital tech industry because one is continually deluged with ‘new’ stuff – viral memes, shiny new products or services, Facebook scandals (a weekly staple), security breaches etc. Recent weeks, for example, have brought the industry’s enthusiasm for the idea of a “metaverse” (neatly dissected here by Alex Hern), El Salvador’s flirtation with bitcoin, endless stories about central banks and governments beginning to worry about regulating cryptocurrencies, Apple’s possible rethink of its plans to scan phones and iCloud accounts for child abuse images, umpteen ransomware attacks, antitrust suits against app stores, the Theranos trial and so on, apparently ad infinitum.
So how to break out of the fruitless syndrome identified by Prof Mann? One way is to borrow an idea from Ben Thompson, a veteran tech commentator who doesn’t suffer from it, and whose (paid) newsletter should be a mandatory daily email for any serious observer of the tech industry. Way back in 2014, he suggested that we think of the industry in terms of “epochs” – important periods or eras in the history of a field. At that point he saw three epochs in the evolution of our networked world, each defined in terms of its core technology and its “killer app”.
Epoch one in this framework was the PC era, opened in August 1981 when IBM launched its personal computer…