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The Decade’s Biggest Technology Disappointments

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Like most teen years, the past decade in technology started out someplace relatively innocent before growing moody, dark and disillusioned. In 2010, we were excited about new iPhones and finding old friends on Facebook, not fretting about our digital privacy or social media’s threat to democracy. Now we are wondering how to rein in the largest companies in the world and reckoning with wanting innovation to be both fast and responsible.

Over the past 10 years, new technology has changed how we communicate, date, work, get around and pass time. But for every hit, there have been high-profile disappointments and delays. That includes overpriced gadgets for making juice, face computers, promises of taking a vacation in space and companies claiming to be saving the world.

The failures served a purpose, acting as reality checks for the technology industry and the people who fund, regulate or consume its products. Tech companies spent the last decade first trying to grasp, then distance themselves from, their impact on society. Facebook’s famously decommissioned “move fast and break things” motto sounded plucky in 2010 and laughably misguided in 2019, when the company had, in fact, broken things.

It was a decade when billions of dollars were thrown at tech companies, and yet many of the promises those companies made never materialized, blew up in our faces or were indefinitely delayed. And while tech failures are nothing new, taken together they brought the innovation industrial complex closer to earth and made us all a bit more realistic – if less fun.

Like proper adults.

The benevolent, world-saving tech company

“Don’t be evil” read Google’s famous motto, which sat atop its code of conduct until 2018, when it was quietly demoted to the last line.

At the beginning of the decade, that is exactly how many of the largest tech companies and CEOs marketed themselves. Their products were not only going to make daily life easier or more enjoyable, but they also would make the entire world better – even if their business models depended on ads and your personal data.

“Facebook was not originally founded to be a company. We’ve always cared primarily about our social mission,” chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said in a 2012 letter, just before the company’s initial public offering. He outlined lofty visions going forward, including that Facebook would create a more “honest and transparent dialogue” about government through accountability.

Instead, the decade turned toward disinformation, and hate speech spread on social media. Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube were used to spread disinformation ahead of the 2016 U.S. election, while Google briefly worked on a search engine for China that would censor content. Companies profited off mountains of user data they collected but failed to protect, as major data breaches hit Equifax, Yahoo and others.

In response, workers are pushing back, growing into quiet armies attempting to redirect their companies toward social goals.

Face computers

Google co-founder Sergey Brin debuted Google Glass in 2012 by wearing a prototype of the smart glasses onstage. Its real PR outing came later that year when skydivers live-streamed their jump out of a blimp above San Francisco during a Google developer conference.

By showing information in front of the face instead of on a phone, Google said, the $1,500 Glass would allow people to interact more with the world around them. Instead, its legacy has been questions about our right to privacy from recording devices, the word “glasshole,” and at least one bar fight. The company stopped selling Glass to consumers in 2015 and shifted it to a workplace product, targeting everyone from factory workers to doctors.

Google was not alone. Microsoft made HoloLens, a technically ambitious piece of eyewear that looked like round steampunk goggles and used augmented reality. Facebook bought virtual-reality goggle maker Oculus for $2 billion and heavily invested in and promoted it as a gaming and entertainment device (and the future of social media). Magic Leap, another augmented reality headset promising immersive and mind-blowing entertainment, managed to raise $2.6 billion and only release one $2,295 developer product.

Eventually we may wear glasses that display useful information on top of the real world, outfitted with smart assistants that whisper in our ears. Google’s early attempt at a consumer face-wearable was not destined to be that device.

A more efficient way of eating

Juice. Colorful, thirst-quenching, packed with vitamins, on-demand juice. It seemed an unlikely thing for Silicon Valley to try to disrupt. But in the 2010s, entrepreneurs’ impatience with preparing and even consuming the calories necessary to survive led to a number of eating innovations.

One of the decade’s most memorable tech failures asked the question: What if you spent $699 for an elaborate machine that squeezed juice from proprietary bags of fruit and vegetable pulp for you? The answer, discovered by intrepid Bloomberg journalists in 2017, is that you could squeeze those packets with your hands instead of overpaying for a machine. That machine was Juicero, and it raised $120 million in funding before shutting down just five months later.

Other food innovations have fallen fall short of their revolutionary promises. Smart ovens became fire hazards; meal-kit delivery start-ups went under; robots tossed salads, mixed drinks and flipped burgers; and pod-based devices for random foods (cocktails, tortillas, cookies, yoghurt, jello shots) failed. And then there’s Soylent – a meal in drink form, designed to save time by cutting out “tasting good” and “chewing.” Soylent has managed to find a small but enthusiastic fan base, and even got into solids recently with a line of meal-replacement bars called Squared.

The decade’s real food change came from delivery apps that pay on-demand workers to bring meals made in actual kitchens to your door. Those companies are dealing with employee protests over low and confusing pay while trying to become profitable.

Non-Facebook social networks

Remember Path? Color? Yik Yak, Meerkat and Google Buzz? And iTunes Ping, Apple’s short-lived attempt at making its music hub social? Start-ups and the tech giants alike launched social products over the past decade, but few succeeded.

In 2010 there was Google Buzz, which was quickly replaced by Google+ in 2011. The service struggled to attract users and experienced privacy issues, such as a bug exposing more than 52 million people’s data. It was finally declared dead this year, though some of its best features live on in Google Photos.

Vine burned bright for too short a time before being closed in 2016 by Twitter, which had bought the company for a reported $30 million in 2012. (Speaking of Twitter, it hung on thanks in part to its popularity with politicians, celebrities and people who are mad online, though it is far smaller than Facebook. Snapchat and TikTok have also carved out niches.)

Facebook dominated at the start of the decade and continues to dominate at the end, in part by buying or blatantly copying any competitors along the way. It acquired Instagram and WhatsApp, integrating both more closely with the Facebook brand. Even with major scandals and fumbles, its global user base grew to more than 2 billion people.

A crowdfunding, DIY revolution

For a short time, it looked as though the next generation of gadgets would come from outside the usual Silicon Valley idea factories. They would be dreamed up by passionate hobbyists, prototyped on 3-D printers and funded by fans instead of venture capitalists (though still manufactured in Shenzhen, China). Despite some notable successes – Oculus, Peloton, Boosted Boards – it turns out getting an idea from your cocktail napkin to market is pretty tough.

Notable failures include the disappointing Coolest Cooler, which featured both Bluetooth and a blender and raised more than $13 million on Kickstarter in 2014. It failed to deliver products to a third of its backers; many that shipped didn’t work. Others never materialized, such as iBackPack, which was supposed to produce a WiFi hotspot. The people behind it raised more than $800,000 and were accused by the Federal Trade Commission of using those funds to buy bitcoin and pay off credit cards. Skarp Laser Razor, a razor with dubious hair-removal technology, managed to get more than $4 million in pledges from interested customers before Kickstarter suspended its campaign for violating policies on working prototypes.

(Kickstarter said the vast majority of its products make it to production and that it aims “to be quite clear about the fact that not all projects will go smoothly.”)

Consumer 3-D printers also failed to live up to the hype. We were supposed to have a printer in every home, spitting out replacement LEGOs and screws, art projects, and even food. The high cost of the devices and the skills needed to use them could not compete with overnight shipping.

Drones dropping deliveries

“Could it be, you know, four, five years? I think so. It will work, and it will happen, and it’s gonna be a lot of fun,” Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos said.

The year was 2013, and Bezos was on “60 Minutes” to unveil the next big thing in package delivery: drones. He said that within that time frame, quadcopters would be able to drop packages from warehouses at customers’ doors within 30 minutes. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

In 2016, Amazon showed off its first commercial drone delivery in a rural area of the United Kingdom, a 13-minute delivery of an Amazon Fire TV streaming device and a bag of popcorn. Its latest drone iteration was on display earlier this year at MARS, its weird tech conference, again promising that drone deliveries were coming soon.

But as of the end of the decade, Amazon packages are still being delivered by humans. In fact, Amazon announced in 2018 that it was adding 20,000 delivery vans via third-party delivery partners to its ground fleet. Other companies, including Uber, UPS and Alphabet’s Wing, have also been testing drone deliveries, and it’s possible that we will have boxes from the sky onto porches in the next decade.

Vaping to fix smoking

It was supposed to be safer than smoking and a way to quit nicotine altogether. While vaping has indeed caught on, its biggest selling point has blown up in recent years. Eight deaths and more than 2,500 cases of lung-related illnesses have been linked to vaping in the United States.

Critics say fun-sounding flavors and colorful devices, most notably from the company Juul, have made vaping wildly popular with teenagers – one in four high schoolers vapes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now the FDA and lawmakers are investigating vaping companies. But if we draw on experience from the cigarette industry, vaping is not likely to disappear anytime soon.

Amazon’s big phone play

Apple and Google have direct access to billions of people with their smartphone operating systems and hardware – 2.5 billion devices run Google’s Android operating system, and 900 million iPhones are in use.

One company noticeably absent from our pockets is Amazon, but not for lack of trying. After several years of stealth development, Amazon announced its Fire Phone in 2014. The smartphone did not look like much, started at $199, ran on a customized version of Android and was available only on AT&T. Amazon reported $83 million of unused inventory in late 2014, and it discontinued the Fire Phone a year after its introduction.

Now that Amazon is competing against those two companies for voice-assistant dominance, its lack of a smartphone is even more glaring. It has put Alexa in anything with a microphone, from cameras to headphones and, soon, eye glasses. (It is on smartphones, but you have to open the Alexa app first.) Meanwhile Apple’s Siri and Google’s Assistant are already in pockets, built into the core of the devices and listening for their next cue.

Tourists in space

It is no secret that big-name billionaires love space. Despite their passion, the three boldest aspiring space barons have made and missed deadlines for sending people into space this decade.

Richard Branson said Virgin Galactic would fly tourists into space by 2020, but its last test mission was two test pilots and a crew member at the start of last year. Bezos said at an Air Force Association conference in late 2018 that Blue Origin would send a test flight into the upper atmosphere with people on board this year, but the most recent test flight, on Dec. 11, contained no humans. In 2017, Elon Musk announced that SpaceX had taken deposits to fly two passengers around the moon in 2018. That flight did not take place. He has the whole next decade to hit a different goal, set in 2011: sending someone to Mars by 2031.

virgin galactic full

There are plenty of interested customers. Virgin Galactic has sold tickets to more than 700 people wanting to take a trip to space at $250,000 a seat.

If there is one thing on this list we would not want to rush just to meet a deadline, it is loading civilians into private rockets and hurling them into space.

© The Washington Post 2019



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Facebook rolls out new tools for Group admins, including automated moderation aids – TechCrunch

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Facebook today introduced a new set of tools aimed at helping Facebook Group administrators get a better handle on their online communities and, potentially, help keep conversations from going off the rails. Among the more interesting new tools is a machine learning-powered feature that alerts admins to potentially unhealthy conversations taking place in their group. Another lets the admin slow down the pace of a heated conversation, by limiting how often group members can post.

Facebook Groups are today are significant reason why people continue to use the social network. Today, there are “tens of millions” of groups, that are managed by over 70 million active admins and moderators worldwide, Facebook says.

The company for years has been working to roll out better tools for these group owners, who often get overwhelmed by the administrative responsibilities that come with running an online community at scale. As a result, many admins give up the job and leave groups to run somewhat unmanaged — thus allowing them to turn into breeding grounds for misinformation, spam and abuse.

Facebook last fall tried to address this problem by rolling out new group policies to crack down on groups without an active admin, among other things. Of course, the company’s preference would be to keep groups running and growing by making them easier to operate.

That’s where today’s new set of features come in.

A new dashboard called Admin Home will centralize admin tools, settings and features in one place, as well as present “pro tips” that suggest other helpful tools tailored to the group’s needs.

Image Credits: Facebook

Another new Admin Assist feature will allow admins to automatically moderate comments in their groups by setting up criteria that can restrict comments and posts more proactively, instead of forcing admins to go back after the fact and delete them, which can be problematic — especially after a discussion has been underway and members are invested in the conversation.

For example, admins can now restrict people from posting if they haven’t had a Facebook account for very long or if they had recently violated the group’s rules. Admins can also automatically decline posts that contain specific promotional content (perhaps MLM links! Hooray!) and then share feedback with the author of the post automatically about why those posts aren’t allowed.

Admins can also take advantage of suggested preset criteria from Facebook to help with limiting spam and managing conflict.

Image Credits: Facebook

One notable update is a new moderation alert type dubbed “conflict alerts.” This feature, currently in testing, will notify admins when a potentially contentious or unhealthy conversation is taking place in the group, Facebook says. This would allow an admin to quickly take an action — like turning off comments, limiting who could comment, removing a post, or however else they would want to approach the situation.

Conflict alerts are powered by machine learning, Facebook explains. Its machine learning model looks at multiple signals, including reply time and comment volume to determine if engagement between users has or might lead to negative interactions, the company says.

This is sort of like an automated expansion on the Keyword Alerts feature many admins already use to look for certain topics that lead to contentious conversations.

Image Credits: Facebook

A related feature, also new, would allow admins to also limit how often specific members could comment, or how often comments could be added to posts admins select.

When enabled, members can leave 1 comment every 5 minutes. The idea here is that forcing users to pause and consider their words amid a heated debate could lead to more civilized conversations. We’ve seen this concept enacted on other social networks, as well — such as with Twitter’s nudges to read articles before retweeting, or those that flag potentially harmful replies, giving you a chance to re-edit your post.

Image Credits: Facebook

Facebook, however, has largely embraced engagement on its platform, even when it’s not leading to positive interactions or experiences. Though small, this particular feature is an admission that building a healthy online community means sometimes people shouldn’t be able to immediately react and comment with whatever thought first popped into their head.

Additionally, Facebook is testing tools that allow admins to temporarily limit activity from certain group members.

If used, admins will be able to determine how many posts (between 1 and 9 posts) per day a given member may share, and for how long that limit should be in effect for (every 12 hours, 24 hours, 3 days, 7 days, 14 days, or 28 days). Admins will also be able to determine how many comments (between 1 and 30 comments, in 5 comment increments) per hour a given member may share, and for how long that limit should be in effect (also every 12 hours, 24 hours, 3 days, 7 days, 14 days, or 28 days).

Along these same lines of building healthier communities, a new member summary feature will give admins an overview of each member’s activity on their group, allowing them to see how many times they’ve posted and commented, have had posts removed, or have been muted.

Image Credits: Facebook

Facebook doesn’t say how admins are to use this new tool, but one could imagine admins taking advantage of the detailed summary to do the occasional cleanup of their member base by removing bad actors who continually disrupt discussions. They could also use it to locate and elevate regulator contributors without violations to moderator roles, perhaps.

Admins will also be able to tag their group rules in comment sections, disallow certain post types (e.g. Polls or Events), and submit an appeal to Facebook to re-review decisions related to group violations, if in error.

Image Credits: Facebook

Of particular interest, though a bit buried amid the slew of other news, is the return of Chats, which was previously announced.

Facebook had abruptly removed Chat functionality back in 2019, possibly due to spam, some had speculated. (Facebook said it was product infrastructure.) As before, Chats can have up to 250 people, including active members and those who opted into notifications from the chats. Once this limit is reached, other members will not be able to engage with that specific chat room until existing active participants either leave the chat or opt out of notifications.

Now, Facebook group members can start, find and engage in Chats with others within Facebook Groups instead of using Messenger. Admins and moderators can also have their own chats.

Notably, this change follows on the heels of growth from messaging-based social networks, like IRL, a new unicorn (due to its $1.17B valuation), as well as the growth seen by other messaging apps, like Telegram, Signal and other alternative social networks.

Image Credits: Facebook

Along with this large set of new features, Facebook also made changes to some existing features, based on feedback from admins.

It’s now testing pinned comments and introduced a new “admin announcement” post type that notifies group members of the important news (if notifications are being received for that group).

Plus, admins will be able to share feedback when they decline group members.

Image Credits: Facebook

The changes are rolling out across Facebook Groups globally in the coming weeks.

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Spotify launches its live audio app and Clubhouse rival, Spotify Greenroom – TechCrunch

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In March, Spotify announced it was acquiring the company behind the sports-focused audio app Locker Room to help speed its entry into the live audio market. Today, the company is making good on that deal with the launch of Spotify Greenroom, a new mobile app that allows Spotify users worldwide to join or host live audio rooms, and optionally turn those conversations into podcasts. It’s also announcing a Creator Fund which will help to fuel the new app with more content in the future.

The Spotify Greenroom app itself is based on Locker Room’s existing code. In fact, Spotify tells us, current Locker Room users will see their app update to become the rebranded and redesigned Greenroom experience, starting today.

Where Locker Room had used a white-and-reddish orange color scheme, the new Greenroom app looks very much like an offshoot from Spotify, having adopted the same color palette, font and iconography.

To join the new app, Spotify users will sign in with their current Spotify account information. They’ll then be walked through an onboarding experience designed to connect them with their interests.

Image Credits: Spotify

For the time being, the process of finding audio programs to listen to relies primarily on users joining groups inside the app. That’s much like how Locker Room had operated, where its users would find and follow favorite sports teams. However, Greenroom’s groups are more general interest now, as it’s no longer only tied to sports.

In time, Spotify tells us the plan is for Greenroom to leverage Spotify’s personalization technology to better connect users to content they would want to hear. For example, it could send out notifications to users if a podcaster you already followed on Spotify went live on Spotify Greenroom. Or it could leverage its understanding of what sort of podcasts and music you listen to in order to make targeted recommendations. These are longer-term plans, however.

As for Spotify Greenroom’s feature set, it’s largely on par with other live audio offerings — including those from Clubhouse, Twitter (Spaces) and Facebook (Live Audio Rooms). Speakers in the room appear at the top of the screen as rounded profile icons, while listeners appear below as smaller icons. There are mute options, moderation controls, and the ability to bring listeners on stage during the live audio session. Rooms can host up to 1,000 people, and Spotify expects to scale that number up later on.

Image Credits: Spotify

Listeners can also virtually applaud speakers by giving them “gems” in the app — a feature that came over from Locker Room, too. The number of gems a speaker earned displays next to their profile image during a session. For now, there’s no monetary value associated with the gems, but that seems an obvious next step as Greenroom today offers no form of monetization.

It’s worth noting there are a few key differentiators between Spotify Greenroom and similar live audio apps. For starters, it offers a live text chat feature that the host can turn on or off whenever they choose. Hosts can also request the audio file of their live audio session after it wraps, which they can then edit to turn into a podcast episode.

Perhaps most importantly is that the live audio sessions are being recorded by Spotify itself. The company says this is for moderation purposes. If a user reports something in a Greenroom audio room, Spotify can go back to look into the matter, to determine what sort of actions may need to be taken. This is an area Clubhouse has struggled with, as its users have sometimes encountered toxicity and abuse in the app in real-time, including in troubling areas like racism and misogyny. Recently, Clubhouse said it had to shut down a number of rooms for antisemitism and hate speech, as well.

Spotify says the moderation of Spotify Greenroom will be handled by its existing content moderation team. Of course, how quickly Spotify will be able react to boot users or shut down live audio rooms that are in violation of its Code of Conduct remains to be seen.

While the app launching today is focused on user-generated live audio content, Spotify has larger plans for Greenroom. Later this summer, the company plans to make announcements around programmed content — something it says is a huge priority — alongside the launch of other new features. This will include programming related to music, culture, and entertainment, in addition the to sports content Locker Room was known for.

Image Credits: Spotify

The company also says it will be marketing Spotify Greenroom to artists through its Spotify for Artists channels, in hopes of seeding the app with more music-focused content. And it confirmed that monetization options for creators will come further down the road, too, but isn’t talking about what those may look like in specific detail for the moment.

In addition, Spotify is today announcing the Spotify Creator Fund, which will help audio creators in the U.S. generate revenue for their work. The company, however, declined to share any details on this front, either– like the size of fund, how much creators would receive, time frame for distributions, selection criteria or other factors. Instead, it’s only offering a sign-up form for those who may be interested in hearing more about this opportunity in the future. That may make it difficult for creators to weigh their options, when there are now so many.

Spotify Greenroom is live today on both iOS and Android across 135 markets around the world. That’s not quite the global footprint of Spotify itself, though, which is available in 178 markets. It’s also only available in the English language for the time being, but plans on expanding as it grows.

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Biden admin will share more info with online platforms on ‘front lines’ of domestic terror fight – TechCrunch

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The Biden administration is outlining new plans to combat domestic terrorism in light of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and social media companies have their own part to play.

The White House released a new national strategy on countering domestic terrorism Tuesday. The plan acknowledges the key role that online platforms play in bringing violent ideas into the mainstream, going as far as calling social media sites the “front lines” of the war on domestic terrorism.

“The widespread availability of domestic terrorist recruitment material online is a national security threat whose front lines are overwhelmingly private–sector online platforms, and we are committed to informing more effectively the escalating efforts by those platforms to secure those front lines,” the White House plan states.

The Biden administration committed to more information sharing with the tech sector to fight the tide of online extremism, part of a push to intervene well before extremists can organize violence. According to a fact sheet on the new domestic terror plan, the U.S. government will prioritize “increased information sharing with the technology sector,” specifically online platforms where extremism is incubated and organized.

“Continuing to enhance the domestic terrorism–related information offered to the private sector, especially the technology sector, will facilitate more robust efforts outside the government to counter terrorists’ abuse of Internet–based communications platforms to recruit others to engage in violence,” the White House plan states.

In remarks timed with the release of the domestic terror strategy, Attorney General Merrick Garland asserted that coordinating with the tech sector is “particularly important” for interrupting extremists who organize and recruit on online platforms and emphasized plans to share enhanced information on potential domestic terror threats.

In spite of the new initiatives, the Biden administration admits that that domestic terrorism recruitment material will inevitably remain available online, particularly on platforms that don’t prioritize its removal — like most social media platforms, prior to January 2021 — and on end-to-end encrypted apps, many of which saw an influx of users when social media companies cracked down on extremism in the U.S. earlier this year.

“Dealing with the supply is therefore necessary but not sufficient: we must address the demand too,” the White House plan states. “Today’s digital age requires an American population that can utilize essential aspects of Internet–based communications platforms while avoiding vulnerability to domestic terrorist recruitment and other harmful content.”

The Biden administration will also address vulnerability to online extremism through digital literacy programs, including “educational materials” and “skills–enhancing online games” designed to inoculate Americans against domestic extremism recruitment efforts, and presumably disinformation and misinformation more broadly.

The plan stops short of naming domestic terror elements like QAnon and the “Stop the Steal” movement specifically, though it acknowledges the range of ways domestic terror can manifest, from small informal groups to organized militias.

A report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in March observed the elevated threat to the U.S. that domestic terrorism poses in 2021, noting that domestic extremists leverage mainstream social media sites to recruit new members, organize in-person events and share materials that can lead to violence.

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