When we are moving slowly, sometimes it feels like we aren’t progressing at all. 

When a new concept is introduced into your life, often we don’t know how to build it into our daily pattern. 

When presented with opportunities to grow, we frequently miss them.

This is why hindsight is important. We need to look backwards at where we have been to understand how far we might go.

Over the past six months, Womble Bond Dickinson has been studying technology and its impact on our business lives. We will never stop this examination, but the nearing end of our “What The Tech?” program provides a good place for contextual reflection. How does the technological path behind us indicate the road ahead?

As a computing-heavy society with a knowledge-based economy, the past three years have felt like a time of consolidation, rather than growth. The tech at our fingertips has become more entrenched in our lives, but little has been added to the digital mix. We have ridden out the pandemic primarily in isolation with our housemates, where our existing tech stretched out to work, school, retailers and friends, layering another web of connections into our worlds and solidifying the remote nature of shopping and work.

Not only do we not fly the jetpacks we were promised, but we are still operating with slightly better smart phones, tablets and laptops, driving the same or similar vehicles, searching the web with the same engines, and watching similar television screens to what was available in 2018. It feels like we haven’t moved. And yet we have.

One of the primary areas of progress is the rise of direct and effective laws safeguarding personal privacy. While we are far from deep data protections that many believe are needed, we have significantly progressed in the past few years. Since the beginning of 2018, the European Union introduced the General Data Protection Regulation, beefing up its protection of personal data and making enforcement easier and more dramatic; California, Colorado, Connecticut, Virginia and Utah are all implementing omnibus privacy laws securing both personally identifiable information and sensitive information of residents; and laws protecting citizens from abuse of captured biometric readings, DNA test results, and facial recognition software have been passed, expanded and litigated in the US. We have also seen court rulings both arising from these laws and interpreting the personal protections afforded by the US Constitution for the age of omnipresent digital technology. Despite much talk, the US Congress has not joined the party, but enforcement from the FTC and CFPB forced companies to address data privacy more seriously.

While we are far from deep data protections that many believe are needed, we have significantly progressed in the past few years.

Technology companies are also taking action to safeguard aspects of personal technical privacy. For example, Apple is introducing end-to-end encryption of information entered onto iPhones. The British government has allocated money to try and convince people that they don’t need such comprehensive protection. One of the best indicators of effectiveness in a privacy protection technology is how hard law enforcement fights to keep it from being implemented. Rightly or wrongly, police would prefer to have easy access to your data. Apple also made significant advances for privacy protections in the online advertising industry when it allowed users to opt out of many types of information sharing.

As laws around the world squeeze the behavior of Big Tech, more privacy options are likely to benefit smartphone and tablet owners. The new state privacy laws starting enforcement in 2023 will place real limits on how tech companies and advertisers can collect specific geolocation information – an area essentially unregulated before now in the US. Those companies who have relied on stealthy capture of location data will need to find other ways to do business, or will suffer significant fines.

If we think of the consumer internet starting in the early 1990s, it has taken a long time for governments, especially in the US, to limit capture and use of personal data. Now that state legislatures have warmed to the idea, expect to see privacy laws flower like azaleas in the springtime. We can anticipate more states passing omnibus data privacy acts, more jurisdictions being comfortable regulating specific aspects of information gathering like facial recognition analysis, and even some states taking aim directly at the data aggregation industry that assures profits for collection of personal data.

Another area of recent growth has been the entire cloud model. Much as we like to think that computing happens in the ether, it always lives on electronic machines. Rather than living completely on the machines in our hand or on our desk, much of the action takes place in server farms hosted by huge companies. This trend is increasing and will continue to grow. Access to these cloud platforms allows everything, everywhere, all the time. This became crucial in the pandemic, and is set on a course of endless growth. Not only are we all on the cloud every minute, but millions of Internet of Things sensors – from trucks to trashcans to home security—are added to this network. Our world is now managed on web services. The pandemic sped up the process, but the future will explode with it.

Our world is now managed on web services. The pandemic sped up the process, but the future will explode with it.

The blockchain enthusiasts would like to see a similar trajectory for their favorite investment category. Cryptocurrency has had some successes, like official or semi-official adoption in El Salvador and Miami, and some failures, like how the adoption has played out in El Salvador and Miami. Also the recent trillion-dollar crash of value in the currencies and NFT markets, plus the rampant fraud and theft of digital assets. So the scorecard is mixed. Anticipate an equally bumpy ride over the next few years, as its fans spend to move crypto investment into the mainstream, while the realities of creating a new investment category out of whole cloth weigh down the prices.

Another mixed bag would be the Metaverse. Famously announced recently by Mark Zuckerberg, the metaverse has seemed more rebranding than revolution. In other words, Facebook and others have been trying to make this change happen for many years, with only minor success. The internet works well as a network to dip our browsers in when we need a drink, or even as a place to remain all day with distant friends while we live the rest of our lives out here in the wet world. There are activities, like military training or video gaming, where immersing yourself in the digital world significantly improves the effectiveness of the experience. However, most of things that most of us do on most of our days would not be substantially improved by full digital immersion. Banking? Probably not. Twitter? No. Clothes shopping? Maybe, but how much really? 

Like cryptocurrency, the metaverse seems like an answer seeking a problem to solve. For decades I have heard software engineers tell me that they can make the tech “so much cooler” and those improvements will send sales to the moon. They tend to be overly optimistic. Generally, customers don’t want “cooler” tech, they want more efficient, effective, user-friendly tech. The designers who can make cooler tech think we will be happy to pay for it. This is how the metaverse strikes me. Lots of people running the show think it is cool. It is cool. Yet cool is often not a reason to buy new equipment, learn a previously-unneeded skill, and change the way you do everything. Maybe the effectiveness will catch up to the cool someday, but it doesn’t seem likely in the short run.

Even when it feels slow, technological change is moving us into a new world. We are already in a world where specific AI is a regular tool, where we can talk to machines and they will answer appropriately, and where we carry a powerful computer in our pockets connected to a world of activity and information. Soon we will enter a world where quantum computing is common. Looking back can help us see what the future holds.