Recode’s Kara Swisher and The Verge’s Lauren Goode count down the Top 10 news items of the year on the latest Too Embarrassed to Ask.
As the world prepares to say goodbye (and good riddance) to 2017, it’s shocking to think just how much happened in tech this year: The new U.S. president made tweeting a partisan issue, a once-geeky cryptocurrency called bitcoin saw its value skyrocket, and across several industries, long-whispered stories of sexual harassment and culture problems finally were spoken aloud.
Those are just three of the biggest news items from 2017. On the latest episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask, Recode’s Kara Swisher and The Verge’s Lauren Goode counted down their Top 10 picks, reflecting on what the heck happened and why each story was so important. Below the embed, we’ve quoted some highlights from their discussion, but for the fullest understanding of what mattered and why, listen to the audio.
10. The Big Product Launches
Starting things off on a positive note, our 10th-most-important story of 2017 was the arrival of several major consumer products: Tesla launched the Model 3 (although deliveries are behind schedule); Samsung launched two phones (and neither of them exploded!); and Amazon and Google dove headfirst into hardware (how much of this spaghetti will stick to the wall?).
The one product Swisher and Goode wanted to talk about the most, though, was the iPhone X. Swisher said she ran into some glitches with hers, and had to get her first one replaced. And even now, she’s still adjusting to the removal of the Home button.
“I like the size,” she said. “I like a lot of parts about it, and I’m getting used to the various things like how you get rid of screens. It’s a learning experience. But I’ve got to say, it hasn’t been the easiest transition.”
“There’s a learning curve for all of these things,” Goode said. “Early adopters that got the iPhone X are really excited about it — they have to be excited about it, to justify that they got it. ‘Oh, yeah, it’s totally fine, I’m totally used to these interactions without a button!’ But for most people, they’re still used to the button.”
9. Amazon Is Eating the World
Amazon did a lot this year, and it seems to be more powerful than ever; CEO Jeff Bezos took the top spot on our Recode 100 list for just that reason. But if you had to pick one thing he & co. accomplished in 2017, it might be the $14 billion acquisition of Whole Foods.
The logistics of getting food to people is a notoriously difficult business, and Whole Foods had been struggling to grow in recent years. But as Swisher pointed out, Amazon knows a thing or two about logistics.
“I actually visited one of Amazon’s fulfillment centers and was blown away by it,” she said. “At one point, I was exhilarated and then terrified — but I thought it was so innovative.”
“It does underscore the point that other stores aren’t that good,” she added. “The retail experience is really bad, and Amazon’s is a tremendous retail experience.”
8. “Fake News” and Trump on Twitter
What happens when your favorite social media site is overrun with politics? That’s a question Twitter power users have been wrestling with all year, as the most influential tweeter, U.S. President Donald Trump, has turned the service into his personal bully pulpit.
Swisher, a self-avowed Twitter addict, said if she could take one term out of circulation, it would be “fake news,” because the president’s habit of using Twitter to undermine the credibility of the media has endangered society.
“It’s a ridiculous abuse of that platform,” she said. “My kids were here for the holidays, and I got into a debate with my kid: He goes, ‘Well, you have to listen to it.’ No, but you don’t! I think most good people try to give people the benefit of the doubt and that’s what happens when you repeat a lie enough times. It is dangerous to do this.”
“I do think [people] become tired after a while, and nobody believes anything,” Swisher added. “And that’s the point. That’s a really bad place to be. There are certain fundamental issues where we have to start believing in things, or else it becomes this ridiculous free-for-all.”
7. Tech’s Mixed Bag of IPOs
Although finance is an infrequent topic on Too Embarrassed to Ask, it’s worth pointing out the rockiness of several tech IPOs this year — and how few there were. On the new podcast, Swisher and Goode discussed four: Blue Apron, Snap, Roku and Stitch Fix. Although it’s too early to say what will happen to Stitch Fix, which went public in November, Goode said CEO Katrina Lake has already become an important symbol for female entrepreneurs.
“She built a nearly $1 billion revenue business in less than six years and — this is kind of an iconic photo — she had her baby with her at the podium when she rang the bell, when the company went public,” Goode said.
On a tangent from the finance talk, Swisher argued that there is one thing that Blue Apron, Stitch Fix and other companies really need to get better at in the long term: Reducing the volume of cardboard boxes in their users’ hands, a.k.a. “boxmageddon.”
“I wish they would all come up with something where you could take the box and return stuff in the same box,” she said. “I wish someone — Amazon, Stitch Fix, Plated, Blue Apron — could figure out the box problem.”
6. Russia, Russia, Russia!
Think of something “untoward” that happened on the internet in 2017, Goode said, and there’s a good chance that Russia was involved in some way. But as congressional and internal investigations into the country’s 2016 election meddling continue, we may have to accept that we may never know just how much the Kremlin-affiliated Internet Research Agency has done or is doing to the web.
“We don’t even know if that’s the amount,” Swisher said, responding to stats quoted by Goode from Facebook, Twitter and Google’s testimony to Congress. “That’s just what they’re reporting, and they keep changing that. It’s much more massive than that, in ways we don’t understand.”
5. Net Neutrality Gets Neutered
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai got exactly what he wanted this holiday season: An end to FCC regulations implemented under his predecessor that formally prevented internet service providers from throttling users’ access to certain sites. The idea that all web traffic should be treated the same, or net neutrality, is not completely dead, though — Pai’s FCC colleague from the other side of the aisle, Democratic member Jessica Rosenworcel, correctly predicted before the recent vote that lawsuits would soon follow.
“This is going to go on and on,” Swisher said. “I think it gets to the heart of who owns the internet and who should provide it. Is it a business, or is it a utility? Or should it be free? Companies have been built on the backs of these networks — Netflix wouldn’t exist without Comcast, if you think about it. But it’s a complicated issue, and it’s going to go on.”
4. Bitcoin and “Cryptomania”
Who needs an alternative to money that is out of the hands of banks and governments? Enough people, it seems, that interest in bitcoin and other “cryptocurrencies” went mainstream in 2017, sending the price of bitcoin up from underneath $1,000 at the start of the year to more than $14,000 at the time of this writing.
“Whenever it started, I did a story on it,” Swisher said. “In order to do it, I had to buy it, and it was cheap! So I did. And I don’t know where it is. I’ve lost it. It was so inexpensive at the time, I didn’t think anything about it. I think I bought two, or three or five. Could be 10.”
“You’re talking about a difference of tens of thousands of dollars,” Goode pointed out.
“I know! But it doesn’t matter because it’s not worth anything to me,” Swisher said. “I expensed it at the time.”
But when she does find the bitcoin(s) that she purchased for only a few hundred dollars, all those years ago? “I’m going to throw a big ol’ party,” Swisher said.
3. The Tech Backlash
Goode joked that the trendiness of backlash against tech in 2017 started with Juicero: The $700 Wi-Fi-connected juicer, despite a substantial price cut, was revealed in April to be completely unnecessary: Its proprietary fruit pulp packages could be juiced by anyone with two hands.
But Swisher said it’s more important to focus on the companies that have failed consumers in much more serious ways, in particular social media firms that have for years designed their services to occupy as much of users’ time as possible.
“Silicon Valley has always had a dumb, overpriced company that maybe points the way to the future, but is just silly,” Swisher said of Juicero.
“It’s not cigarettes, but it’s right down that lane,” she argued of the addiction-by-design that is common practice at many tech companies, as outlined by past Recode Decode guest Tristan Harris. “Every single person does not feel good after using social media. And I know that I can’t put my phone down.”
“2017 was the year the lid was blown open on all kinds of harassment issues — not just tech, but media, across other industries too,” Goode said. “I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s only going to get worse in 2018.”
Swisher agreed that the explosion of stories shared by harassment and discrimination victims — a phenomenon encapsulated by the viral #MeToo trend on Twitter and Facebook — is far from over.
“Here’s a place where social media is great: You cannot push back the tide of these people’s stories,” she said. “It’s fantastic that people begin to understand: They’re not alone; there’s strength in numbers. Several friends of mine have been sexually harassed. Finally talking about it, finally doing something about it. Finally contacting HR people.”
What kind of a year has it been for the company that was once the darling of Silicon Valley? Scandal after scandal, an executive shakeup, pending lawsuits, the belated disclosure of a major hack — and, just yesterday, some success in the form of a major deal with SoftBank.
Swisher said that there’s a line at Uber, which she praised as a useful product, between the problems any company of its caliber would have to deal with — and the many unforced errors its leaders made.
“The problems they shouldn’t have had to deal with is the rampant sexism at this company, which, to me, is the quintessence of Silicon Valley’s problems: This bro culture, this aggression that is just ridiculous,” she said.
“The truth is, no matter how big or small your company is, you cannot create, establish, facilitate, encourage a terrible party/frat-like culture and expect that nothing’s going to go wrong, and everyone’s going to work comfortably,” Goode added.
What do you think of this ranking? Are there stories we left out that should have been on the list? Tweet them to @Recode with the hashtag #TooEmbarrassed, or email them to TooEmbarrassed@recode.net.
If you like this show, you should also check out our other podcasts:
- Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with the movers and shakers in tech and media every Monday. You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
- Recode Media with Peter Kafka features no-nonsense conversations with the smartest and most interesting people in the media world, with new episodes every Thursday. Use these links to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
- And finally, Recode Replay has all the audio from our live events, such as the Code Conference, Code Media and the Code Commerce Series. Subscribe today on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
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