North America trends 2018: Tech boom look increasingly negative

From sexism to gentrification, North American tech companies have taken a hammering in 2017, and this trend looks set to continue

Divisive political themes dominated 2017's mainstream news, with the most unconventional US president to date taking office at the start of the year. Dire predictions were made, some coming to pass and some not. Behind the headlines, though, the IT industry appears little changed by President Trump's first year in office, other than Twitter receiving more attention than it might have wanted.

That's not to say the IT industry in North America didn't change at all in 2017. It certainly did and continues to do so, just not always in predictable ways. For example, an increasing focus on the workplace culture of Silicon Valley's big names has led to often-well-founded allegations of 'bro culture' and sexism that have suppressed the responsibilities, roles, rights and at times human dignity of women in technology firms. That exposure seems likely to continue in 2018, as more enclaves of traditional IT culture are revealed and challenged.

Of course this isn't limited to IT; Hollywood and celebrity culture in general has had its fair share of recent horror stories. But whereas technology had been seen as an unequivocal force for good, its sneaker-shod high priests all-knowing and untouchable, in 2017 the cracks in that perfect image began to show. Expect those cracks to widen in 2018, leading to plenty of "Lessons have been learned" sound-bites. Perhaps they will be.

This extends to the social effects of the US technology boom in general. Ordinary (i.e. not employed by technology companies) people have been priced out of commutable areas of San Francisco and its environs by Googlers and their ilk, a symptom of the widening gap between the tech haves and have-nots. Awareness is increasing of the negative social effects of monopolistic, disruptive, data-dredging technology firms, perhaps because the people doing the reporting are starting to see their own friends' and families' lives – and livelihoods – affected. There's nothing like self-interest to galvanise awareness and response.

Autonomous vehicle development looks set to proceed at pace in North America, with real-world implementations looking more likely here than in Europe in 2018. That's partly because of the more predictable and mappable road network and partly because this is where much of the tech is being developed. Expect more trials in 2018 from Google, Apple, Tesla and firms such as Uber, whose reliance on gig economy drivers looks more and more like a necessary but undesirable (for the company) stop-gap on the way to owning a network of autonomous vehicles; no humans required. The company's recent bulk purchase of Volvo self-driving cars is probably only the start, and in 2018 its new CEO might even manage to ameliorate some of the bad feeling generated during his predecessors' stints at the wheel.

North American firms dominate the cloud environment, with Amazon, Microsoft, Google and IBM all major players. Conventional wisdom says that this situation will continue in 2018 but there could be some surprises, with Alibaba fast making inroads in the APAC region. There's a vast amount of money to be made from enterprise cloud migration so this will be a fiercely-fought battle for dominance. There's a different battle going on at the edge, though, with low-power, local data processing requirements likely to surge in 2018 to cope with the expansion of the Internet of Things sector.

Automation of business process, from manufacturing to repetitive office jobs, looks unstoppable in 2018. Progress in artificial intelligence and machine learning is now so fast that it's almost impossible to keep up. For example, language processing services such as Google Translate were long seen as inadequate at best, laughable at worst. That changed in 2017, especially in Q4, and 2018 looks likely to see wider implementation of language-based tech into North American businesses. Increasingly, customer communication with businesses will be via AI rather than human call centres, and that's just the start.

GDPR is a potentially huge fly in the ointment. Few North American firms have taken much practical notice of this powerful new piece of European legislation that comes into force in May 2018, believing - often wrongly - that it doesn't apply to them. If they store any data on any EU citizens, it does apply. The first that some of these firms may know of their obligations is when they receive notice of legal action against them. With fines of up to 4% of turnover (not profit), their ignorance - or hubris - could turn out to be very expensive.

Security will continue to be a big issue in 2018. We're pretty much guaranteed more high-profile, high-volume customer security breaches, with the US government also poking its nose in wherever it can.

On a lighter note, flamboyant new projects will continue to be flamboyantly announced by Elon Musk, all designed to flamboyantly distract investors from Tesla's (lack of) profitability; kids on skateboards will find ever more disruptive ways to disruptively deconstruct offline businesses and reforge them as excitingly disruptive EYCPIaaS (Everything You Can Possibly Imagine as a Service) startups; and quantum computing will render everything we know into a sea of unknowable probabilities, destroying conventional encryption systems and privacy in the process. In fact just about the only guaranteed constant in 2018 is President Trump's presence on Twitter (barring disgruntled employees). Isn't that a comforting thought?