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North America trends 2018: Tech boom look increasingly negative

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.

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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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