The worst year for tech that most of us can remember in a long, long time is finally over. It is perhaps best summarized as the year the tech backlash finally came of age, setting in motion a long-overdue reckoning.
That’s not to say anyone has learned any fundamental lessons or changed any behavior. We have yet to see whether the protective bubble surrounding Silicon Valley has finally been punctured enough to let a touch of enlightenment seep through.
But before we hack off the gangrene limb that was 2017 and move along, let’s take a moment to review the horror show that was the tech industry in hopes that someone, somewhere will learn some important lessons and evolve into something more closely resembling a human being.
1. Juicero: Making fun of this overhyped startup can feel like shooting entrepreneurs in a barrel. But toppling this expensive smoothie maker seemed almost too easy when Bloomberg posted a video showing how one can simply squeeze the juice bags and get the same result as buying a $400 Juicero. The company never recovered, and it shut down in September. The $118 million in venture capital the company raised resulted in a big, fat nothingburger.
2. Bodega: Just a couple of weeks after Juicero closed, along came Bodega to take its place as Silicon Valley’s most-hated startup. The story might echo that of Juicero because in both cases the founders seemed convinced they were doing something wildly revolutionary when it was obvious to the average human that this not the case. Bodega offered lofty, visionary product statements to describe what is essentially a smarter vending machine. But that name left the startup open to being bashed on Twitter for cultural appropriation, and the tone-deafness of the naming decision seemed downright inexplicable and thus warrants its own special mention.
3. Uber: Pretty much everything that happened to this company would be a Top 10 worst story contender. In fact, I wrote a list of 11 of them here.
4. Fake news: While this came to the forefront in the 2016 election, it really exploded in 2017 as platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, and YouTube moved from defensiveness and denial to at least some moderate mea culpas. Certainly, the user backlash turned into a roar. And it probably helped that several executives were hauled in front of Congress to testify about Russian meddling in the elections, which included fake ads and fake news stories planted by phony foreign groups. Remember when Twitter said it was going to be the new global commons for debate and protest? LOL utopians. At least the eyes of users are open, we hope. But each of these platforms still has a long way to go to overcome the distrust users now feel.
5. Harassment: Sexism in Silicon Valley is a sad, old story. But in 2017, allegations of sexual harassment burst into plain view as a number of victims went public with accusations. These included the blog post by Susan Fowler, a former Uber engineer who detailed her own experience with sexual harassment at the company while indicting a broader culture that protected executives accused of harassment. That would be one of many reasons CEO Travis Kalanick was ousted a few months later. And over the course over the year, as the #MeToo movement began to ripple across the entertainment world, big Silicon Valley names were accused of sexual harassment, including David Drummond of Google, influential tech blogger Robert Scoble, Justin Caldbeck of Binary Capital, and Shervin Pishevar from Sherpa Capital and Hyperloop One.
6. Net neutrality: At least Silicon Valley can’t be blamed for this one. The Federal Communications Commission, led by Trump’s appointed chair, gutted the net neutrality rules put in place under Obama. The silver lining is that many are vowing to continue the fight.
7. Equifax: In reality, this one could be labelled under “hacks,” as it was another banner year for the dark forces of the internet. We could point to Yahoo revealing that 3 billion email accounts had been compromised. Or Uber (yes, Uber, again!) admitting to covering up a previous hack of user and driver data. But Equifax deserves the pole position for announcing in September that 145.5 million people had accounts hacked. Hackers stole fun stuff like birth dates, driver’s license numbers, credit card info, and social security numbers. I mean, when your hack exposes the personal info of roughly half of the United States, well, you get a special party favor, for sure.
8. Snap IPO: The social mobile photo darling finally went public in May after several years of hype — only to run head-first into a wall. Its market valuation disappeared almost as fast as a photo sent via Snapchat, and the company proceeded to report disappointing earnings results throughout the year. This fall from grace seemed to demonstrate it was powerless before Facebook’s strategy of copying its most popular features. Worse, the dismal showing from Snap (as well as Blue Apron) is blamed for sapping the momentum of what had started as a promising year for tech IPOs. Snap closed the year at $14.63 per share, well below its $17 IPO price.
9. Trump’s Twitter: Every day the president tweets something inane, often veering into racism, harassment, or an incitement to nuclear war. Twitter officials have rationalized the decision not to ban him by insisting that his posts are news. Fine. But unchecked vitriol has poisoned Twitter’s brand, as has its failure to take more aggressive action against trolls, hate groups, and terrorists who have been abusing the platform for years.
10. That godawful Sam Altman post: At the tail end of Silicon Valley’s annus horribilis, the head of Y Combinator penned a post arguing that it’s possible “we have to allow people to say disparaging things about gay people if we want them to be able to say novel things about physics.” Too much political correctness is killing Silicon Valley, the privileged white dude moaned. This was followed by a clumsy non-apology apology. Aside from the offensiveness of the idea that discrimination must be tolerated to have a free flow ideas, it seems to confirm our worse fears: The tech bros that dominate Silicon Valley have not learned a damn thing after all the train wrecks of 2017.