First published in The Cape Cod Times, December 30, 2014
As 2014 melts into 2015 let’s lift a toast to tech and sciences stories of the year.
First up, a big end o’ year cheer to the international Rosetta mission and its November 12 landing of the unmanned probe Philae on a comet 310 million miles from Earth. Anytime I’m feeling blue about technology tumbling into the absurd, the greedy, the over-commercialized, or the mundane — and that happened a lot in 2014 what with glassholes, over-exposed selfies, and one too many flappy birds — along comes story like this that reminds us we can indeed think big and dare to be great.
Besides space flight, other forms of tech-enhanced movement made it big in 2014. Uber and Lyft hit critical mass and threatened to rewrite car-based transportation in major cities around the world, with their respective digital network of drivers on call. Uber’s ugly side got exposed in November when the company threatened journalists and their families, changed the rules for drivers, and turned a blind eye to allegations of driver misconduct, showing that perhaps ballyhooed — new business models — might be little more than sheep’s clothing for old style $1.5 Billion investments.
Drones rose into the sky, taking on a starring role at last January’s big consumer electronics show in Las Vegas, but by mid-year began getting shot down by state and federal legislators, rival elk hunters, and privacy advocates. Don’t count these airborne eyes-in-the-sky out just yet though– the sheer number of viral videos of fireworks from within, cities from above, and estates for sale suggest a passion that’s just begun to be tapped, not to mention Amazon’s stated goal to have drone delivered products landing on a front porch near you. Over in Sandwich and Bourne, Joint Base Cape Cod became one of the federally funded research sites for commercial drone applications and safety regulation development.
In September and October, the first Exo-Suit let WHOI and the Greek Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities revisit a 2,000 year old Greek shipwreck off the island of Antikythera. Complete with foot thursters out of fiction, the 500-pound suit let a diver spend 50 hours roaming hundreds of meters below the surface.
In May, Google said it had begun to build a fleet of 100 driverless cars, aka “experimental electric-powered vehicles.” The low speed, tiny urban-mobiles get summoned via a smart phone app — and it remains to be seen if they actually hit the streets in 2015.
Another of Google’s experimental products — Glass — moved from a controlled “Google Explorer” phase in 2013 into a wider release in which anyone could “apply” for the privilege of buying a $1500 pair — and by June, one could even buy Glass mounted on Diane Von Furstenberg designer frames! However, the wearable device also created a flurry of backlash, with Wired Magazine featuring Jerry Seinfield and the fast trending term “glasshole” on its July cover.
But the momentum for wearables wouldn’t stop. Fitness devices, like the Fitbit, started popping up on the wrists of legions of athletes and would-be athletes, letting them monitor heart rate, sleep, steps walked … and then a second wave of products did the same for their canine cousins.
One of the most anticipated announcements in 2014 heralded the arrival of Apple’s entry into the wearables market. We got a peek at the Apple Watch (note the lack of “i” in the name) during a splashy September event. Yes, sleek, yes, beautifully designed, and yes, written up by Vogue … but no, not under any Christmas tree. Product won’t arrive until 2015.
Another Apple release broke into the 10 ten searches of the year, as “iPhone 6″ clocked in at #9 on Yahoos’ most searched list. In addition to iPhone 6, this year’s terms includes Jennifer Aniston, Miley Cyrus, Kim Kardashian, Kaley Cuoco, Jennifer Lawrence, and Ariania Grande, as well as the movie Frozen, the game Minecraft, and the #1 search term: Ebola.
Google’s year end summary of its trillions of searches, reflected our need to explore Goji berries, Robin Williams, the Wold Cup, and the missing Maslaysia Airlines plane, with a top “how to” query of “how to kiss.”
All of these searches add up to a lot data — and the 2013 tsunami of big data and big data mining continued to surge throughout 2014. Even big data breeches at chains like Home Depot and Staples, didn’t slow the trend.
Privacy continued to go down the drain, as marketers, world governments, and pretty much everyone found our collective willingness to overshare and give it all away a virtual — and in some cases literal — gold mine.
October’s news that mega-retailers Best Buy and Walmart won’t accept Apple’s new commerce platform, Apple Pay, because it won’t collect voluminous transactional data for them to slice and dice typifies this new implied social contract. Instead, the stores opted into a proprietary sales platform that collects both payment and the buyer’s shopping habits.
Buzz also hummed over the “Internet of Everything” in which, literally everything and the kitchen sink contains embedded processors and connect to each other digitally, taking information sharing to a whole new level.
Also in the sharing trends category – new selfie and retweet records were reset in March when Ellen DeGeneres and Meryl Streep’s Oscar selfie with friends got retweeted a record 1.3milllion times in less than an hour. Plus, let’s not forget the year’s photo bomb and most awkward family moment memes, or the summer’s viral ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which raised $115 million toward finding a cure for the disease – yours truly got soaked as part of the Town of Eastham’s participation in the global challenge.
Virutal Reality (VR), a 1990s fascination, re-entered the scene with a vengeance in 2014. Sony’s Project Morpheus and Samsung’s Gear VR represent big brands, but Oculus Rift really made headlines when it rapidly moved from Kickstarter crowdfunding in 2012 to Facebook darling in a deal that closed in July 2014 for a reported $2 Billion cash and stock.
T-Mobile rocked and reshaped the mobile industry as the “Uncarrier,” and gave us the first real competition in that technology arena. Three-D printers created everything from pasta to prosthetic ears and their price plummeted, making them widely available. Tiny cooperative robots created a potential cure for diabetes.
And no look at 2014 could be complete without remembering the still-ongoing Net Neutrality debate — in which various sides claim ownership/control/earned management rights — over the vast network that defines this century. In June, John Oliver, comedian and host of the newly launched Last Week Tonight, made so many viewers laugh, then cry, then charge into action that the Federal Communications Commission website’s comment section went down under the onslaught. As the year ended, the FCC continues to work on its proposed net neutrality rules.
Rounding out the year, we got a gander at the latest fro m the NASA folks over at Langley Research Center in Virginia: the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept. Yup, 2014 may be remembered as the year that the concept of a floating city over Venus was first, er, floated.
And so as we wave goodbye to 2014 , we can’t help but wonder perhaps, if these trendlines continue, we will at some point in 2015 use VR to ogle selfies made with drones, sent from Venus via Instagram showing up as the top search result for 2015? Hey, stranger thing have happened. Just look at 2014.