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Technology takes a back seat to politics, media, and commerce at CodeCon

The industry may be in a tech lull, quipped Walt Mossberg at this year's Code Conference, but that didn't hamper great conversations around technology for social good, privacy, security, and beyond.

Politics, media, and commerce were topics in abundance at this year's Recode Code Conference, with little emphasis on software or hardware technology. As a first-time CodeCon attendee, here's a quick summary of some of those interesting discussions. 

Andy Rubin, founder and CEO of Playground Global, a hardware incubator located behind Fry's Electronics in Palo Alto, Calif., showed off a neat Android phone built by his new company, Essential. Also, Bryan Johnson gave a Spotlight talk in which he tried to convince those of us in the audience to let his company, Kernel, put a chip in our brains. But there were no other new product announcements or in-depth discussions of enabling technologies in the pipeline. (This inspired Walt Mossberg to quip that we were in a tech "lull.")

Instead, there were a number of discussions about the role technology does and will play in society, ranging from awesome and positive—Mark Andreessen and Reid Hoffman—to awesome and negative—Tristan Harris and Jonathan Taplin. It seemed to me that I was eavesdropping on a two-decades-long private conversation held by those on stage, and I was fascinated to get a brief glimpse of their thinking and how they believe their work has brought us to where we are today. Unfortunately, during the presentation by Mary Meeker, I learned that I will never become a captain of industry unless I adopt computer gaming as my primary hobby. Easy come, easy go.

Of the political speakers, I found Sen. Kamala Harris to be the most interesting, with her recommendation to always "speak the truth." For example, it is clear that many of the technologies under development in Silicon Valley will displace thousands (if not millions) of workers if they are adopted. In parallel, a fairly significant number of the billionaires who spoke are certainly willing to fund and instigate dramatic change in society through technology, and (backed by historical examples) they strongly believe that substantial gains will be realized by society at large. Nevertheless, they didn't seem eager to discuss the short-term effects on jobs and personal well-being, perhaps because they will be insulated from its effects. Sen. Harris believes that we have every reason to become strong enough to discuss publicly these short-term effects, and that government can play an important role in easing the transition for citizens from one technological era to the next.

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During an interview at Recode (and in his last column), Walt Mossberg eloquently made two points. First, he observed that "few new blockbuster, game-changing products are hitting the mainstream." To be sure, new advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics are reported frequently in the press, but these are relatively early in their development and have not reached the point where they are useful for the average consumer.

Mossberg added: Given the investments in "AI/machine learning, augmented reality, virtual reality, robotics and drones, smart homes, self-driving cars, and digital health/wearables," made by both new and established companies in the tech industry, our lives will become more and more integrated with "ambient" digital devices. Inevitably, we will become less and less aware of the sacrifices that we are making in privacy and security in exchange for convenience, entertainment, or enrichment. Mossberg called for the United States to "stop dancing around the privacy and security issues and pass real, binding laws."

It is interesting to compare the business models of the largest technology companies. Amazon has an immense retail business that allows it to control the prices of content it sells, and it is trying to branch into content creation (e.g., the original shows by Jill Soloway) and hardware (with limited success). Microsoft sells software direct to the consumer as well as the enterprise, and is adopting subscriptions as a delivery mechanism. Its Bing search engine has not created significant advertising revenue, but Microsoft is having more success than Amazon in hardware markets, albeit less success delivering cloud services.

Google and Facebook are unabashed advertising companies (inspiring Twitter to adopt advertising as its primary source of revenue), and Netflix eschews advertising in favor of subscriptions. At CodeCon, all of the large media companies that were interviewed—such as Time Warner, CBS, and Viacom—appeared to be reacting to these business models and wrestling with technology through a constant flow of mergers, acquisitions, and divestitures, rather than innovation. At this point in time, it is difficult to understand whether this focus on financials will improve the prospects for these media giants. But I believe we will discover over the next decade whether a spreadsheet or a shared vision of innovation is a better motivator for success. 

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