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3 Tech Industry Trends to Watch in 2022

Fringe players take on Big Tech, governments start regulating, and AI could finally prove its worth.

By , the dean of global business at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg appears in a promotional video in October 2021.
Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg appears in a promotional video in October 2021.
Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg appears in a promotional video in October 2021. Meta/Reuters

One year ago, many of us were hoping to take a break from the internet after spending much of 2020 locked down, working from home, and streaming Netflix. Instead, not even the easing of lockdowns and arrival of vaccines could stop internet traffic from steadily growing. Now, with omicron variant cases spiking and talk of having to live with COVID-19 from here on out, the balance between our real and virtual lives, between digital dependence and distrust, continues to evolve. As that happens, here are three major developments to watch in 2022.


1. New players take on Big Tech

This year could prove to be the beginnings of an internet not completely controlled by a handful of Big Tech players. The sheer amount of time spent online has people looking for new distractions. Recent numbers show Americans quitting their jobs in record numbers, with many seeking not just new employment but also new ways to fill the time. We may also have hit peak social media usage as the average time spent on traditional platforms has leveled off. Other online activities dominated by the giants, such as shopping or video streaming, while elevated, have reached a new steady state.

That a few Big Tech companies dominate our digital consciousness with offerings that haven’t evolved all that much over the past 10 years adds to the urge for novel digital distractions. It is telling that TikTok beat the almighty Google as the most popular web domain when 2021 came to a close. TikTok isn’t exactly a small, new service, but its eclipse of a digital powerhouse that dominated the internet for 15 years could herald changes to come. Consider, as well, the fringier nonfungible tokens (NFTs), digital ownership certificates that jumped into the mainstream in 2021 with nearly $41 billion in sales. And when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg started raving about another strange and unfamiliar distraction—the metaverse—in an attempt to gaslight public conversation away from his company’s persistent controversies, a raft of competitors, including many fringe companies, came out to say they were already working on it.

One year ago, many of us were hoping to take a break from the internet after spending much of 2020 locked down, working from home, and streaming Netflix. Instead, not even the easing of lockdowns and arrival of vaccines could stop internet traffic from steadily growing. Now, with omicron variant cases spiking and talk of having to live with COVID-19 from here on out, the balance between our real and virtual lives, between digital dependence and distrust, continues to evolve. As that happens, here are three major developments to watch in 2022.


1. New players take on Big Tech

This year could prove to be the beginnings of an internet not completely controlled by a handful of Big Tech players. The sheer amount of time spent online has people looking for new distractions. Recent numbers show Americans quitting their jobs in record numbers, with many seeking not just new employment but also new ways to fill the time. We may also have hit peak social media usage as the average time spent on traditional platforms has leveled off. Other online activities dominated by the giants, such as shopping or video streaming, while elevated, have reached a new steady state.

That a few Big Tech companies dominate our digital consciousness with offerings that haven’t evolved all that much over the past 10 years adds to the urge for novel digital distractions. It is telling that TikTok beat the almighty Google as the most popular web domain when 2021 came to a close. TikTok isn’t exactly a small, new service, but its eclipse of a digital powerhouse that dominated the internet for 15 years could herald changes to come. Consider, as well, the fringier nonfungible tokens (NFTs), digital ownership certificates that jumped into the mainstream in 2021 with nearly $41 billion in sales. And when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg started raving about another strange and unfamiliar distraction—the metaverse—in an attempt to gaslight public conversation away from his company’s persistent controversies, a raft of competitors, including many fringe companies, came out to say they were already working on it.

There are several players to keep an eye out for. The clear winner for the coming year’s attention-getter is OpenSea, the largest NFT marketplace, which jumped to $14 billion in total transactions in 2021 from just $21.7 million in 2020 and is poised for even more explosive growth in 2022. It will be banking not only on cultish distractions in the form of digital art collectibles but on selling virtual land to speculators looking to stake out space in the metaverse.

As government actions against Big Tech pile up in one country after another, it creates a possible bandwagon effect.

These and other virtual distractions will be backed by real business models. Expect to see prominent venture capital companies, such as Andreessen Horowitz, talking up and funding “decentralized autonomous organizations”—clusters of users using the blockchain to bypass incumbent Big Tech while also taking the most valuable currency—attention—off the latter’s platforms. Watch for start-ups that enable such bypasses, including Arweave, which promises a home for permanently storing data, and Aleo, which promises better privacy. Also look for niche social media apps like Discord, where enthusiasts of this emerging digital ecology are already gathering, to infiltrate wider audiences.

What makes the prognosis difficult is 2022 could just as easily be the year when early euphoria surrounding these new digital technologies crashes. NFTs could remain an esoteric niche obsession and fodder for online culture wars. Blockchain-based payments could be dogged by hoaxes and never catch on. The entire movement could become déclassé due to blockchain technology’s immense carbon footprint. The metaverse itself could remain narrowly focused on gaming or pornography or even become a magnet for extremists and cybercriminals. In the end, Big Tech could wake up from its slumber and co-opt them all by utilizing its resources and networks to beat the upstarts to the punch, with Zuckerberg’s name change and much ridiculed metaverse video only the opening salvo.


2. Governments take on Big Tech

2022 is also shaping up to be the year of the long-promised showdown between regulators and Big Tech. In the United States, the battle has been joined by multiple government agencies, including the National Economic Council, the Federal Trade Commission, the Justice Department, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In parallel, Congress will be considering more than a dozen bills aimed at putting the industry on a leash. On the Big Tech side, the usual armies of lawyers and lobbyists are ready in the trenches, but the lineup of generals will look different in 2022, including leadership changes at Amazon and Twitter. Google is betting on its nice-guy CEO to win public hearts and minds while Apple is positioning itself for the battle as the alleged standard-bearer for privacy.

The outcome of the showdown is, however, not as clear as the battle lines. With U.S. midterm elections in November, neither the Biden administration nor many members of Congress have much runway for long-haul initiatives that don’t help win votes. And sweeping antitrust action is nothing if not long haul: A case makes headlines for a few days while the denouement might take a decade (and result in a settlement instead of Facebook or Google getting chopped into pieces). There is more political capital in modest but steadier action: Regulating consumer privacy, protecting children online, and updating competition laws and liability for content are popular with voters and enjoy bipartisan support. Given the midterms could mean the end of Democratic control of both chambers of Congress, the White House and congressional Democrats will prioritize which legislative issues are pushed forward. Much depends on whether regulating Big Tech makes the cut, and 2022 could end with a regulatory bang or a whimper.

There is parallel uncertainty in Europe, which has long been ground zero for regulating Big Tech. On the European Union’s agenda are two pieces of landmark draft legislation: the Digital Markets Act (aimed at ensuring the big platforms allow fair competition) and the Digital Services Act (to monitor harmful content). But the European Parliament in Brussels is divided over which platforms are targeted. Some parliamentarians want to focus only on the largest platforms while others want to cast a wider net. There are differences over who gets to enforce the rules: member states or the European Commission. The drafts still face a long ratification process that will involve many negotiations among member states, trade associations, and lobbyists.

Other countries are forging their own regulatory paths. In India, the Competition Commission has launched an investigation into Apple’s App Store. This follows not just the EU and others, but the Indian government’s earlier actions to police content on major social media platforms. In China, all eyes will be on whether Beijing continues its broad crackdown on its own tech industry, which began in 2022.

As government actions pile up in one country after another, it creates a possible bandwagon effect. Each prominent country’s action emboldens other governments to take on Big Tech. Expect to see regulatory reverberations worldwide in 2022—but as with all things political, don’t hold your breath for results.

3. Artificial intelligence could finally prove its worth

Without question, artificial intelligence was the most talked about technology in 2021—even if it means many things to many people, from relatively dumb algorithms to machines taking over the world. An overwhelming majority of corporate executives expect it to be their top priority in 2022. The 2021 U.S. National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence concluded technology offers “the most powerful tools in generations for expanding knowledge, increasing prosperity, and enriching the human experience.” There is a dark side, of course, with AI “expanding the window of vulnerability the United States has already entered.” The commission urged Washington to focus on AI as a priority for geopolitical cooperation and competition.

As promising as the technology appears in 2022 and beyond, AI’s hoped-for debut to help us manage the unprecedented surge of patient loads worldwide during the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t pan out. A systematic review of algorithms for COVID-19 diagnoses and prognoses found them unfit for clinical use. Added to that were concerns that algorithms reinforced biases as the datasets had inadequate representation of traditionally disadvantaged minorities and were liable to recommend prejudiced actions.

For 2022, the AI community will have to turn to addressing issues that have made it both the most anticipated and most disappointing suite of technologies. These issues include transparency, governance of AI systems, data-sharing, and ways to root out potential bias. A key indicator would be how well the world is doing to diversify the AI workforce, which is extremely concentrated among a small handful of Big Tech players.

That said, 2022 also opens with fresh promises for AI’s lifesaving potential. The foundations have been laid by AI systems for numerous innovations that will be worked on in the coming year. Alphabet-owned DeepMind has used AI to reveal a trove of information on protein structures found in 20 biologically significant organisms, potentially laying the foundation for numerous breakthroughs in drug discoveries, antibiotic resistance, and biological processes to recycle plastic. Then there are initiatives, such as Nightingale Open Science, which has amassed 40 terabytes of medical imagery across a wide range of conditions and treatments along with a diversity of patient data and outcomes. These will be used to train algorithms to predict medical conditions earlier, conduct triage, and save lives in an unbiased manner. We will see if 2022 is when AI is finally ready to affect people’s lives in a positive way, as promised.

Bhaskar Chakravorti is the dean of global business at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He is the founding executive director of Fletcher’s Institute for Business in the Global Context, where he established and chairs the Digital Planet research program.

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