This past year, I predicted the fall of both Zuck and Trump, not to mention the triumph of cannabis (and rationale markets). But in 2019, the sociopaths won — bigly.
Damn, was I wrong.
One year ago this week, I sat down to write my annual list of ten or so predictions for the coming twelve months. And before I was even halfway through, I’d already listed and then summarily dismissed the two most significant American sociopaths of our generation.
Despite my glancing protestations (#2 and #4, below), Mark Zuckerberg and Donald Trump did not go gently into the good night of 2019. And believing they might have only proves both my naiveté and our collective challenge: If we truly want a better world, we need to reform not just the technology industry, but the steroid-fueled version of capitalism that has captured it. If I’ve learned anything from this annual process of critically reviewing my predictions, it’s this: the fusion of unrestrained capitalism with unaccountable technology has become the playground of sociopaths. And this past year, the best sociopaths won. Bigly.
And while I’m tempted to pen a rant pointing out the eerie similarities between Zuck and Trump’s character, ascendance, and current chokehold on power, I’ll leave that for another day (though as a teaser, you really should watch this clip, especially the last few seconds…). Over the past 16 years, this post has evolved into a rather light-hearted scorecard, after all. Forgive me if I’m in a grimmer mood as we get started. But I did pick a doozy for my first prediction last year:
1/ Global warming gets really, really, really real. Honestly, I don’t know how anyone could argue 2019 was exactly the year things got way, way too real. Given my American bias and unforgiveable (if twisted) optimism, I predicted we’d have some kind of a Hurricane Sandy like event that slapped some sense into the United States. While that didn’t exactly happen (we got lucky with Dorian and others, though the Bahamas certainly didn’t), there were so many terrifying climate-related news events in 2019, it’s impossible to imagine 2019 as anything other than a turning point in the climate change narrative. First off, we had the single largest set of mass protests on any issue, ever — and of course, Greta Thurnberg as Time’s person of the year (which of course our president mercilessly and predictably mocked). We had news that the Arctic’s permafrost is melting, releasing a vicious cycle of carbon into the atmosphere. Bloomberg counted up our climate disasters in 2019, and found we had at least one every week. We had more devastating fires in California, we had a heat wave in Greenland (and Europe), we had massive waterfalls of melting ice, we had scientists freaking out that their most dire predictions are now looking too conservative. Nearly 10 million people were displaced by climate change in 2019. A huge swath of the Amazon was on fire this past year — spewing yet another continuous torrent of carbon. So yeah, the US was comparatively spared, but damn, things got really, really real this past year. I’m not happy about it, but I think I got this one at least partially right.
2/ Mark Zuckerberg resigns as Chairman of Facebook, and relinquishes his supermajority voting rights. Related, Sheryl Sandberg stays right where she is. Ok, this was one of several predictions where I was really hoping to be right, but as I copped in the introduction, I simply should have known better. 2019 was certainly a year where plenty of tech lords were taken down a notch (see #8 below), but not at Facebook, which saw its stock rally to near record highs. Scandal, fraud, whistling past democracy’s graveyard — none of it mattered in 2019. And no way will a founding CEO get taken down a notch in that scenario, ridiculous governance structures be dammed. Man, did I whiff!
3/ Despite a ton of noise and smoke from DC, no significant federal legislation is signed around how data is managed in the United States. This played out exactly as I predicted. And to be honest, I don’t expect much to come in 2020, either, despite the fulminations of legislators across both parties. Why? See #2, and for that matter, this next doozy…
4/ The Trump show gets cancelled. Nope. Just like Facebook, Trump’s stock is near an all time high — his approval ratings actually increased during the impeachment hearings. This despite the fact that 55% of the American public now wants him out of office. So yes, Trump will still be in power come New Year’s, and that means I was hopelessly wrong. I suppose I could claim some kind of win given the House did cancel his loathsome reality show, but it takes two chambers of Congress to remove a president. Just like Zuck, I’m left realizing that if I want to be more accurate in my predictions, I should stop wishing for things that make sense, but would cost kingmakers either their money or their power. Another whiff.
5/ Cannabis for the win. Yikes. What kind of idiot predicts the federal legalization of cannabis in a world controlled by Trump? This looked promising at mid year, with a number of legislators holding “historic” hearings on the subject. The issue could have gained traction from there, and we might have had a bipartisan bill by the end of the year, had Trump not needed to play to his base as impeachment seized the narrative. So alas, it was not to be. Despite huge support from the American public, Republicans in Congress managed to actually set the movement back, killing common sense legislation that would have unshackled entrepreneurs who are attempting to create a safe and stable industry (caveat: I’m invested in many of them). The fact is, this past year the black market for cannabis kicked the legal market’s ass. Another whiff, and not the kind any of us would enjoy.
6/ China implodes, the world wobbles. Ah, well, this almost happened. All year long, the headlines augured the collapse of China’s potemkin economy, as Trump’s trade war seemed poised to tilt the globe into recession. Here are a few: Beware of Tremors in China’s Commercial Property Market; China’s Inward Tilt Could Cripple It; China’s Yuan Falls Past Key Level of 7 to the Dollar; on and on the headlines went, warning of a China implosion. But it was not to be. I was a year early and 10 trillion dollars short here. Whiff.
7/ 2019 will be a terrible year for financial markets. Lordy. Just. So. Wrong. Again, I bet against a president and a set of market makers utterly set on ensuring their own power. Damn Fool. Whifferoo.
8/ At least one major tech IPO is pulled, the rest disappoint as a class. If nothing else, here’s proof I should stick to my own lanes. Thanks WeWork, for pulling your IPO and proving that at least I’ve still got tech prediction chops. And yes, the rest of the class didn’t do so great either — Slack, Uber, Lyft have all disappointed. There were some bright spots — Pinterest, Zoom and Cloudflare among them. But it wasn’t the year the tech industry had hoped for, by a long shot.
9/ New forms of journalistic media flourish. This one was kind of a ringer — I knew we’d be launching The Recount by summer, and indeed we did. But it was also a proxy for what I hoped would be a resurgence in journalism across the board. And while I can’t prove this statistically, 2019 did feel like a year journalism got some of its mojo back. Non-profit models seemed to strengthen, subscription revenue continues to eclipse advertising at quality outlets like The New York Times, and innovative newsletters like The Hustle and The Skimm prospered. Maybe “flourish” was too optimistic (like most of my 2019 predictions), but at least this one wasn’t a total whiff.
10/A new “social network” emerges by the end of the year. Well, umm…does Tik Tok count?! Not really, at least, not if you read the fine print in my prediction, where I reasoned that private social chat would be the most likely place for new entrants to emerge. And it seems Zuck agreed — announcing in March a “pivot to privacy” focused on group chat that all but destroyed any investment in the space. Later in the year, Automattic, the relatively unknown company whose Wordpress platform powers nearly a third of the Internet, bought Tumblr, a once-important gateway drug that later ceded primacy to Twitter and Instagram. The combination set tech hearts aflame with speculation that a Facebook competitor was in the works. But as far as I can tell, no such plans exist. So yeah, we did see important gains for private social chat this past year, but by year’s end, the Valley’s still stuck in Facebook’s grip, and everyone’s still debating if we’ll ever emerge from it. Me, I’m not so optimistic anymore.
And that, friends, caps what is likely the worst year of predictions I’ve ever reviewed. By my count I only got three of ten defensibly correct in 2019, with a couple pushes and five miserable whiffs. Not a good scorecard going into 2020, but hey, at least I learned something. In an era dominated by Trump and Zuck, it’s best to check your optimism before wading into prognostication. But hell, I’ve still got a few days before I plan on writing my predictions for 2020. Irrational optimism is a hard habit to quit. Maybe it’ll make a comeback next year….