Four stories that sum up the state of tech in 2022 | Technology
Happy Betwixtmas to those who celebrate, and mournful “sorry everything fun is shut” to those who don’t. Me? I’m thankful for the one week of the year where tech news stops – or at least, slows down. (This is written in advance and I’ve got a lot riding on that sentence still being true by the time you read it).
It’s been an odd year. Even by the standards of the sector, it was just extraordinarily silly. Crypto collapsed in the dumbest possible way, twice. Elon Musk bought his way into being the main character of Twitter, for good. AI seems just on the precipice of doing away with the Ucas personal statement. Nothing is normal.
And that means TechScape has been a bit chaotic too. I apologise to those of you who have emailed me begging for less Elon Musk and fewer crypto stories: everything happens so much, and when there’s a big news story, it has to be the lead. But that meant fewer chances for smaller stories and follow-ups, so I thought I’d use the opportunity of this fallow week (past me again – wow, I really hope that’s true) to revisit some of my favourite posts, and let you know what happened next.
The crypto boom of 2021 was over, but the crypto bust of 2022 hadn’t yet started, and the sector was in the middle of a pivot. NFTs were out, and DAOs were in:
Standing for “decentralised autonomous organisation”, a DAO isn’t really in the same class as an NFT. Rather than being a singular digital asset, like a picture of a monkey or a dog-themed copy of a dog-themed copy of bitcoin, a DAO is more like a company – but one which is directly controlled by its shareholders, without the need for employees or directors.
(Although, we should note, a DAO is Not A Company and owners of DAOs are Not Shareholders, because if it were and they were, the whole thing would be wildly illegal. Glad we’ve cleared that up.)
At its platonic ideal, a DAO exists in the realm of code-as-law that much of the cryptocurrency community fetishises. An organisation is set up by some clever bod, who sells membership to anyone who’ll buy its tokens. The cash used to buy the tokens becomes the organisation’s treasury, and it can be used by simply writing a smart contract (to, say, loan some money out at an 8% interest rate) and securing the votes of enough of the organisation’s token-holders, at which point the smart contract is executed.
But DAOs weren’t the genesis of another big crypto boom, because they were the spark of the next big crypto crash instead. The Terra/Luna ecosystem, which underpinned the supposed stablecoin TerraUSD whose rapid collapse wiped a trillion dollars off the total crypto market cap, was theoretically run by a DAO, although in practice the charismatic South Korean entrepreneur Do Kwon was in charge.
Kwon himself is now on the run – in Serbia, according to the latest reports from Korean prosecutors – periodically popping up on Twitter to say that he is “definitely not on the run”. And DAOs aren’t doing much better.
The problem is that you can say you’ve made a “decentralised autonomous organisation”, but that doesn’t actually exist as a legal concept. What does exist is a general partnership: a form of corporation in which the partners share the liability of the company. “Limited” liability companies protect shareholders, but also come with extra requirements – requirements that DAOs don’t fulfil. And so they may just default back to the oldest form of corporation there is.
As the crypto bust progresses, we’ll see that theory put to the test.
In February, Russia attempted to conquer Ukraine, ending an uneasy ceasefire that had held since it invaded in 2014. Putin expected a blitzkrieg victory. Instead, the war is ongoing. And that held for the virtual battleground as well as the physical one:
Given what we know and expect from Russia, it’s unlikely to come as a shock that – according to data from Checkpoint Research – in the first three days of combat, cyber-attacks on Ukraine’s government and military sector went up by 196%, compared to the rest of February.
But what has been interesting to watch has been the fightback, with attacks on Russia up 4% for the week. It might not sound like much, but there has been noticeable pushback from white hat hackers, hactivist groups and others on the counterattack.
The conflict has even drawn division among ransomware groups. The Conti group had its internal communications leaked this week by a pro-Ukraine member who was angry that the group had sided with Russia.
But despite those early days, what happened next online was the cyberwar that wasn’t: the most notorious “advanced persistent threat” on the internet in open hot war with Ukraine, and a digital battlefield that was eerily quiet.
That isn’t for lack of trying on Russia’s part, though. Instead, it’s a sign of the success of Ukraine’s defensive team, according to the National Cybersecurity Centre’s CEO, Lindy Cameron.
“Just as we have seen inspirational and heroic defence by Ukrainian military on the battlefield. We have seen incredibly impressive defensive cyber-operations by Ukrainian cybersecurity practitioners,” she said in September. “Many commentators have suggested that this has been the most effective defensive cyber-activity undertaken under sustained pressure in history. In many ways, Russia has made Ukraine match fit over the last 10 years by consistently attacking them.”
Information warfare isn’t just hacking: it’s also about propaganda and narratives. And there, too, Russia has had a lack of success.
There are, to be sure, many people who have, passively or actively, accepted Russia’s version of events, where an expansionist Nato forced it to invade Ukraine in an act of self-defence. But while the state has had success pushing the message openly, its information operations – the infamous “troll armies” of the Internet Research Agency – failed to connect.
The reason there seems to be simpler. Information operations work when they’re not expected, and Russia has lost the element of surprise.
In June, I became a crypto messiah – or, more accurately, a Pythonesque crypto Brian – when someone tried to steal my identity to flog a shitcoin:
What happened was unexpected. Upon proving that I was the real Alex Hern, I was greeted with a wall of glee. One user spammed the phrase “YOUNG_HERN_IN_THE_HOUSE”, another posted “ITS_FUCKING_ALEX”. “ALEX NEXT ELON”, “ALEX SAVE OUR BAGS”… before I could even post my first real message, someone had sent “ALEX TYPING” 15 times. Where my first appearance had felt like a parent breaking up an illicit house party, this felt more like the second coming, with me unwillingly cast in the role of Jesus.
Things got worse when I said I wanted to speak to people for a story about it. No matter how explicit I was that I thought the entire thing was dumb as hell – dumber than I thought was possible for an already extremely-dumb sector – news of a forthcoming article spread like wildfire. “All publicity is good publicity,” was spammed into the channel, with one user pointing out that Shiba Inu, a shitcoin worth an inexplicable $7bn, had had a very similar genesis, with the majority of its early press simply mocking it as a low-effort clone of the original shitcoin, Dogecoin.
What happened next? Well. On 1 June, when I published that story, one coin was trading for 0.0113¢. I was convinced that I had killed it, but others disagreed. One crypto influencer thanked me effusively for the story, saying they wanted to give me “a bag” – to send me a bunch of the coin in thanks for the “promotion”. When I said that doing so would be a flagrant breach of journalistic ethics, and unquestionably a firing offence, they explained that not paying was a breach of the ethical norms within the crypto sector, a lesson that unlocked some understanding of other stories.
One coin is now trading for 6¢, an increase of almost 50 times. The “bag” that I was offered, if I had accepted, would now be more than $400,000. I try not to dwell on it.
But the most incredible thing is the reason for Tsuka’s boom, which – thankfully – is largely unrelated to my coverage. Over the summer, the developer of the coin – the same person who had stolen my identity to try to promote it – started dropping cryptic hints that they were in fact Ryoshi, the pseudonymous founder of Shiba Inu, and the most famous crypto star to have disappeared from the internet after Bitcoin’s Satoshi Nakamoto.
And people believed them.
In a dumb year, it’s probably the dumbest thing I have seen. Mere weeks after being caught in the act, the developer turned to their followers and said “alright. I was lying about being Alex Hern, you caught me. But can I shock you? I’m actually Ryoshi, one of only two prominent people in the whole cryptocurrency space who you can’t contact to check. And this time, I’m telling you the truth.”
And, I repeat, people believed them. For weeks, I got emails and DMs asking me to cover the return of Ryoshi to Tsuka. The value of a coin shot to a peak of 16¢. People made millions of dollars. And all I can think to say is “this is so very, very stupid”.
The inquest into the death of teenager Molly Russell was the first time social media was named as a cause of death:
[Elizabeth Lagone], the head of health and wellbeing policy at Mark Zuckerberg’s company was taken through a selection of the Instagram posts the teenager had viewed in the six months before her death – deeming many of them to be “safe” for children to view. It was not an opinion shared by many in the room at north London coroner’s court.
Molly, from north-west London, died in 2017 after viewing extensive amounts of online content related to suicide, depression, self-harm and anxiety. In what the NSPCC described as a global first, the senior coroner said social media had contributed to Molly’s death, ruling that that Molly had died from “an act of self-harm while suffering from depression and the negative effects of online content”.
Lagone would be shown a post and then comment on whether it met Instagram guidelines at the time. Many were deemed permissible by Lagone, who would use phrases like “sharing of feelings” as she explained that suicide and self-harm content could be allowed if it represented an attempt to raise awareness of a user’s mental state and share their emotions.
There was little immediate fallout for the social media companies from the inquest, however. Some of that was because those companies have changed an awful lot in the years since Russell’s death: although Instagram was careful not to accept blame in public, the company will proudly talk about the array of new policies introduced since 2017, and tacitly accepts that the way the site was run back then wasn’t ideal.
But it was also because the inquest result was immediately subsumed into a larger fight that is still ongoing, over the online safety bill. Almost half a decade since Theresa May’s government wrote the online harms white paper and introduced the idea of a wide-ranging set of moderation laws, the bill still hasn’t passed through parliament.
Each successive prime minister and DCMS secretary since then has tweaked the bill, with its focus ranging markedly. At times it was about tackling abusive trolls; at other times reigning in the power of big tech; age-gating pornography; or child safety more broadly.
But the resignation of Boris Johnson nearly killed the bill entirely. It was bad enough that it was booted from the summer to the winter, but the delay also led to growing criticism from within the Tory party that the bill was simply an attempt to make it illegal to be rude. That led to another change in focus: away from safety entirely, and towards preserving free speech online. The name is the same, but the latest line from the government is that the bill will have a “triple shield” for speech, in an attempt to stop social networks over-censoring.
The long-term outcome of the inquest, then, will be seen in how much of the original intent of the online safety bill makes it through parliament. Ian Russell, Molly’s father, has been a loud voice calling for the child safety provisions of the bill to not be watered down. Will that be enough?
One more thing…
As 2023 draws near, so too does the arrival of my second child. I’ll be taking six weeks of paternity leave over January and February, and returning to TechScape
shattered and broken excited and ready to go for another great year of technology coverage ahead of us.
Thank you for being a part of this. It’s been a year, huh?