Making sense of 2018's head-scratching trends
The seemingly endless month of January is past, and the festive season's good tidings and optimism have given way to the usual hard-bitten cynicism about the year ahead.
The burning questions of 2017 (Will the global economy turn the corner? Can the planet survive Donald Trump?) have been answered for the most part, largely with a "yes". So which trends are shaping up to define 2018?
One topic that's been bubbling in the Business pages for months is the Internet of Things, IoT for short. The idea behind IoT is that everyday objects -- your refrigerator, your car, your cat's litter box -- will be networked in much the same way that personal computers and smart devices are now.
The principle of IoT isn't new. RFID tags that store information for various items have been around for decades, mainly for inventory purposes. The wrinkle with IoT, however, is the level of interactivity among objects and between objects and humans.
Need an alert when the rubbish bin is close to full? Done. Wearables to transmit your vital signs? Easy. Instant video of who's knocking on your front door in Bangkok when you're sunning in Bali? You can have it. The stuff of science fiction just a few years ago has become real.
There's a downside, though. As usual with new technology, privacy concerns abound. The more sophisticated your gadgets, the more grist for unscrupulous hackers. And let's face it, for most of us it's all we can do to keep our phones and laptops and credit cards safe from the barbarian hordes. Now I have to secure my egg timer?
Then there's the sheer ubiquity factor. Speaking last month about Honda Automobile Thailand's efforts in this field, chief operating officer Pitak Pruittisarikorn said IoT was increasingly permeating every aspect of people's lives. Er, do the people even get a vote on this? We don't? Okay.
What else is trending in the Year of the Dog? Coins have captured the collective imagination of late. Coins! Cryptocurrencies and initial coin offerings (ICOs), to be precise.
I'm bound to confess that no matter how much I read about digital coins (and our Bangkok Post Business reporters have done superb work on the topic), I still can't shake the feeling that this neo-numismatism -- to coin a term -- is leagues over my head.
Put it another way: the above-mentioned IoT could turn out to be the linchpin that drives human progress in the young century; or it may turn out to be a faddish intrusion that we quickly learn to live without; but at any rate I get IoT. It's a network of objects. The utility is obvious.
The utility of digital coins is … what?
Brief history lesson. In ancient times, gold arose as the universal store of value. It looked nice and could be melted and cast into useful objects like cups and crosses and coins (coins!). Centuries on, paper money offered more convenience but was typically backed by gold. Then, in the early 1970s, the US severed the dollar's tie to gold. The table was set for free-floating, fiat currencies, backed by the issuing country's power to enforce paper money's status as the medium of exchange.
Fast-forward to today. The game has changed. Tech prophets want to free us from the fusty prison of fiat currency. With Brexit and the Trumpening breathing life into anti-establishment hearts, the time couldn't be righter to challenge the old ways. Enter digital coins.
I'm going to call it right now: this trend has no future. The reason is simple. The powers that be just won't allow it.
Even the most charitable analysis of ICOs, tokens and cryptocurrencies can only conclude that these digital assets represent an end-run around regulatory scrutiny. Thai policymakers are already preparing rules that will take the shine off those newly "minted" coins. India, according to a Bloomberg report, has skipped the whole fandango and banned cryptocurrencies outright, and it surely won't be the last to do so. Bitcoin, the best-known cryptocurrency, is looking like a burst bubble.
Most of this party-poopery can probably be chalked up to my natural aversion to risk and scepticism of the new. It's just as well that my kind aren't in the vanguard of tech innovation; otherwise we'd still be sitting around in grass huts watching VHS tapes.
Whatever comes of IoT and digital coins, the future still belongs to the Elon Musks and the Jeff Bezoses of the world. As the Facebook founder and Master of the Universe Mark Zuckerberg likes to say, "The biggest risk is not taking any risk." For the rest of us who prefer sure things, at least we have death and taxes to look forward to.
Christopher Caillavet is Chief Sub-Editor of Business at the Bangkok Post. Send comments to email@example.com