The last few years have increasingly been a reckoning for big tech companies, as regulators and regular folks alike have started grappling with the impact that tech is having on both our individual lives and society at large.
2019 in particular was a year of failures, with the blowup of WeWork raising questions about founders with too much power and venture capitalists with too much money. It was a year of disturbing visions of the future, as tech companies extended their already global reach and technology such as facial recognition provided a glimpse into what might transform into real dystopia. It was a year of pushback, as employees at big tech companies as well as ordinary people fought against rising monopoly and concentrated power in the hands of tech CEOs. And it was also a year of reflection, as we celebrated the 50-year anniversary of both the internet and the moon landing.
Here are some of the best stories Fast Company published in 2019 about the history and future of technology—and its impact on society.
Fast Company senior writer Mark Sullivan takes us back to the room where the internet was born. Today, everything from our smartphones to our garage door openers are nodes on the network that descended from the one that two graduate students tested at UCLA’s campus on October 29, 1969.
Yes, Amazon has a mascot—one that’s so loved by its employees that you can find Peccy swag (on eBay, ironically), Peccy memes, and even Peccy-inspired art. But beyond existing as a strange quirk of Amazon’s culture, which has been both deeply criticized and enthusiastically extolled, it is also an apt symbol of the company itself, writes Harry McCracken.
Google has a suite of tools that allow users to set their data to auto-delete every three or 18 months. But Fast Company writer Jared Newman reported that this feature is little more than good PR for Google: according to marketing experts, by the time three months rolls around, Google has already extracted nearly all the potential value from users’ data. “I feel like them auto-scrubbing data every three months is really lip service,” said one expert.
2019 spelled the downfall of WeWork and its eccentric, charismatic CEO, Adam Neumann. This story by Fast Company contributor Katrina Brooker takes you inside Neumann’s office to understand how the coworking giant he helmed collapsed—with Neumann caught inside. And if you can’t get enough of WeWork drama, read her scintillating follow-up, about the relationship between Neumann and his powerful investor, Softbank CEO Masa Son.
Even before WeWork’s scandals started to hit, it was failing to adequately protect that most basic of amenities at its coworking spaces: the Wi-Fi. Fast Company writer Sean Captain reported in August that the WeWork Wi-Fi has the same username and password at many locations, paired with shockingly dated security underlying it.
Fast Company writer Ruth Reader takes you inside the history of a tiny, less-than-a-year-old startup called MindMed—and how it has acquired a mythical substance known as 18-MC. A derivative of the psychoactive drug ibogaine, 18-MC has the potential to cure addiction and help micro-dosers get their focused fix, all without the extreme swings that come with getting high.
After countless reports about the nefarious activities and shoddy security of the Amazon-owned security system Ring, Fast Company writer Jared Newman decided to try the platform out for himself. And while he found that the product does the job, buying into its system feels unsettling, no matter how well Ring actually works.
In this harrowing essay, an anonymous teenager writes about his experience falling under the spell of the alt-right when he was working as a Reddit moderator at the ripe age of 13, and how he found his way out again. “My brief infatuation with the alt-right has helped me understand the ways big tech companies and their algorithms are contributing to the problem of radicalization—and why it’s so important to be skeptical of what you read online,” he writes.
In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, Fast Company published 50 stories by author and journalist Charles Fishman that detail different parts of that incredible journey. This installment focused on debunking the conspiracy theories that the moon landing was somehow faked—and gives a very compelling reason to believe that the famed event really happened.
As we reach the end of the decade, it’s worth looking back at the undeniable influence of a little piece of design known as the “like” button. Fast Company news editor Christopher Zara dug deep into the “like” button’s history, examining how it came about—and how it all went wrong.