California Today: How Tech Surprised and Scared in 2018

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Happy 2019.

Last year was a big one in tech, as the Silicon Valley behemoths that drive large swaths of California’s economy faced mounting scrutiny over the way they handle our personal information and do business with one another.

But it felt almost overwhelming trying to get a handle on everything that came to light. So I asked Pui-Wing Tam, our Tech editor, to put the revelations into some context.

Jill Cowan: What was the most surprising thing your team uncovered this year and why?

Pui-Wing Tam: So much happened in tech in 2018 that it’s hard to know where to begin. But the story line that emerged that I found the most surprising was the increasing activism of tech workers.

Silicon Valley tech employees have historically seemed a docile lot, lured to the corporate campuses in Mountain View, Calif., San Jose and farther north in San Francisco by promises of fat compensation and a comfortable life.

But in 2018, many engineers and other workers at companies like Google and Facebook began more publicly voicing their thoughts on a range of issues, including whether artificial intelligence should be used by the Pentagon, how to better treat sexual harassment victims, and how to embrace more diversity of thought in the workplace. They showed conscience, a heart, and a healthy amount of internal debate.

What was the most disconcerting thing your team found this year?

It was a year full of holy moly headlines about Facebook improperly handling our user data, Google working on a censored self engine for China, Amazon setting off surveillance alarm bells by selling facial recognition tech to the police, and domestic abusers using smart home technology to harass their victims. Most creepy of all was this column about Brian X. Chen’s experience downloading all the information that Facebook had ever collected on him.

So by the end of the year, one of the most disconcerting things was wondering if tech even does any good any more.

Fortunately, Farhad Manjoo reminded us of the personal power of how tech can help us store and surface our memories with a column about Google Photos. And Kevin Roose handed out a few awards for good tech.

What story lines will be the most important in the year ahead?

We’ll still be closely following how far this tech backlash goes. And in San Francisco, we’re looking for a big bump in conspicuous spending if a bunch of tech start-ups — including Uber, Lyft, Slack, Pinterest and others — manage to make their debut on the stock market, enriching their founders, employees, investors and the Tesla car dealer down the road.

California Online

(Please note: We regularly highlight articles on news sites that have limited access for nonsubscribers.)

A blue wave swept Orange County in the midterms. But is that turnout sustainable or has it been a reaction to President Trump? [The New York Times]

Sheriffs in California counties where suspected killers were in the country illegally have angrily decried the state’s so-called sanctuary law. But in Stanislaus and Tulare Counties, sheriffs have been careful to distinguish criminals from large populations of undocumented farm workers who haven’t been accused of crimes. [The Los Angeles Times]

• The Democratic senators Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Kristin Gillibrand and Cory Booker are taking steps to prepare for 2020 presidential campaigns, hoping to capitalize on a more diverse vision of the future for the party. (Ms. Warren has already entered the race.) [The New York Times]

• Sam Liccardo, mayor of San Jose and an avid cyclist, was hospitalized after being hit by an S.U.V. on Tuesday afternoon. By evening, he was feeling well enough to joke in a statement: “Fortunately, the doctors state that all defects to the head were pre-existing conditions.” The driver was not arrested. [The Mercury News]

• Though live music ruled the Rose Parade, the annual show in Pasadena ended in confusion after a float caught fire and a tow truck that was called to take it away broke. No one was injured, fortunately. [The San Gabriel Valley Tribune]

• The terminally ill Yemeni toddler whose mother fought for a visa waiver to see him in California has died. [The New York Times]

• Overflows of human waste and garbage have forced some national parks, including Yosemite, to close some facilities during the government shutdown. Here’s a list. [National Parks Traveler]

Tesla is scrambling to sell cars before a tax break for buyers ends. [The New York Times]

• Cities like Portland, Oakland and Sacramento are increasingly worried about becoming San Francisco. San Francisco is worried about becoming Manhattan. But maybe everyone should be trying to become Minneapolis. [The New York Times]

And Finally …

A writer for Vulture recently took Hollywood to task for routinely screwing up California geography. The latest culprit, wrote Jordan Crucchiola, is the new Transformers movie, “Bumblebee,” which takes place in a fictional town in the Bay Area that has impossible views of both the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and the ocean.

Another offender was the apparently time-bending road trips up and down the state in the second season of “True Detective.”

While I, too, have shaken my head at loose interpretations of geography in the Golden State, what always really gets to me is when a show or movie that’s supposed to take place somewhere else was obviously shot in California. I love “Gilmore Girls,” but every time I catch a glimpse of the scrubby brown mountains that somehow frame Stars Hollow, the picturesque, fictional Connecticut town, all I can think about is Burbank.

Do you have a California-as-told-by-Hollywood pet peeve? Let us know at [email protected]

California Today goes live at 6 a.m. Pacific time weekdays.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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