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The Word of the Year Is ‘Uncertainty’

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More than two years into Pandemic Times, technology is more popular, stronger and richer than it was before. Or is it?

This year — and particularly the past few weeks — has complicated what was a fairly straightforward understanding of how most of the tech industry and America’s superstar digital companies were faring.

Repeatedly over the past year or so, my colleagues and I have written that tech was the unquestioned winner of the oddball pandemic economy. People and businesses needed what tech companies were selling, and that increased reliance made tech stars grow faster and become far more profitable than Silicon Valley nerds could have imagined. Bonkers dollars. A+.

Now I think that grade should be revised to an incomplete. Some of the trends of 2020 and 2021 — including more work, shopping, product marketing, entertainment and socializing shifting online — have started to backslide. With hindsight, it’s unclear now how much of the digital surge of those years was a blip and how much was an acceleration of lasting tech transformations.

That uncertainty, along with inflation and weakening economies, makes it tough to figure out what is happening in tech today or even assess the past couple of years. We may be on the cusp of a great time for tech or the beginning of a rough patch for their products and finances. Let me repeat what should be the mantra of 2022: No one knows anything.

Some tech executives are mostly exuding confidence about their futures, while others are oozing anxiety sweat. It’s almost as if they live in two separate realities. And maybe they do.

In one realm is the land of Big Tech, with emperors like Microsoft, Google, Amazon (maybe), Apple (maybe) and a few others in fortresses looking down on us pipsqueaks.

Revenue at Google and Microsoft continued to go up from what seemed to be their unsustainably huge sales of digital advertising and software in 2021. Both companies this week said they felt good about their prospects but also warned of troubles ahead.

On Tuesday, Google executives said the word “uncertainty” or a variation of it 13 times in a conference call with investors. The company said it would start to be obvious in 2023 that Google is slowing hiring. Planning a spending diet so many months in advance is a sign that the company doesn’t expect to breeze past what might be a recession in the United States and other global problems.

Several winners of the pandemic’s scariest phase are also struggling, calling into question whether their heady days of 2020 were partly a mirage.

Netflix has lost subscribers in the United States and Canada for two quarters. That has made some experts doubt whether online streaming overall can grow as large, as fast and as lucrative as optimists believed. Snap, which owns the Snapchat app, saw its fortunes and usage soar in 2020 before reverting to what it was before: A not-very-successful company with an uncertain future.

Shopify, whose software helps in-person businesses set up online storefronts, said this week that it believed the pandemic had no lasting effect on people shifting from in-person shopping to the internet. If Shopify is right, the whole idea that the pandemic turbocharged a change in shopping habits will implode. It will have been a temporary sugar high.

Amazon has not been quite so direct, but the company has acknowledged that it overestimated how quickly e-commerce sales would grow and is slashing some spending. (Amazon and Apple disclose quarterly financial results later on Thursday.)

And Meta… phew. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a company switch so quickly from swagger to a bumbling Mr. Magoo.

The company’s revenue has fallen for the first time, and its Instagram app is having an identity crisis. But I can’t say if this is the beginning of the end of Meta as a dominant digital power or a temporary lull owing to a combination of inflation, privacy changes made by Apple, and ugliness compared with the pandemic-related upswings in ad sales and profits it once reported. Meta’s yearly revenue is nearly double what it was at this point in 2019. That is not a sign (yet) of a company in permanent decline.

With the United States and other big economies growing weaker, it’s possible that digital superstars will use this moment of uncertainty to muscle into new areas and extend their dominance. It’s also possible that even giants can’t stay strong if their lucrative markets, which include premium smartphones, online advertising, e-commerce and corporate software, grow more slowly in the next few years or shrink.

Is tech winning or not? Can I take a long vacation and revisit this question in 2023?

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Tip of the Week

Brian X. Chen, the consumer technology columnist for The New York Times, published a useful list of standard settings that we should change for iPhones, the Facebook app and other technologies to pare back the data we share with digital companies. Brian is here with more of his favorite settings tweaks to make our devices more fun (or less annoying):

  • Maximize the video resolution on an iPhone: On iPhones, open Settings, select Camera and tap Record Video. Select one of the 4K options. (I go with 30 frames per second.) This will ensure that your camera is recording video at its highest resolution. The downside is that your recordings will clog more of the phone’s digital storage. But if you paid for a fancy camera, why not put it to use?

  • Minimize distractions on your wrist: On the Apple Watch, I prefer to turn off notifications for every app except for messaging and workout apps. To do that, open the Watch app on your iPhone, tap Notifications and switch off notifications for each app. (Also, I always keep the watch’s sounds muted.)

  • Put your favorite features in close reach: On Android phones, you can customize the “quick settings” menu for shortcuts to features that you use often. Swipe down from the top of the smartphone screen, and swipe down again. If you tap the icon that looks like a pencil, you can chose to add tiles that let you, for example, turn on your phone’s flashlight or go into airplane mode from your phone’s home screen. You can also rearrange the order of these feature shortcuts to suit your preferences.

  • Congress moves closer to funding U.S. chip factories: The U.S. government seems likely to do something relatively rare, and use taxpayer money to subsidize an industry — in this case it will pay computer chip manufacturers to make some products in the United States. My colleague Catie Edmondson reported that the goal of this funding, which also includes a bunch of money to support American scientific and tech research, is to counter China. There’s also a long list of other missions, some of which are more muddled.

    From The New York Times Opinion: U.S. supremacy in important tech areas, like chips, demands that America do more to create a pipeline of talent, both in the United States and abroad.

  • Two historians found people’s psychiatric asylum medical records for sale on eBay. They wrote in Slate that e-commerce sites should take more responsibility for what they sell, and they worry that the public is treating mental illness and disability as an amusement.

  • A video game that’s both an escape from and a reminder of illness: A writer for The Washington Post, Gene Park, was diagnosed with cancer recently and found himself hooked on “Cyberpunk 2077,” a video game about how to navigate terminal illness. “I am not much closer to understanding my sudden fascination with this title given my current predicament,” Park wrote.

Look at these teeny baby jacana birds! (Jacanas are tropical wading birds with very long legs and toes.)


We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this newsletter and what else you’d like us to explore. You can reach us at ontech@nytimes.com.

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In Phoenix, a Taiwanese Chip Giant Builds a Hedge Against China

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Intel, which hopes to introduce its own new production processes over the next two years, took issue with TSMC’s suggestions that its technology in Arizona will be the most advanced in the United States in 2024. “I would disagree with that point of view,” said Ann Kelleher, the executive vice president who heads Intel’s manufacturing technology development.

State and local officials in Arizona have already agreed to offer financial incentives for the first phase of TSMC’s construction, and the company is expected to apply for federal grants for both phases under the CHIPS Act.

Mr. Chatterji, the White House adviser, estimated that the two new TSMC factories in Arizona, once operating at full capacity, could by themselves fulfill U.S. demands for such advanced chips. But Handel Jones, an analyst who heads International Business Strategies, said TSMC’s factories in Taiwan would still be needed, both because of their production capacity and because they will be making more advanced technology by 2026.

TSMC operates four factories in Taiwan that each can process up to 100,000 semiconductor wafers each month. In Arizona, TSMC initially said the first factory could process 20,000 wafers a month. It now estimates that the two factories’ combined output will be 50,000 a month, or 600,000 a year.

But even relatively small operations in the United States can become important, industry executives said, particularly for individual customers like Apple or for the production of particularly crucial chips in emergencies.

By adding more advanced production technology in the United States, TSMC “would help address vulnerabilities associated with the shortage of semiconductors evident over the past few years,” said Bob LeFort, president of the U.S. arm of Infineon, a big German chip maker.

TSMC’s move is also a sign that the CHIPS Act is having an impact on the plans of big companies, helping to not only spur their spending but galvanize investments by companies that supply them with production tools and materials.

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Elon Musk’s Neuralink is reportedly facing a federal probe on animal welfare grounds

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Neuralink, the brain implant company founded by Elon Musk, is reportedly facing a federal probe over the treatment of animals used in its experiments. Reuters reports that a probe was recently opened by the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) inspector general and focuses on potential violations of the Animal Welfare Act. A spokesperson for the USDA inspector general declined to comment to Reuters on its report.

Although Reuters says it’s unclear how wide-ranging the probe is, the news agency details a range of concerns over animal welfare raised in interviews with more than 20 current and former Neuralink employees. These include reports that, in one experiment, 25 out of 60 pigs allegedly had the wrong size of device installed as part of a study, while on another occasion, two separate pigs had devices installed on the wrong vertebra, leading to one needing to be euthanized to end its suffering. 

Staffers are reportedly pushed to meet ambitious deadlines

Neuralink’s aim is to develop ways for the human brain to interface directly with computers to help treat a range of neurological conditions and even help paralyzed people walk. So far, the company has made a number of public demonstrations of its technology being used by animals, including showing a monkey playing Pong with its brain and another typing on a computer using an implant.

It is common for animals used in scientific tests to be killed after experiments are completed so that their autopsies can provide further data. But current and former Neuralink employees interviewed by Reuters said that testing mistakes can lead to excess deaths by requiring tests to be repeated. They can also make the resulting data less accurate. Reuters reports that Neuralink has killed around 1,500 animals since 2018.

None of this is firm evidence of wrongdoing (and Reuters notes that Neuralink has passed all USDA inspections), but employees have reportedly raised concerns internally that Musk’s drive for quick progress has created an environment filled with what Reuters calls “under-prepared and over-stressed staffers scrambling to meet deadlines.” Musk’s attempts to motivate employees to work faster reportedly include telling staff to imagine they have a bomb strapped to their heads. Reuters says the CEO also wrote in an email in February this year, “In general, we are simply not moving fast enough. It is driving me nuts!”

Publicly, Musk has been bullish about the potential for Neuralink to start human trials in the near future. At a recent event, the Tesla and now Twitter CEO said that he hoped to install the device in a human’s head within the next six months. Musk previously said he hoped to start human trials in 2020 and then in 2022.

Neuralink has faced criticism for its treatment of animals before. Earlier this year, a nonprofit called the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), which is against the use of animals in medical experiments, alleged that, in a study funded by Neuralink, scientists at the University of California, Davis treated monkeys involved in one of its experiments inhumanely. Neuralink responded to the allegations, saying that “the facilities and care at UC Davis did and continue to meet federally mandated standards.” 

Neuralink did not respond to The Verge’s request for comment. Reuters’ report is well worth reading in its entirety. 

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Most Video Game Reboots Stink. But Not the Latest Final Fantasy.

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One of the most anticipated video games of the year isn’t really new. It’s 15 years old. And it’s a prequel to a game that’s even older.

The new game is Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII Reunion, set for release next week. It’s a reboot of a mobile game with almost the same name from 2007, except with nicer graphics and sped-up battles so it can be resold for modern systems, including new PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo consoles. It’s also a prequel to yet another game reboot, 2020’s Final Fantasy VII Remake.

If that sounds confusing, that’s because it is. Video game reboots are nothing new, and, boy, there have been a lot of them lately. This year, game studios have released refreshed versions of popular titles including The Last of Us, Marvel’s Spider-Man and Tactics Ogre, among others.

With Reunion, the maker of Final Fantasy, Square Enix, is capitalizing on the enterprise of nostalgia. Final Fantasy, originally released in 1987, became a blockbuster when the game’s seventh installment debuted in 1997. In that game, players took on the role of Cloud, an angsty mercenary working with a group of misfits to prevent the apocalypse.

Since then, Final Fantasy VII has become one of the most influential games in history, spawning spinoffs, animated movies and fan fiction. The game has been rereleased at least half a dozen times on every major gaming platform, including PCs, tablets and smartphones. It’s a juggernaut — and Reunion is playing its part in keeping that franchise going.

Most video game reboots don’t do much more than bump up the resolution of the graphics to look better on new TVs, but Reunion is different. With completely overhauled visuals and smoother gameplay, it is much better than the original. It’s a strong example of how to do a reboot with justice and to keep a well-established title going with a very safe bet.

“We can see the audience for these characters and the Final Fantasy VII franchise better than if we were to do something that didn’t already have a certain amount of recognition,” said Yoshinori Kitase, Square Enix’s executive producer of Reunion, through a translator.

I finished Reunion last week after playing part of the original Crisis Core. The changes in the battles and visuals transformed the game from a so-so installment into a must-play episode of Final Fantasy, whose cachet in the gaming world rivals that of “Star Wars” in pop culture. (To put it another way, Reunion is Final Fantasy’s “Rogue One” — the prequel we deserve.)

Reunion is also an extreme approach to a “remaster,” which is video game parlance for an old game whose graphics have been scaled up to look better on new TVs. Since Square Enix originally released Crisis Core for a mobile gaming device, the obsolete PlayStation Portable, the graphics had to be redone for modern systems.

Now the pixelated, expressionless faces of characters in the original have been replaced with detailed, lifelike mugs; the drab backgrounds of city streets and dungeons have become rich with color and texture.

The game’s producers also took an extra step to fix the most annoying aspect of the original — the battle system — to make progressing through the game more fast-paced and fun. That’s a smart fix in an era when people have unlimited options for other stuff to do if they get bored with a video game.

Square Enix otherwise left Crisis Core’s story intact, including its script carried by voice actors. The game centers on Zack Fair, a member of the elite military force, Soldier, which is controlled by Shinra, the world-dominating electric power company.

Zack is tasked with tracking down a pair of comrades who have deserted Shinra. It’s not a spoiler to say our hero meets a tragic end, a fact that has been well known by fans of the franchise for more than two decades. But the prequel tells the story of how his legacy contributed to the epic events of Final Fantasy VII.

Yet while Reunion’s graphics are a marked improvement from the original, the game is not nearly as polished or as highly produced as its sibling, Final Fantasy VII Remake.

That’s because Reunion is essentially an intermission for a much bigger show. Its main purpose, according to Square Enix, is to keep gamers hooked on the franchise in between releases of Final Fantasy VII Remake, which sold 3.5 million copies in its first three days in 2020, making it one of the fastest-selling PlayStation 4 games. That remake is being spread out into installments that will come out every two to three years. (Episode 2 is expected for release next winter, nearly three years after Episode 1, and the series will conclude with Episode 3.)

“It’s going to be a long wait,” Mr. Yoshinori said. “So we want to make sure to keep those fans on board and interested.”

Even so, this intermission is a crowd pleaser. The game gives lots of airtime to Aerith, Sephiroth and Cloud, the stars of Final Fantasy VII, fleshing out these characters and setting the stage for the epic game.

In terms of gameplay, Reunion takes a novel approach to battles. Players can freely control Zack in 3-D space, swinging his giant sword at a monster and dodging its attacks in between nuking it with magic spells. This feels more stimulating than the old-school “turn-based” system, in which players exchanged blows with an enemy by pressing a button to trigger an action and then waiting for the enemy to take its turn.

The biggest problem with the original Crisis Core’s battle system was the Digital Mind Wave, which is essentially a slot machine constantly running in the background of each fight. When the reels land on certain combinations, special attacks are triggered that can obliterate enemies.

In the original, the slot machine was noisy and downright obnoxious, interrupting a battle to play its animations. Fortunately, it has been toned down to silently run in the background, and when the slot machine unlocks a bonus, players can press a button to activate it whenever they wish and even skip the animations.

Reunion also streamlines the experience of grinding, which traditionally involves doing repetitious (often mind-numbing) fights to get strong enough to proceed through the game. Instead of wandering around and fighting random enemies, players can embark on optional missions, which deploy Zack to eliminate a specific foe. In this process, players can level up and gather useful items and magic spells to aid them on their main journey.

In the end, it took me about 18 hours to complete the game, and I had fun (unlike my experience with the original Crisis Core, which I stopped playing after four hours because the battles were so tedious). My chief complaint is that the game was too easy. After completing a small number of optional missions, players will find themselves overpowered and vanquishing the game’s main villains in a few effortless blows.

Some gamers eager for brand-new titles may feel that releasing reboots is too easy for game makers like Square Enix. Mr. Yoshinori said the risk to reboots was that they could end up appealing to a single demographic of older fans. The company had originally intended to do a more modest refresh of Crisis Core with minor improvements to graphics, but once it became clear that Final Fantasy VII Remake had drawn in many new fans, the mission changed to attract those gamers, too.

“We decided midway through development that we had to up the game,” he said.

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