Big as they are, these events aren't necessarily the ones we will refer back to in the months ahead. Instead, I highlight a few others, some of which may feel less important by comparison but collectively represent important turning points for technology and business. What unites them is the way they changed the whole conversation about technology — in some cases opening consumers' eyes to a new way of doing things, in other cases unmistakably shifting the terms of debate on a key issue.
We may not feel the effects of these turning points right away. We might not even fully grasp the full scope of their impact right now. But recapping the year this way — looking back in order to look forward — seems more fruitful than reviewing big news moments for their own sake.
Apple's support for ad-blocking
When Apple rolled out iOS 9 this year, it came with a notable new feature: A setting that lets users take greater advantage of mobile ad blockers. Ad-blocking has been around for a long time. But Apple's move, which led to a surge in downloads of ad-blocking apps, set off alarm bells across the Web. Thousands of major website operators (including, yes, The Washington Post), depend on advertising for survival. Apple's decision, alongside moves by Facebook to cram more of our daily Internet usage into siloed apps, could undermine the open, public Web, critics such as Mozilla have argued.
The more that tech companies go down this path, the more changes we'll see in the basic economics of the Internet. Websites will look to new business models — or die off. All of this will have visible effects for the average consumer, which is why we're going to be talking about this moment for a long time.
The fact that some Tesla drivers were actually whipping down the freeway with their hands off the wheel this year was an important milestone for driver automation. Google could make a million marketing videos for its own driverless cars, but none of them compare to a YouTube video of a real person testing things out in a real car, on a real road, for herself. And that's exactly what Autopilot gave us.
Footage of Autopilot successfully slowing down to avoid a crash, along with other videos showing near-misses with the technology, gave the public its first taste of what self-driving cars could feel like. The videos gave us a visceral sense of the possibilities and the risks; for the first time, we could really imagine ourselves sitting in the driver's seat and letting the computer take over. Other car makers are working on driverless technology, sure. But for many consumers, it's still an abstract concept explained in terms of potential accidents prevented and traffic jams avoided.
First impressions of a technology often go a long way toward shaping its fate. In this case, California is already considering rules for driverless cars, and some traditional automakers fear that any mistakes by newer industry entrants could poison the well. This is why Tesla's Autopilot plays such an important role. Its appearance on the market this year will have a significant impact on how people think about, talk about and write policies about next-generation vehicles in the months to come.
The Federal Communications Commission's net neutrality rules, which were approved in February and took effect months later, opened up a new chapter in Internet history. Now, Internet providers have to obey a slew of new rules that prevent them from blocking or slowing down Web traffic. But the decision has also created new questions: What kind of privacy rules apply? Could some questionable business practices receive a pass under the rules while others get blocked? How should these rules affect providers of mobile data?
Those questions will have to be answered in the next few months. And because of the way the rules are set up, they'll be answered in ways that look totally different than how the FCC might have answered them had it gone in a different direction.
Some of these questions are at the heart of an ongoing industry lawsuit to overturn the rules. But however that turns out, the agency's decision this year to regulate Internet providers like phone companies set it down a path with major implications for the Internet industry. Rest assured, we'll be looking back at these rules again and again.
The Paris attacks
The deadly terrorist attacks in Paris this year prompted many security officials to call for greater powers to track suspects' digital activity. This might seem like an obvious reaction. But in reality, intelligence and law enforcement had been on the defensive almost since Edward Snowden first leaked what he knew about the NSA in 2013. The Paris attacks turned that dynamic around, renewing momentum for expanding, rather than limiting, governmental surveillance powers.
That pressure has only increased with the U.S. presidential race, with candidates trying to one-up each other with fresh proposals to shut down ISIS online or to spy on their encrypted communications.
In the future, we'll likely look back on this moment as the one when surveillance began gaining ground once more.
The status of Uber drivers
You could pick any number of events this year as turning points in what has become a wide-ranging fight over whether Uber drivers — and other contract workers — deserve the same workplace benefits as people who are employed full-time. The latest came earlier this month, when the Seattle City Council approved a measure that recognizes the right of professional drivers to bargain collectively. Taken together, these moments represent a shift in the way Uber is perceived -- and has potentially large consequences for how it and other sharing economy companies will operate in the future.
Before, Uber was taking on cities in its quest to undermine traditional taxi companies. Today, Uber is considered a key player in discussions concerning the future of work writ large. Because work is so intimately tied to the economy, you can be sure that how this fight plays out will impact millions of Americans in the coming years.