Coronavirus Is Bringing Back the Forgotten Tech Trends of 2012

MOOCs, 3D printers, and smart thermometers are having another moment

Will Oremus
OneZero
Published in
7 min readMar 31, 2020

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Photo: James Leynse/Getty Images

EEight years ago this month, Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun brashly prophesied that education as we know it would be upended by massive, open, online courses, or MOOCs. That same month — March 2012 — a startup called Kinsa invented a “smart thermometer” that would tap “big data” to track health trends. In September, the Brooklyn startup MakerBot unveiled a new, home 3D printer that a Wired cover story said “will change the world.” In the skies high above Kentucky, Google X was secretly testing giant balloons to beam internet service to rural areas.

Over the years, these stratospheric hopes have been punctured. With few students successfully completing courses, Thrun declared MOOCs “dead” in 2017, and Udacity pivoted to paid vocational training. Kinsa has survived, but its dreams of revolutionizing personal health have gone unrealized amid a backlash to big data and internet-connected gadgets. MakerBot sold to additive manufacturing firm Stratasys, which soon abandoned the notion of putting a 3D printer in every home. Google spun off the balloons into a small Alphabet subsidiary, Loon, whose business has yet to take flight.

Ideas that had been dismissed are getting another look — this time, not out of rose-tinted optimism but something more like desperation.

Then came a global pandemic, disrupting society more suddenly than any startup could. Suddenly, big ideas that had been dismissed as overhyped or unworkable are getting another look — this time, not out of rose-tinted optimism but something more like desperation. Even as it sidelines large swaths of the economy and puts millions out of work, Covid-19 seems to be reinvigorating a technology sector that had been dulled by monopolistic consolidation and deflated by disillusionment with its promise of “making the world a better place.”

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Will Oremus
OneZero

Senior Writer, OneZero, at Medium