The Revolt Against Institutions Is 2021’s Defining Story
In 2020 we came to terms with the pandemic, in 2021 we responded.
Big Technology is a weekly newsletter dedicated to covering the tech world with honest, nuanced reporting. Join the 10,000+ subscribers who tune into Big Technology for tech news without the spin. Here’s an easy way to subscribe:
The history of 2021, when written, will have plenty to cover: The unrelenting pandemic that claimed more lives after a vaccine than before; the attack on the U.S. Capitol that threatened to upend American democracy; the broken supply chain that sparked inflation; the climate crisis that carried on despite global concern.
When we look back on 2021, however, no story will be more consequential than the people’s revolt against institutions. In recent memory, there hasn’t been a single year where so many people told society’s pillars to buzz off. Instead of holding jobs, they chose to resign. Instead of making safe investments, they chose meme stocks. Instead of political orthodoxy, they chose to vote independent.
Our institutions — work, government, community organizations, and places of worship — are meant to uphold a certain bargain. We expect a degree of stability for the faith we put in them. We allow them to run the foundation of our lives, and accept some self-dealing and corruption, but in return we expect them to protect us from extreme negative scenarios.
In 2020, the coronavirus upended the contract. For the trust we put in our institutions, they proved unable to harness Covid-19. Worse, they often seemed two-faced in their efforts. We expected them to shield us from doomsday scenarios, yet more than five million people died from Covid, with more than 800,000 of them in the U.S. alone. And while it may be unfair to ask institutions to restrain a microscopic virus with a tendency to maim and kill, that’s essentially the deal they’re stuck with. And so far, they’ve come up short.
While we came to terms with the shock of Covid-19 in 2020, we responded in 2021. The reaction, in some cases, has been predictable. After accepting that jobs won’t keep us safe or secure in the long term, for instance, we quit in record numbers. The so-called Great Resignation is one of the rare trends that lives up to its billing. More than 4 million people are quitting their jobs each month, with no end in sight. In exiting, people are telling employers that they understand they’re being exploited, and they’d rather live life than suffer in service of abstract promises of long-term betterment.
The continued diminishment of community has also been somewhat predictable. Once-standard participation in rotary clubs and parent-teacher associations were already declining before Covid hit. But the virus made neighbors a threat and forced community groups to remain apart. It’s no wonder then that local gatherings gave way to Karen videos and school board warfare.
Less predictable has been the backlash to financial institutions. In 2021, small-time traders learned what taking collective action against institutional investors felt like. And while big-time firms may still make out better on Gamestop and AMC trades, it would be unwise to discount the masses’ power to unleash further havoc. You could already make the argument that Reddit’s Wall Street Bets is more powerful than Occupy Wall Street at its peak.
The enthusiasm around crypto and ‘Web3’ is yet another extension of this movement against institutions. Web3, in its ideal form, decentralizes some of the power that Web2 — a.k.a Web 2.0 — put in the hands of big institutions. And while there haven’t been many practical software applications to emerge in the crypto world to date, their disdain for our current institutions (and okay, some opportunism and grift) is fueling the movement.
We should care about people’s rejection of institutions because it underlies many of the problems endemic in the tech industry. People are more likely to believe and spread fake news when they don’t trust the authorities tasked with keeping them safe. People are more likely to take action against a financial system when they believe the game is rigged against them. People are more likely to oppose vaccination when they feel the health establishment isn’t being square with them.
You simply can’t content moderate your way out of these issues, no matter how many ‘experts’ tell you it’s possible. Our institutions must assure people that they’re competent, and do it through action, or faith in them will continue to decline. Without that faith, our society will expose itself to all manner of ills. And when we look back at 2021, we’ll either see the start of something we responded to well, or our collective unraveling.
Together with AxiosHQ
If your company’s New Year’s Resolution is to create more transparency, boost engagement, and build trust you need to get started ASAP.
Your teams are likely overwhelmed by communication channels — email, calendar, Slacks, and Discords — and buried in software. So today, only 5% of people make it past the first few lines of any internal update.
This year, you can’t afford to cut down on the importance of your internal communications. But you can make your communications smarter and more impactful.
Companies like Edelman, JP Morgan, and Delta use Axios HQ to streamline the way they communicate with their teams. You can learn more about how they can work with your company here.
Six Tesla workers file additional lawsuits alleging sexual harassment (Washington Post)
Six women are suing Tesla, alleging they experienced “rampant sexual harassment” while working at its Fremont, Calif. facilities. The stories they tell are harrowing. One woman set up a wall of boxes to keep men from whistling at her. Another’s supervisor said she should be an exotic dancer while commenting on her body. Yet another’s supervisor rubbed her back. Human resources, they say, did nothing.
San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin is a lightning rod in the tech industry. He’s deemphasized putting non-violent criminals on trial, and many believe San Francisco is falling apart as a result. Break-ins, robberies, and overall chaos feel like they’re on the rise since Boudin’s assumed his position. And next year, he’s going to face a recall election. The recall will force high-profile, politically-active tech executives to stake out positions and offer their ideas for improving San Francisco. As some onlookers point out, at least they’re starting to care about local issues.
What’s The Workplace Going to Look Like in 2030? (promoted)
The workplace has changed dramatically over the past two years, so imagine what it will look like by the decade’s end. Big, macro forces like climate change, global population growth, resource scarcity, and the expansion of emerging markets will shift the givens we count on at work today. Workplace technology will also have to adapt to a new age of VR and AR.
As we’ve learned, it’s worthwhile to look at how the globe might change to anticipate how work might change. So let’s do it. Digital Workplace 2030 is a deep, thoughtful look at how a changing globe might influence the workplace we know today. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in where we are, and where we’re heading.
What Else I’m Reading
Instagram surpassed 2 billion users. The Metaverse has a groping problem. Ad-tech dealmaker Terry Kawaja, gets an Insider profile. The Internet Association is dead. Andreessen Horowitz’s crypto-focused partner Katie Haun is leaving. GM’s self-driving division, Cruise, is losing CEO Dan Ammann. Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff likely has ALS and is stepping down. Mr. Beast did a Squid Game. North Korea is executing people for watching K-Pop. Ex-Jaguars Coach Urban Meyer kicked his kicker before getting fired. Covid is pretty bad in New York. The U.S. is not ready for Omicron. What to do if you get it.
Advertise with Big Technology?
Planning Q1 marketing? This newsletter has placements available next year. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to learn more.
Apple Nears $3 Trillion + The Truth About Web3 — With Benedict Evans
Benedict Evans is an independent analyst who covers big tech and the broader technology landscape. He joins Big Technology Podcast to discuss Apple's move to $3 trillion, how the rest of the Big Tech companies stack up, what Web3 is really all about, and his former employer Andreessen Horowitz. Stick around for the third segment where he answers questions from Twitter.
Thanks again for reading. Sharing Big Technology with friends and colleagues is the primary way the newsletter grows, so please shout it out if you can.
See you next Thursday for the first annual Big Technology Book Awards.