2021 Year In Review
It’s the end of 2021 and time to review another incredible year.
The pandemic was meant to be over. At least, a lot of people thought it would be. I don’t know; maybe they still do. I’ve been in isolation since 9 March 2020. No cafes, concerts, cinemas, galleries, or sporting events. I haven’t even been to a supermarket.
I feel like a lost astronaut on an abandoned space station. Going through essential routines. Maintaining basic fitness. Waiting to return to earth.
We experienced time differently this year. Our clocks became snakes that ate their own tails. Déjà vu was our normal waking state. And the world increasingly felt like a strange, surreal sort of place.
2021 – The Eternal Winter
Some days were hot and sunny, but in a way 2021 feels like one long winter. The way life becomes smaller and slower and we become more pensive seems to have marked out 2021 for many and most of my friends.
Christmas this year almost blurs with Christmas last year, as new cases rise steeply thanks to another variant. Hopefully, fewer people will die and ambulances won’t drown out the sound of carols. But there will be a lot of suffering while we huddle again in small festive gatherings.
Just last week, the UK was rocked by reports Number 10 had parties during last year’s lockdowns. We had full stadiums during the summer wave of new cases following “freedom day”. Even now, the Premier League is canceling games because some teams can’t field enough players, and again the stadiums are full of unmasked fans.
There’s been a rush to get boosters and vaccinations in the past week. And a few more people are wearing masks. But in shops or workplaces, many are not. It’s been a pattern throughout the year – people behaving at the first possible opportunity like this is over, only for that behaviour to contribute to the pandemic lasting longer.
For many of the rest of us, this has increasingly become a winter of discontent.
Our Restless Mood
We feel like our decision-making reserves are nearly spent. We’re tired, with a hard-to-pinpoint feeling of discontent. The word “languishing” was thrown around a lot, thanks to an influential article by Adam Grant in the New York Times. But other words might summarize it better.
We are restless.
You can sense this in the so-called great resignation. Vast numbers of people have quit their job in 2021. It’s like we’re going through a collective realignment of where we live, where we work, and how we play.
Commenting on Jack Dorsey’s recent departure as CEO of Twitter, this article hinted at the restlessness many tech leaders feel. It might be hard to relate to the bored billionaire syndrome. Maybe these guys just don’t want to fix the mess they created. But there’s also the sense the world has shifted in the past two years, and the fun opportunities are not where they once were. As one interviewee in the piece says, “Silicon Valley tech is the old guard.”
There are undoubtedly many reasons we woke up and decided we wanted to quit jobs, change priorities, move home, and get fitter, smarter, kinder, or all three. But there is one thing we seem to have in common.
We are spending more time on screens.
A Life On Screens
Given how much of life is mediated by screens and the growing madness they seem to induce, it’s no wonder that news was dominated by the online world as well.
In fact, it’s been a huge year for tech again, with innovations like social audio, but also an increasingly bleak picture of how some platforms – Facebook and Instagram in particular – weaponize misinformation and trade the health of young people especially to generate ad revenue.
Of course, our screens also bring us joy as well, from video calls with friends and loved ones to wonderful entertainment, especially on the growing number of streaming platforms. There’s a reason TV features so prominently on the list of things I loved in 2021: these platforms are aggregating talent, insight, and cash to make some incredible shows.
But we have the prospect of screens dominating an even greater portion of our lives, with the prospect of virtual reality, the so-called metaverse. It’s already running into problems, with racism, and violence against women, even before it’s really a thing.
Something even more troubling is happening with the thing we used to call the internet.
The year 2021 was marked by the mainstreaming of digital currencies, the rise of non-fungible tokens, and the clamour over Web 3.0. A lot of this feels frantic, sudden – and, if you dive into much of the rhetoric in tech circles, almost cult-like. These technologies promise to cure our social ills. They also give many fans a sense of meaning. But they also allow no room for doubt, or questioning.
‘…to know where crypto is headed, sociology is as important as economics. Crypto will continue to be surprising because people see it not just as a way to make money, but as a way to make meaning of their lives.”
– Tyler Cowan
The year 2021 also started with an insurrection in Washington, DC. Really, it was more of an attempted self-coup. Alarmingly, this wasn’t just young men, the most easily radicalized demographic, but often older folks of all genders. They seemed to share a worldview, at odds with the rest of society, and fuelled by extreme and quite violent beliefs.
To me, as someone with a background in religious studies, all of this feels familiar. A prescient article in New York Magazine summed it up best: the world increasingly feels like the Middle Ages and we are the peasants in a new feudal society.
Our lives are governed by technology we don’t understand and often can’t control, created by people we’ll never meet and cannot reason with, and it is fomenting disparities in wealth that could exceed anything seen in human history.
In fact, this technology is like a semi-spiritual layer of meaning that shrouds the rest of life. Our experience of the world is mediated through screens anyway. But now, there’s this grid full of beliefs, conspiracies, and sometimes misinformation that lies over it.
These beliefs foster a mistrust of existing structures of society and encourage people to align as guilds, each with their rules for belonging, as a way to cope and find companionship.
We should worry what the consequences might be.
Humanity Gets Left Behind
When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, he said, “One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.” While I prefer the word humanity to mankind, the point still stands; one astronaut was a proxy for an adventure we were all part of.
Space doesn’t feel like that anymore.
We won’t be invited to the billionaires’ party. Bezos’s plans sounds like the most exclusive networking club. As much as it might disappoint my childhood self, who dreamed of designing spaceships, I don’t feel like any of this is money well spent.
But as we’ve seen from the fragmented response to the pandemic, climate change, and threats to democracy, we’re not good at collective action right now. We need that to change.
Some Good News You Might’ve Missed
I want to stop there and focus instead on the good we saw in 2021. The WHO started rolling out a malaria vaccine and China was declared malaria-free, with more countries likely to become malaria-free in the next few years. Also, cervical cancer rates have fallen by 90 per cent, thanks to the human papillomavirus vaccine (HPV). A promising heart disease drug was approved, and we may even be on the cusp of a cure for HIV.
NASA’s Perseverance rover collected rock samples that will be the first material from Mars to be flown to earth. Substantial progress was made in the use of renewable energy sources and the roll-out of electric vehicles. Financial markets have started to take a dim view of coal and oil investments. China has made an important move towards sustainability with new green energy projects, reforestation efforts, the banning of bitcoin mining, and the protection of endangered species, with pandas no longer under threat of extinction.
The Oscars had their most diverse year ever with an exciting slew of winners. Keystone XL and PennEast pipelines were cancelled and the role of indigenous groups in fighting environmental degradation was highlighted. Chile and Switzerland approved same-sex marriage. Several countries voted to legalize or increase safe access to abortion.
Facebook came under serious scrutiny, and Donald Trump was banned from Twitter!
And let’s not forget, despite the struggles we’ve had, we vaccinated most of the world’s population, saved many millions of lives and helped alleviate the suffering of many more.
21 things I loved in 2021
I can’t imagine being a young adult today, finishing high school, going through college, or starting a career. I’ve watched my daughter wrestle with her university experience, the online classes, the feeling of disconnection, the uncertainty of returning to campus, and I’ve loved her all the more.
Career advancement and accolades have come to my wife, even as she worked every day in the improvised home office and live-streaming space we hastily created in March 2020. We’ve never spent as much time together as we have in the last two years, and it’s been fascinating to see more of the way she works. So often big slices of the lives of our significant others are partitioned off from us, and working from home creates a chance to glimpse into that world.
I’ve loved a lot of new music this year. Like Taylor Swift’s reimagined Red Album, the insanely catchy “Leave the Door Open” collaboration between Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, Adele’s 30, Daddy’s Home by St Vincent, and the stand out jazz album of the year, Daring Mind, by the Jihye Lee Orchestra.
I complained earlier about watching too much TV, but the reason is partly the amount of great stuff there is to watch. I particularly enjoyed The Cook of Castamar, season 2 of El Cid, Foundation, Ted Lasso, and WandaVision. While I saw fewer films than normal again this year, The Power of The Dog, Nomadland, and The Green Knight stood out.
Three books had a big impact on me in 2021: James Nestor’s Breathe: The new science of a lost art; Kathleen Belew’s Bring the war home: The White Power movement and paramilitary America; and Tom Nichols’ The death of expertise: The campaign against established knowledge and why it matters.
I had a lot of fun with social audio this year, from helping host big pop-culture-oriented rooms on Clubhouse to much smaller but no less impactful spaces discussing art and technology on Twitter.
And Chelsea won the Champions League!
I’m feeling very cautious about the start of 2022. The year will eventually find me living in Australia again. I’m deeply ambivalent about that. Yes, I look forward to seeing my parents again. I’ve often thought about how good it will be to explore the wilderness again. But Australia feels foreign now. Can you be an expat in your own country?
The year 2021, like 2020, has changed me. It might take a while to really understand that change. I started seeing a therapist again. The whole question of well-being, from avoiding disease to maintaining a good mindset, has felt like an urgent daily struggle. And I’ve become deeply aware of how much I don’t understand about human nature.
I feel tired. But also, I feel myself fighting an urge to retreat and withdraw. I dream of taking a long holiday away from it all. I frequently wonder what the point of my work is and if anyone is listening. Something needs to change, and keep changing, for a long while.