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 OK, 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.
Alex Kantrowitz is founder and reporter at Big Technology, author of “Always Day One: How the Tech Titans Plan to Stay on Top Forever,” an on-air contributor at CNBC and former senior technology reporter at BuzzFeed News.