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The 5 best–and 5 worst—tech moments of 2021

In 2021, tech brought us vaccines, lawsuits, whistleblowers, eavesdropping robots, and a rare admission from Apple.

The 5 best–and 5 worst—tech moments of 2021
[Source images: Executium/Unsplash; Mufid Majnun/Unsplash; Anthony Quintano/Flickr; Amazon]

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Actually, it was mostly the worst of times.

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It’s hard to look back on the past year and think of it as a monumental improvement over 2020. And that’s just as true in the tech space. Chip shortages affected every corner of the industry, making it hard to find a PlayStation 5, new graphics card or even a new car and Facebook got so much bad press, it changed its name.

There were some good moments, though, along with some truly awful ones. Here’s a look at the year that was, with hopes for more “best” moments in 2022.

Best tech moments of 2021

MRNA vaccines saved lives 

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While the technology behind mRNA vaccines has been in development for nearly two decades, the COVID-19 pandemic gave it a chance to shine. Rather than using a weakened or dead version of the actual virus, mRNA uses a genetic code to tell the body’s cells to produce proteins that the immune system recognizes as the virus. Beyond its effectiveness with Covid, the vaccine technology is now being explored to treat everything from HIV and Lyme disease to cancer. Clinical trials for mRNA vaccines for genital herpes, influenza, and HIV are already underway.

HBO Max and Disney+ released first-run movies 

Despite the vaccine, most people weren’t comfortable enough to return to the local cinema this year. But instead of forcing people to re-watch Tiger King or the Avengers saga, streaming services like HBO Max and Disney+ offered streaming releases of new major films (sometimes at an additional cost). It was a way to stay socially up to date and certainly a lot more convenient, even if filmmakers weren’t thrilled. The big cinematic experience is returning (presale tickets for ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ shattered records), but hopefully we’ll still be able to catch big films at home in a shorter time window.

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Apple fixed the MacBook 

Apple heard the complaints about its MacBook Pro and did something very un-Apple like this year: It admitted it screwed up. The new model does away with the touchbar at the top of the keyboard, replacing it with physical keys. And it comes with an HDMI port, three Thunderbolt 4 ports, an SD card slot, a headphone jack and the return of Magsafe charging (though users can continue to charge the device via Thunderbolt if they choose). And it’s all powered with one of two ridiculously powerful processing chips and the longest-ever battery life—as long as 21 hours, according to the company.

Cellular carriers rapidly expanded 5G 

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We’ve heard songs of praise about the speed and capabilities of 5G for years now—and select cities have been able to take advantage of it. In 2021, though, the rollout gained speed and the number of 5G smartphones increased dramatically. Verizon reports it exceeded its 2021 targets, in fact, nearly doubling its deployment compared to the past two years.

Dogecoin became a real currency

Dogecoin started as a joke. It wasn’t meant to do anything. But somehow, the masses (egged on by Elon Musk) got behind it and this joke became a viable currency. It started the year with a single Dogecoin worth $0.0047 and has seen its value jump more than 3,200% this year. (The adjacent Shiba Inu coin has increased over 44 million percent!) It’s also being accepted as currency at an increasing number of places, from movie theaters to Dallas Mavericks games.

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Worst tech moments of 2021

The Facebook Papers uncovered a big mess

Changing the company name to Meta may have caused more than a few eyes to roll, but it didn’t distract anyone from the litany of accusations against the social media giant this year. Former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen turned whistleblower and told a Senate subcommittee that Facebook was “morally bankrupt” and fully aware that its service was harmful to teens and amplifying misinformation and hate speech. The subsequent “Facebook Papers” published by The Wall Street Journal and other news organizations painted a startling picture of a company that prioritized growth over safety.

Activision Blizzard got sued for discrimination

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The video game publisher was sued in July by California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing following a two-year investigation that alleged the company fostered a “frat-boy” culture that led to widespread gender-based discrimination and harassment and named several high-level executives. Things got worse in November when the Wall Street Journal reported CEO Bobby Kotick was aware of allegations in many parts of the company, including one alleged rape of a former female employee at Sledgehammer Games by her male supervisor, but didn’t inform the board. That has spurred a union drive at the company, which management is trying to prevent.

Robinhood pulled the rug out from under investors

Democratization of the stock market? Good. Robinhood’s execution of that? God awful. The company came under investigation by federal regulators due to an incident in January, when it restricted trading of shares in meme stocks like GameStop and AMC Entertainment amid chaotic volatility. The brokerage registration status of its two founders is also being probed. And it has faced a series of penalties from the SEC and FINRA, including the FINRA’s largest penalty ever over alleged “widespread and significant harm” to its customers, among other allegations.

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Amazon released a creepy robot 

We’re already uncomfortable with how ingrained Amazon is in our day to day lives, so who at the company thought a $1,000 cloud-connected robot that follows you around the house, always watching and listening was a good idea? (Amazon says you can turn off mics, cameras and motion with a single button press and can designate ‘no-go’ zones for the robot.) Even more terrifying, future versions of Astro that can climb stairs and grab items are already being discussed.

Everyone went nuts for NFTs 

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The greatest trick the devil has ever pulled was convincing the world that a jpeg, other digital asset or even real-world object has value because of smart contracts in a blockchain. People are spending thousands, and in some cases millions, of dollars on these—and many have no idea what they’re buying.

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