When the ground shifted
Trends that will likely define tech’s future
The Signal and The Intersection are taking a break until January 3, 2022. However, we will not leave you without your daily fix. This week we bring you special editions of The Signal with a selection of stories based on 2021’s biggest shifts in the world of technology and policy. Happy holidays to all our readers.
If 2020 redefined behaviour, courtesy of the pandemic, 2021 was about shaping the future. Well, the virus was still around and mutating into variants, but the world gradually learnt to live with it. There were leaps—some good, some bad, and some ugly. Yet others were transformational and likely to set the tone for not only the next year but perhaps also for generations to come.
At The Signal, we kept an eye on these developments—be it a reckoning for large, American technology companies after the siege of the US Capitol or China’s crackdown on domestic technology giants. Closer home, the year began with the government amending the IT Rules and ended with legislation linking Aadhaar and voter identity cards.
Crypto had its moment—both globally and in India, with countries such as El Salvador adopting Bitcoin as legal tender. Companies rebranded themselves to tie into growing trends, such as “Web3”. Facebook became Meta and Square became Block. For better or worse, only time will tell.
When China Pulled Down Walled Gardens
Chances are that you hadn’t even heard of the State Administrator for Market Regulation (SAMR) or the Chinese Cyberspace Authority until a few months ago. But all that changed in 2021 as these obscure offices established themselves as the most powerful sheriffs in town. What began with Jack Ma’s now-infamous speech in November 2020 escalated dramatically in April 2021, starting with a $2.8 billion fine on Alibaba, and then, a sweeping crackdown of China’s much-envied technology industry—from online gaming to ride-hailing, to food delivery, to edtech, to live-streaming, and most recently, to online brokerages. No one was spared. And with the agency bulking up again for a fresh assault, 2022 could, yet again, be a defining year for Chinese tech.
The Chinese crackdown signals a major shift in the way business is done in that country. Having amended the presidential term rules, Xi Jinping is likely to remain in power for a long time. President Xi has more than hinted that he was determined to consolidate the influence of the Communist Party of China in people’s lives and on livelihoods. His “common prosperity drive” aims to regulate incomes and redistribute wealth.
The Rise Of The Creator
In a way, the creator economy always existed. What was once a fragmented cohort of “YouTubers”, “TikTokers”, and “Instagrammers” came to be defined by just one word: the creator in 2021. The numbers bear it out too. Everyone, in a way, was a creator, and it suddenly became a phenomenon in San Francisco and Los Angeles. So much so that platforms such as Twitter, Meta, YouTube and Snapchat were taking notice and setting up creator funds. These platforms are eternally searching for content to keep users hooked, and that, in turn, meant creators were in demand. More money flowed into startups catering to creators. It is safe to say that this will only escalate in the coming year.
Regulators On The Prowl
It wasn’t just in China where regulators woke up to the immense power of Big Tech. The Indian government introduced fresh rules to govern “intermediaries” (translation: social media platforms), got them to appoint local grievance officers and made them somewhat accountable for regulating contentious content. In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, nearly all major American technology companies (Alphabet, Meta, Twitter) were fined for banned content, while YouTube was threatened with prohibition. Australia was the toughest on Big Tech, passing legislation that required companies such as Google and Meta to pay for news content on their platforms while also proposing defamation laws to unmask social media trolls. The US, meanwhile, has been sharpening its knives against these companies, deploying personnel and framing legislation. But it is yet to make much headway.
The Year Of The Whistleblower
In December 2020, Timnit Gebru, an AI ethics researcher at Google was ousted from the company after she refused to retract a research paper. In 2021, at least two high-profile Meta data scientists—Sophie Zhang and Frances Haugen—went public with what they saw inside the company. In the latter’s case, the documents she obtained, now called the Facebook Papers, became the basis for an extensive Wall Street Journal investigation that covered everything from teen mental health on Instagram, to Facebook’s special policies for VVIPs, and the ineffectiveness of its AI, among other things. Zhang revealed how fake engagement thrived on Facebook, particularly within the so-called Global South.
Into The Metaverse
Nearly three decades after science fiction described a virtual world called ‘metaverse’, it has become a buzzword in technology, with some even heralding it as the future of the Internet as we know it.
That shift happened sometime in 2021, with several large technology companies hitching their future to a virtual world, some even renaming themselves to make that known (besides of course, a PR coup against what we wrote earlier). You know which company we’re talking about.
With venture capitalists writing long, 33,000-word primers, to others calling it out, the metaverse sure became a talking point. Crypto believers such as Elon Musk have had their say about the phenomenon, terming it as not “compelling”. The race to build these virtual worlds (and everything associated with it, read: hardware) may have just about started, and if this year is anything to go by, it is safe to expect a busy 2022 in the virtual world. Not just in the US, but also other countries, by which we mean…China.
Crypto Goes Big
Here are some numbers and facts that do justice to the rise of the phenomenon called cryptocurrency.
The overall market capitalisation of cryptocurrencies jumped to $2.5 trillion.
While some countries such as El Salvador and South Korea embraced crypto with open arms, others such as China banned it outright. Yet others, including India, are debating how to engage with the disruptive instrument that is threatening entrenched monetary systems. Bitcoin has risen by nearly $545 billion in market cap to hit over $1 trillion while other coins have a significant following too, including meme currencies such as Elon Musk’s favourite Dogecoin.
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