Commentary: This year included more vaccine misinformation, random internet outages and yet another T-Mobile data breach.
We all thought 2020 was the pinnacle of awfulness, with a pandemic sweeping the globe, race relations boiling over and misinformation spreading unchecked.
Then 2021 showed up and said, "Hold my beer."
A lot of the problems we experienced in 2020, from misinformation to ransomware to QAnon, took it up a notch this year. While 2020 was a steady drip of terrible news, this year was arguably worse because the brief glimpses of hope we did get -- vaccines! -- were snatched away -- delta variant -- leaving us with more uncertainty. The head-fake was devastating.
2021 kicked off with a real low point as a mob, mobilized on social media and emboldened by a call to action by then-President Donald Trump, attacked the US Capitol as members of Congress gathered there to certify the results of Joe Biden's election win.
Things just kept getting worse.
The following is a list of the biggest tech fails of 2021, starting with the worst.
You may be getting some deja vu from 2020's list. Misinformation was a massive problem last year, and continued to be so in 2021. Whether it was dangerous and utterly false conspiracy theories about vaccine risks or the rise of QAnon, it's gotten harder to discriminate between what's real and what's fake. (QAnon followers are still waiting for long dead John F. Kennedy Jr. to return to Dallas, by the way.)
The amount of anti-vaccine misinformation has led to vaccination rates stalling, driving up case loads and sending more people to the ICU.
Much of the blame falls to social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, where conspiracy theories, false claims and misinformation flew fast and furiously. And it all began early. With New Year's Day barely behind us, false claims about election fraud -- barely contained (again) by social media -- drove us to the next item…
Trump's speech wasn't the only catalyst that drove the angry mob to descend upon the Capitol, a violent act that resulted in five deaths. He used Twitter and Facebook to push baseless claims that the election was stolen. Talk of revolution exploded on conservative social media sites such as Parler, which went dark after the riots.
It wasn't long before conspiracy theories about the mob attack, suggesting it was a "false flag" operation, proliferated on Facebook, Twitter and Parler (before the plug was pulled).
The incident led to Facebook and Twitter banning Trump from their platforms. At that point, however, the damage was done.
Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, meanwhile, took flak for saying the US Capitol riot wasn't "largely organized" on her company's platform.
Which is a nice segue to our next item.
Sandberg pushing back against any involvement with the riots was just the tip of an iceberg of terrible for Facebook. Criticism has skyrocketed over the last year, from concern over its Instagram for kids project (which the company has paused) to damning allegations from whistleblower Frances Haugen that Facebook prioritized profits over containing a toxic platform filled with hate and misinformation.
Facebook's own oversight board, set up as a check on the company, said the tech giant has repeatedly failed to be transparent, and Facebook itself said it can't keep up with the board's recommendations.
Its slow reaction to the spread of vaccine misinformation led President Joe Biden to say that the company was "killing people," though he later walked back that statement.
Amid all of the controversy, including a raft of reports based on the leaked Facebook Papers documents from Haugen, the company held its annual virtual reality conference, at which it rebranded itself Meta. The prerecorded event, which talked about the potential of a new metaverse, felt tone deaf in light of the headlines about the company.
Remember when we all had a chuckle at the Ever Given cargo ship getting stuck in the Suez Canal? The little hiccup was just a sliver of the more massive supply chain crisis that has caused shortages in everything from PlayStation 5 consoles to tennis balls.
The result: delays in getting certain products, if you can find them at all, and everyone becoming an expert in the global distribution system. The supply chain has long worked on a delicate balance of supply and demand, and the coronavirus has wrecked it in a way that'll have us feeling the effects through 2022.
It also means holiday shopping has started earlier than ever amid fears of shipping delays. (Here's a guide to surviving the holiday shopping crunch.) It's gotten so bad that automakers have had to halt car production because of the shortage of lower-end chips that power much of the electronics in vehicles.
Perhaps the only thing as bad as the revelation of the toxic culture at Activision's Blizzard unit, with reports of everything from sexual discrimination to rape, has been the boneheaded response by its leadership.
Many problems came to light after California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed suit against the company, alleging a frat boy culture that treated women unfairly and subjected them to considerable harassment.
Rather than own up to the allegations, Activision Blizzard pushed back through a staff email sent out by Frances Townsend, vice president of corporate affairs. It turns out the letter was drafted by CEO Bobby Kotick, who was reportedly aware of the problems but failed to do anything about them.
Now employees and shareholders are asking Kotick to resign, and Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo have all condemned Activision's behavior.
If you can get the big three console makers, who don't agree on anything, unified against you, something really wrong has happened.
Internet outages happen, but it felt like 2021 saw more widespread downtime than ever before.
There was the Fastly outage in June, when the cloud computing service provider suffered a glitch that seemingly shut down half the internet, knocking out key providers like Amazon. Fastly stores copies of key sites around the world for faster loading times, and when it went down, there was a global domino effect that impacted everyone from The New York Times to CNET.
Facebook's bad year continued in October when it suffered its own outage thanks to a "faulty configuration" that disconnected its data centers from its various social networks. While taking a break from social media sounds great, many businesses and regions of the world rely on Facebook for internet access, so for them the downtime was more painful than just annoying.
Not to be outdone, fellow Big Tech player Google in April suffered its own hours-long outage for Google Drive, Docs, Slides and Sheets.
It's great to see Congress take interest in Big Tech, but the political grandstanding at this year's numerous hearings was more about scoring points than actually getting something done. It's time to get some regulations in place. Even the tech companies are in agreement about this.
The criticism of some of the biggest tech companies didn't just come from politicians. Some of their own employees took issue with their practices.
The GameStop saga was one of the wilder stories of early 2021. But one detail that likely still stings for investors is Robinhood restricting its customers from buying shares of the video game retailer as the stock began to wildly swing. It was a pivotal time, and the move was seen as a way to protect hedge funds that stood to lose a fortune as shares continued to rocket.
The move angered Robinhood users, raised questions from regulators and triggered a congressional hearing.
Months later, in November, Robinhood experienced a data breach that leaked 5 million email addresses and 2 million full names.
But people are still bitter about those restricted trades.
Speaking of cybersecurity problems, one of the biggest came when Colonial Pipeline was hit by ransomware that shut down its operations. The company made the decision to pay the $4.4 million ransom a day after discovering the malware.
The incident, which affected the supply of gas to parts of the East Coast, leading to lines at gas stations as people hoarded fuel, served as a colorful illustration of just how vulnerable some of our core systems are.
In August, T-Mobile suffered a massive data breach that exposed the personal data of more than 54 million people, including names and Social Security numbers.
That's bad enough, but it's worse considering this is the company's fifth hack in three years. T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert apologized for the attack and hired a cybersecurity company and consultancy to shore up its defenses. Consumers shouldn't have to consider whether they'll have their info leaked as a factor when choosing a wireless carrier.
The number of flight delays and cancellations rose this year, but it was never clearer than one weekend in October when Southwest Airlines canceled more than 2,000 flights.
What's worse, people on social media speculated that the disruption was due to pilots or air traffic controllers protesting COVID-19 vaccine mandates. (They weren't.) The delays were largely due to weather disruptions and staffing issues for both Southwest and the Federal Aviation Administration at Florida airports. Southwest Airlines President and Chief Operating Officer Mike Van de Ven published a blog post laying out the issues.
Cryptocurrency like bitcoin holds a lot of promise as a disruptive form of currency. But it remains little more than a commodity, with lesser known cryptocurrencies like dogecoin moving on the whims and tweets of Elon Musk.
Speaking of Musk, the world's wealthiest man had a heck of a strange year. Just last month, he took a few shots at Sanders, the Vermont senator, and teased a personal stock sale, leading to Tesla shares tumbling. He opted to follow up with an ill-advised tweet about a proposed school with an offensive and sexist acronym.
The fails don't stop with Musk himself. Tesla's long-promised Full Self Driving rollout is upon us. Er, sorta. For years, Tesla buyers have been shelling out thousands of extra dollars for the promise of a self-driving car. Despite nearly every other automaker and tech company saying autonomy isn't possible with Tesla's hardware, Musk's company has made millions of dollars from the option, predicated on the promise that an over-the-air update would one day deliver Full Self Driving, including the potential for income-generating robo-taxis.
In July, Tesla finally started rolling out FSD Version 9 beta software to select Tesla owners who requested the upgrade, a process that initially involved signing nondisclosure agreements and submitting to an automated Safety Score driver's test (the latter being something owners found easy to game). It didn't take long for reports to pour in from owners and the media that the FSD experience was riddled with safety issues, from phantom braking events to ill-timed steering maneuvers and routine computer vision failures. A string of software updates followed, including at least one rollback.
We'll say it again for the people in the back: There are no self-driving cars on sale today. Tesla's FSD is a Level 2 driver-assist system, and it's a deeply flawed one at that.
There's little doubt Tesla is one of the world's most innovative automakers, with countless wonderful game-changing accomplishments to its name. The yoke-style steering wheel on the latest Model S? It's not one of them. This mandatory feature may please Knight Rider fans, but owners are now learning the many reasons why airplane-style controls weren't adopted by production cars long ago.
Low-speed maneuverability in the Model S is severely compromised, especially hand-over-hand, tight-turn maneuvers. The steering rate just isn't quick enough to compensate. Furthermore, those steering-wheel controls are frustrating, too. Just try searching for the tiny, featureless horn button (something usually urgently sought in panic situations). Why doesn't pressing the entire airbag cover honk the horn, as on other cars?
Yes, the open-top design lets you see the gauges better, and your kids will think you bought a spacecraft, but Tesla's yoke isn't just less intuitive to operate, it's a safety risk.
Trump made some minor waves with his announcement that he was launching a new social media network called Truth Social. He said its goal was to push back against Big Tech, which doesn't seem like a winning formula for success.
It was already defaced before it launched and still isn't live.
Given all of the problems at Activision Blizzard (and Ubisoft from last year), a botched launch of a video game seems positively quaint.
But that's what we have with Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy: The Definitive Edition. (Its long title could be its own entry.) Grand Theft Auto 3, Vice City and San Andreas were supposed to come with a high-definition makeover. Instead, the GTA Trilogy came filled with bugs, typos and the telltale signs of a title that was rushed out prematurely.
The error-prone game forced Rockstar Games to apologize and relist the individual titles for sale while it worked to fix the errors.
In late March, USA Today reported on an accidentally published press release dated April 29 from Volkswagen. The document stated the company was officially changing its name to "Voltswagen of America" to emphasize its electrification commitment. Given the proximity to April Fools' Day, the story was easy to dismiss. Problem is, a VW official directly and clearly confirmed to Roadshow and other publications that the name change was authentic.
On March 30, an official tweet and a (since deleted) press release announced the name change, a move Wall Street rewarded with a 5% stock price rise. But it was all a lie, a PR stunt to gain mindshare for VW's new ID 4 EV.
VW eventually acknowledged the prank, and a spokesperson apologized to Roadshow and other outlets for lying. The ill-conceived PR hoax not only badly damaged VW's longstanding media relationships, it left a bad taste in the public's mouth, especially after VW's Dieselgate scandal. The fiasco even triggered an SEC investigation into how "Voltswagen'' affected VW's stock price and to see whether securities laws were violated.
There's never a good time for a recall, but there are worse times. The recalls that affected General Motors and Hyundai EVs due to LG battery-fire concerns fall squarely into the latter category -- not only for the South Korean battery giant and the carmakers involved, but for the auto industry at large. The resulting series of embarrassing headlines and recalls -- including Chevrolet's plea for owners to seek outdoor parking for affected Bolt EV and Bolt EUV -- didn't just damage the reputations of those involved, the debacle harmed the public's emerging perception of electric cars. This, just as the entire car industry's costly shift to EV was beginning to gain traction.
Those fires weren't just damaging reputationally. GM will replace the packs in 140,000 2017-2022 Bolts at a cost of well over $1 billion. In fact, the total will probably be much more -- in October, LG reportedly agreed to reimburse GM $1.9 billion. For its part, Hyundai recalled around 90,000 units of its 2019-2020 Kona EV worldwide, along with other models like the Ioniq BEV, although the Korean automaker's cost recoup figures from LG are unclear.
On the plus side, owners of affected vehicles who stick out this unpleasantness could be set for a windfall -- some of the replacement battery packs may offer substantially more range.
While reaching for the stars is a noble goal, the race among billionaires Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson to be the first to get to space (Bezos and Branson, in particular) prompts the question: Why couldn't you have spent those billions helping people down here on Earth?
5G was supposed to be a life-changing technological leap. It continues to be modestly faster (or, at times, slower) than 4G and really not as impactful as hyped. Maybe in 2022?
Twitter's premium service will let you undo that embarrassing tweet for $3 a month. Shouldn't that feature just be built in to Twitter?
This is less a fail and more a bummer. LG had a gaggle of interesting phones, and its LG Rollable device, teased at CES, was extremely intriguing. But the company exited the phone business just a few months later in April.
No really, do you understand what the heck they are?
Chris Paukert contributed to this article.