The Year in Weird and Stupid Futures
Read Max looks back
You’re reading Read Max, a newsletter about the future by Max Read. This Tuesday edition contains a look back on 2021, and the stories that told us something about where the future is headed, which is to say, into a cold and narrow hyperloop tunnel with failing braking software.
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Also: I have a small piece about the stock market in this week’s New York Times Sunday Review year-end package, if you like that kind of thing.
Mike DeBonis @mikedebonisLeft by the mob: a lonely can of Axe body spray https://t.co/wy2bU3fWgH
In January, the CIA was forced to deny that its new logo and website, part of a rebranding effort aimed at diversifying the agency, had been created by the net artist and album cover designer Ryder Ripps. As Congress assembled to conduct the counting of electoral votes, Trump loyalists clad in "Pepe the frog"- and Holocaust-themed T-shirts broke into the Capitol Building, live-streaming themselves as they seized and occupied the Senate chamber. British doctors published a paper suggesting that social media may play a role in the rise of unexplained “tic disorders” among children and adolescents. The global death toll of COVID-19 passed two million.
Adam Rawnsley @arawnsleyNew from me: Prosecutors have charged an alleged Colorado militia member, Robert Gieswein, which The Daily Beast has been tracking since he appeared in photos of the riot at the Capitol. https://t.co/973jPIweeQ
"After a close review" of posts, Twitter permanently banned President Trump's account. Citing "the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period," Facebook banned President Trump from its main platform and Instagram. Following a review, YouTube announced that President Trump's account "has its 1st strike & is temporarily prevented from uploading new content for a *minimum* of 7 days." "In light of yesterday’s shocking attack on the Capitol," Twitch disabled President Trump's channel. After determining that "the actions by President Donald J. Trump violate our Acceptable Use Policy," retail platform Shopify disabled President Trump's online stores. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni shut down the internet in the country ahead of elections.
Honolulu police defended the purchase of a $150,000 robot dog from Boston Dynamics, saying it could be used to take temperatures at a homeless encampment. The subreddit "WallStreetBets" triggered a short squeeze of the brick-and-mortar video-game store GameStop, increasing the stock price by 1,500 percent over two weeks. The Australian mining company GME Resources increased by 50 percent in intraday trading. Stock in the obscure health-care company Signal Advance increased by 1,100 percent in two days after Elon Musk tweeted "Use signal," referring to the encrypted chat app. Several internet-connected "chastity cage" sex toys designed to be worn around users' penises were remotely locked by a hacker demanding ransom.
In February, the company behind the "stablecoin" Tether agreed to pay the New York attorney general's office $18.5 million in fines to settle charges that it engaged in illegal accounting tricks to cover up the fact that it did not actually have reserves to back up the billions of coins it claimed were backed one-to-one with U.S. dollars. The FTC ordered Amazon to pay $617 million in tips stolen from Amazon Flex drivers. A Doordash driver's van was stolen with his two kids inside while he made a delivery.
A hacker attempted to poison the water in Oldsmar, Fla., by remotely accessing a water treatment facility and increasing the amount of lye in the water by a factor of 100. The decentralized finance protocol Yearn lost $11 million in a hack — $2.8 million to the hacker and the rest to so-called "gas fees" or transfer costs. Etsy removed several stores selling custom-engraved high-capacity ammunition magazine and magazine couplers from its site.
In congressional testimony, the former CEO of IT management company and government contractor SolarWinds, whose software had been hacked, admitted an intern put the internal company password "SolarWinds123" on Github. Reddit user "RoaringKitty" testified to the House Financial Services Committee regarding the Gamestop short squeeze. German police seized $60 million in Bitcoin in a fraud case but were unable to access it because the accused refused to tell them his password.
Myanmar's military detained members of the country's ruling party and effected a coup d'etat, radicalizing the country's large K-pop fandom. Tesla recalled 135,000 cars due to faulty flash memory. Tesla announced it would invest $1.5 billion in Bitcoin and accept Bitcoin as payment for its cars. The NYPD deployed a robot dog to a crime scene in the Bronx.
In March, the YouTube influencer and boxer Jake Paul launched a venture-capital fund. Researchers found that an advanced and widely used photo-identification neural network would identify an apple as an iPod with 99.7 percent confidence if you held a sign in front of the apple with the word "iPod" on it. A Pennsylvania woman was charged with harassment for creating "deep fake" videos of her daughter's cheerleading teammates in an effort to force them off the team.
Linkin Park vocalist Mike Shinoda defended comedy writer Jensen Karp from accusations of emotional abuse after Karp posted photographs of what he said were shrimp tails he had found in a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. The city of Minneapolis made, then canceled, plans to pay influencers $2,000 each to share “city-generated and approved messages” during the trial of Derek Chauvin. Amazon undertook a "major expansion" of its "FC Games" program, in which warehouse workers can earn "digital rewards that allow them to buy virtual narwhals, dinosaurs and other electronic pets" for completing tasks more quickly.
An NFT by the artist Beeple was sold at Christie's, to Beeple's business partner, for the reported price of $69 million. At least three users of the NFT marketplace Nifty Gateway were hacked and had their NFTs stolen; Nifty Gateway returned the NFT tokens to two of the three. A grounded 1,300-foot container ship blocked the Suez Canal for a week, costing the global economy trillions of dollars and leading to the creation of "high-key relatable" memes.
In April, following the sighting of bright streaks in the night sky, a farmer in eastern Washington discovered a composite-overwrapped pressure vessel from a SpaceX rocket on his property. A security researcher discovered that the scraped personal data of 533 million Facebook users was available in hacking forums for free. The domain name for Google Argentina, mistakenly marked as expired, was briefly purchased and controlled by a Boca Juniors fan named Nicolás Kuroña.
The cryptocurrency trading platform Coinbase went public in a direct listing, ending the day with a market capitalization of nearly $86 billion. In a shareholder's letter Jeff Bezos announced that Amazon would introduce "new automated staffing schedules that use sophisticated algorithms to rotate employees among jobs that use different muscle-tendon groups to decrease repetitive motion." Spanish police raided a 3d-printed gun workshop.
A "counterfeit" Amazon delivery van was filmed removing barricades from a New York City "Open Street." A man in Texas was arrested on suspicion of plotting to blow up an Amazon data center and "kill off about 70% of the internet." In response to Intercept stories about Oracle's ties to the Chinese surveillance state, Oracle executive Ken Glueck posted a request for tips about the reporter, Mara Hvistendahl. The global death toll from COVID-19 passed 3 million.
The legal and scholarly research and records company LexisNexis signed a $16.8 million contract with ICE to provide data. Nextdoor introduced an "anti-racism" notification that "detects potentially racist content and prompts neighbors to reconsider and edit before posting." Two brothers who founded a South Africa–based crypto investment firm told investors they'd been hacked for the entirety of their $3.6 billion assets, then disappeared. The women who started the Clubhouse room "NYU Girls Roasting Tech Guys" signed with the talent agency WME.
A software researcher confirmed the complaints of Black students who found that the popular remote exam program Proctorio consistently failed to recognize their faces. The teenager who killed eight people in a mass shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis was reported to be obsessed with My Little Pony; according to an internal Facebook memo, his final Facebook status update before the shooting read, "I hope that I can be with Applejack in the afterlife, my life has no meaning without her."
In May, a Belgian farmer moved a stone in his field, accidentally breaking the 200-year-old Treaty of Korvijk and redrawing Belgium's border with France. A joke cryptocurrency called Simple Cool Automatic Money, or SCAM, reached a market capitalization of $70 million. A group of hackers apologized for shutting down one of the largest fuel pipelines in the U.S., explaining, "Our goal is to make money and not creating problems for society."
The local-news app Citizen piloted a partnership with a "subscription law enforcement service" that could be summoned through the app. French influencers said they were approached by a U.K.-based marketing firm to spread anti-vaccination talking points. Instagram removed and blocked posts with hashtags relating to al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, because the company’s content-moderation system believed the posts were associated with “violence or a terrorist organization.” Thousands of people who showed up in Huntington Beach to attend “Adrian’s Kickback,” a birthday party whose invitation had gone viral on TikTok, were greeted with police in riot gear firing “nonlethal” rounds.
The Justice Department launched a money-laundering investigation into Binance, the world's largest cryptocurrency exchange. A glitch on Doordash gave workers thousands of dollars, then the company took the money back. U.S. soldiers accidentally exposed nuclear secrets by using free public online flashcard apps to memorize security protocols. Meatpacking plants in the U.S., Canada, and Australia belonging to the world's largest meat producer, a Brazilian company called JBS, were shut down by a cyberattack.
The website for a DeFi protocol called DeFi100 was briefly replaced with a statement reading, "We scammed you guys and you can't do shit about it"; after the website was restored, the developers claimed they'd been hacked. John Cena posted a video to Weibo in which he apologized, in Mandarin, for saying that Taiwan was "the first country" that could see F9. Tesla announced it would no longer accept Bitcoin due to concerns over fossil fuel usage. A man was arrested in California for sitting in the backseat of his Tesla as it drove down the highway with its "autopilot" feature on. Elon Musk hosted Saturday Night Live.
In June, AMC stock surged to an all-time high of $72.62, representing a 3,600 percent gain since January, as the movie theater chain became the focus of a campaign on WallStreetBets. AMC CEO Adam Aron appeared to be wearing only his underwear on a Zoom call with the host of a YouTube channel called "Trey's Trades." The single-wheeled electric skateboard company OneWheel accidentally sent private data about thousands of customers to a guy named Daniel.
In a video appearance at the Bitcoin 2021 conference in Miami, El Salvador President Nayib Bukele announced plans to make Bitcoin legal in his country. Uber retracted an offer of health-insurance subsidies it had mistakenly sent to its drivers. Satellite internet provided by Elon Musk's SpaceX shut down in Arizona when temperatures exceeded 112 degrees. Facebook tested a "prayer post" feature.
A company called Alfi announced a deal to install 10,000 advertising tablets with facial-recognition systems in the back of Uber and Lyft cars. Loopt founder Sam Altman announced he was working on a cryptocurrency called WorldCoin, based around retina scans taken by a basketball-sized silver orb. Western Digital advised consumers to disconnect their internet-connected hard drives after they unexpectedly started wiping themselves. Texas energy companies remotely raised the temperature in some houses with smart thermostats without warning in what the company described over text as an "energy saving event."
In July, as they seized territory across Afghanistan, the Taliban engaged with Afghans on the audio app Clubhouse on topics including "the Taliban's view of the afterlife, how to have a happy relationship and Persian poetry." Jack Dorsey appeared on a panel with Elon Musk and Cathie Wood and said he believed Bitcoin could "create world peace." Italian museums rolled out a surveillance system to gather data on how long visitors engaged with artwork and help establish an "attraction value" for each piece of art. A slowed jet stream allowed heavy storms to stall over northern Europe, leading to floods that killed hundreds in Germany, Belgium, and Romania.
A porn company purchased the domain name of a defunct video-hosting service and briefly served porn videos to the websites of the Washington Post, New York magazine, and HuffPost, among others. Another police officer was caught playing a pop song on his phone — Taylor Swift's "Blank Space" — in order to trigger a DMCA takedown should the video be posted to YouTube. "Pegasus" spyware made by the Israeli firm NSO was found on the phones of Bahraini activists, a Hungarian journalist, a British human rights lawyer, and five French cabinet members. The federal government auctioned off the sole existing copy of the Wu-Tang Clan album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, which had been purchased by imprisoned hedge-fund manager Martin Shkreli.
A Tesla Model S burst into flames while out on a drive three days after delivery, briefly trapping its owner inside when the electronic door system failed, according to his attorneys. An 18-year-old was sentenced to five years in prison for calling a SWAT team on a 60-year-old man, who subsequently died of a heart attack; the teenager was trying to coerce the man into giving up his Twitter handle @Tennessee. The stock-trading app Robinhood went public, citing in its S-1 filing the volatility of the joke cryptocurrency "Dogecoin" as a risk factor for the company. The global death toll from COVID-19 passed 4 million.
Former Trump spokesman Jason Miller launched a “non-bias social network for people all over the world” called GETTR. Used car salesman Marc Zelinka launched a "digital currency for the MAGA community" called magacoin. Self-described "world's youngest Bitcoin millionaire" Erik Finman launched "a phone made for conservatives, by conservatives" called the Freedom Phone. Jeff Bezos traveled into space on a 10-minute flight, describing the experience as the "best day ever!"
In August, Brazilian Twitch streamers went on strike, protesting a 66 percent drop in subscription value. An unidentified hacker stole $610 million worth of tokens from the DeFi platform Poly Network, only to return the tokens after the company publicly begged "Mr. White Hat" for restitution. Rachel Dolezal launched an OnlyFans. Wildfires tore across the Greek island of Evia.
Appearing on stage for Tesla's "AI Day" with a dancing human in a bodysuit, Elon Musk announced plans to build a humanoid robot within a year. A Tesla on autopilot crashed into a Florida Highway Patrol cruiser while it was stopped behind a disabled vehicle. Amazon announced a WiFi soap dispenser that can be paired with an Echo speaker to “automatically play songs, jokes, and more when you wash.” The credit-monitoring agency Equifax acquired Appriss Insights, a data contractor that offers to monitor workers and benefits claimants for "criminal activity" that can be used to fire or deny claims; following the acquisition, Appriss Health, whose "NarxCare" product is used to deny pain medication to patients whom the proprietary NarxCare algorithm deems to be at risk of overdose, was renamed "Bamboo Health."
The supposedly woman-led "Fame Lady Squad" NFT project was revealed to be the project of a group of Russian guys. The Cyberspace Administration of China announced a plan to regulate platform algorithms, prohibiting app alerts about gossip and violence and directing companies to moderate or forbid fan groups online. OnlyFans announced it would ban sexually explicit content. The sheriff of Washington County, Ark., confirmed that the local detention center's medical provider was prescribing the deworming medication Ivermectin to inmates diagnosed with COVID-19.
OnlyFans reversed its ban on sexually explicit content. The Taliban seized Kabul, an event documented on 4chan by a 21-year-old British student named Miles Routledge, who had arrived only a few days earlier. Facebook banned the Taliban from WhatsApp, Instagram, and its flagship app. Facebook released data showing that the most widely viewed post on its platform for Q3 2021 was a post from a page called "Thinkarete Lifestyle" that read "Who can honestly say they never had a DUI ✋ i'll wait."
In September, the largest-ever carbon capture facility, called Orca, went online in Iceland. Elon Musk and Grimes broke up. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen "appeared abruptly" in a Zoom call between exiled members of the country's banned opposition party and said, “I have been listening, and have entered to listen many times already.” The Wall Street Journal published leaked documents from Facebook revealing that the company’s own research found that teenagers blame Instagram “unprompted” for “increases in the rate of anxiety and depression.”
Bitcoin officially became legal tender in El Salvador. China banned Bitcoin. Litecoin spiked in price after a faked P.R. statement was published to newswires claiming Wal-Mart was partnering with the cryptocurrency. Andreessen Horowitz invested $5 million in Friends With Benefits, a social club organized as a blockchain-based decentralized autonomous organization. In response to evidence that an employee was buying NFTs before they were featured on the website's main page, the NFT marketplace OpenSea implemented insider-trading rules. The human partner of a crypto-”trading” hamster named Mr. Goxx announced that Mr. Goxx’s earnings were outpacing the S&P 500.
In October, Facebook went down for five hours, crippling essential services across the globe that relied on its apps and locking Facebook's own employees out of their offices. Donald Trump finally debuted his long-awaited social network, "TRUTH Social," for which users were obligated to agree to terms of service that prevented them from disparaging the site or making "excess use of capital letters." Facebook leaker Frances Haugen revealed she was based in Puerto Rico because she'd "bought Bitcoin at the right time" and was taking advantage of the island's status as a crypto tax haven. Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would be renaming itself "Meta."
A key infrastructural SMS-routing company, Syniverse, revealed that it had been breached by hackers since 2016. Netflix fired the trans employee who organized a walkout over Dave Chappelle's stand-up special, saying they leaked internal data. Eight fictional TikTok influencers competed for a fictional billionaire's money on a live Zoom call. A cache of data from Twitch, including creator payouts, was hacked and posted to 4chan, leading streamers to assure their followers they made more money than was revealed in the hack.
A man was accidentally killed in the disputed Caucasian region of Abkhazia when his friend opened fire on a group of men trying to steal Bitcoin mining equipment. Jeff Bezos announced plans to build a "mixed-use business park" in space called Orbital Reef. An NFT representing a 14.5-inch, 1,784-pound tungsten cube kept in an office in Illinois and granting the owner "one visit to see/photograph/touch the cube per calendar year" went up for auction on OpenSea with a minimum bid of 47.74 ETH, or around $200,000.
Nine schools in England introduced facial-recognition payment systems to the school cafeterias. Tesla rolled back a beta software update after it rendered some cars "undrivable" thanks to a "phantom braking" issue. A dead-end street became crowded with confused Waymo self-driving cars, which would turn onto the street and then "stop in a queue as if they are completely baffled by the dead end."
In November, Zillow announced it would lay off nearly a quarter of its employees and close its instant-offer "iBuying" division after its pricing algorithm, tweaked to make aggressive offers, bought thousands of houses at the peak of the real estate market. After hacking the U.K. jeweler Graff and revealing sensitive data about its wealthy clients, a Russian hacking group apologized "to His Royal Highness Prince Mohammed bin Salman and any other members of the Royal Families whose names were mentioned" and pledged to implement "a more rigid data review process." The China-based EDward Gaming Team won the League of Legends World Championship.
A decentralized autonomous organization called ConstitutionDAO raised $47 million to buy a copy of the U.S. constitution at auction, but were defeated by the hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin, who entered bidding at the behest of his son. A group of conservatives announced the creation of a new university in Austin, Texas, with a "Forbidden Courses" summer program and an entrepreneurship and leadership master's program. Facebook shut down its facial recognition system and deleted the data associated with it.
A decentralized autonomous organization called CityDAO purchased 40 acres of land in Wyoming with the intent to build "a city on the Ethereum blockchain." Users found the Allen Institute’s Delphi, an AI system for rendering moral judgments based on a large corpus of internet text, would approve of genocide under the condition that it would make everybody happy. Two days after winning election to be mayor of New York City, Eric Adams announced that he would take his first three paychecks in Bitcoin.
Following a report of sexual misconduct, Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy encouraged fans to purchase his "One Bite" frozen pizzas to "beat cancel culture." After intense storms, floods, and landslides, Vancouver was cut off by road from the rest of Canada. Jack Dorsey stepped down as CEO of Twitter. A 6,090-virtual-square-foot plot in the online world Decentraland was sold for $2.4 million, a record for a virtual-real-estate transaction. A Moderna-affiliated scientist with a pine marten fursona emerged as a prominent Twitter voice on COVID-19.
In December, scientists announced that the first U.S. case of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, which was spreading rapidly across the United States, had been observed in an attendee of the Anime NY conference. Life360, a free location-tracking app used by parents to surveil their children, confirmed that it has been selling location data gathered by the app to a variety of data brokers since 2016. Arcade Fire, Snoop Dogg, and Alice Cooper played the "Into the Galaverse" crypto festival in Las Vegas. Square announced it would change its name to Block.
Blake Resnick, the founder of "nonviolent" drone startup Brinc, apologized for a 2018 promotional video in which a Brinc drone demonstrated its capabilities by firing a taser at an actor playing a migrant. A rumor spread on Twitter that the prime minister of Finland was a "catgirl" after she was unable to quarantine after a COVID-19 exposure because she could not be reached at a nightclub. The Chinese Yutu-2 lunar rover photographed what its official blog described as "mystery hut" on the moon.
Better.com CEO Vishal Garg laid off 900 employees at once on a Zoom call. Hackers forced retail store receipt printers to print anti-work manifestos listing worker rights and directing readers to the "antiwork" subreddit. Analysis of "crime prediction" software used by police departments across the U.S. found that it disproportionately "predicted crimes" in Black, Latino, and poorer neighborhoods.
Elon Musk was named Time magazine's person of the year. Hackers took $120 million in cryptocurrency from the DeFi platform BadgerDAO. Hackers took $196 million in cryptocurrency from the cryptocurrency exchange BitMart. An Amazon Web Services outage took down the DeFi platform dYdX. CIA director William Burns told attendees of the Wall Street Journal's "CEO Summit" that the CIA has "a number of different projects focused on cryptocurrency."