2021: The Year Of Context Switching

It’s true to say that 2021 wasn’t exactly the year we had hoped for. After the nonstop horror of 2020, we all entered this year with an optimistic (and perhaps delusional) view that we would soon be heading back to some kind of “normal.” What we didn’t quite grasp, however, is that there is no normal to return to, and so I’d classify 2021 as a long but fascinating episode of context switching -- between nostalgia and innovation, rest and hustle, tech saturation and digital detox.

Context switching, if you’re not familiar, is a human workforce term used often by technologists to describe the process of constant stop/start across multiple projects.

We saw it in Sha’Carri Richardson and her extraordinary 100m run win for the U.S., followed by her ban from the Olympics. We saw it as the urban exodus continued, but people also started moving back into big cities as business reopened. There was an explosion of hyper-saturated bold colors and celebratory shapes on the runways worldwide, yet most of us stayed in our PJs and plain comfy clothes for most of the week as we figured out whether returning to work actually works for us anymore.



In marketing and media, we saw the same themes. Only Fans’ shocking announcement to remove porn from the platform only to rescind that after a massive uproar by the very sex workers who had put the platform on the map. Tiffany’s “Not Your Mother’s Tiffany” writ large the systemic ageism of marketing, while at the same time raising all sorts of questions about black voices v. cultural appropriation in its Jay Z/Beyonce/Basquiat campaign.

Kanye’s “Donda” popularized the idea and innovation of “building in public” at the same time that many were going after his mental health. Influencers and creators were completely burnt out from the content algorithm hamster wheel and began a huge defection from the Big 3 social platforms, while TikTok star Charli D’Amelio got her own TV show. Clubhouse rose and fell. Verzuz battles became ever more epic and sports-like, with huge viewing parties.

Queer excellence, visibility and representation took huge leaps forward with Lil Nas X, Gottmik, Elliot Page, Nesthy Petecio Quinn and Dominique Jackson amongst many others -- while hate crimes and Dave Chappelle showed us a very different reality. And then there were all the iconoclastic “merchtainment” mashups that came across as big money patriarchal landgrabs: Gucci x Mickey Mouse, Balenciaga x Fortnite, Vetements x "Star Wars," Balenciaga x "The Simpsons" being of particular note.

Oof, it was a lot. And you’ll note at this point that I’ve not even mentioned NFTs, the metaverse, and Meta. Of course, it’s the next shiny new thing and the conversation was everywhere in 2021. But maybe, just maybe, this is where we need to wait rather than hurry up, and make decisions based on critical thinking rather than just jumping on the bandwagon of something not many of us really understand at all.

Because my thinking is that we all just need to slow down. We’re exhausted. It’s all become too much. We’ve reached the peak of reaction culture, and the pendulum really must swing the other way.

Which leads me to my closing thought on the context switching that was 2021, and perhaps the operative quote of the year. “Were you silent, or were you silenced?” asked Oprah Winfrey.

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