The Enshittification of Enshittification

Published: 2024-2-24
Tagged: essay progress thoughts

Cory Doctorow once again enters the arena to fight for the user. His opponent, this time around, is a an indefatigable, bodiless entity he calls "enshittification". That's what you get when you roll Big Tech, advertising, Venture Capital, and online surveillance into a big ball of stinking exploitation.

Cory's stance is both highly admirable and perfectly understandable. Our digital commons are being turned into a wasteland of ads, thought-free content, and aggressive dark patterns. But to be honest, I think Doctorow's rhetoric does more harm than good here.

Turning the whole situation into a simplistic tale about "the people" fighting evil corporations, while stirring, ejects a huge amount of important detail. Worse, by filling the emptied space with vibes, Doctorow adds heat to the conversation while, at the same time, robbing it of light. I doubt that's any good, given how wicked the problems are that he's trying to tackle.

The problems with "enshittification" start in Doctorow's case study of Facebook. At first, he writes, Facebook showered its users with immense value by making hanging out online and offline effortless. But as the social network grew and burned through its piles of VC cash, it had to stop being so lavish so as to increase the ROI for its shareholders. This, Cory says, is a one way street, and so Facebook''s service's have and will continue to become increasingly exploitative.

But, as much as I loathe social media, I must say the case isn't that clear cut. Yes, Facebook's switch to an algorithmic newsfeed opened the gates of hell, inviting all sorts of abuse, and making a strong case that developing weapons of mass destruction can be extremely lucrative. However, at the same time, the social network gave billions of people the means to chat, call, and event organize events, all free of charge. It's difficult to estimate the dollar value of that, but I'd venture a guess it can be counted in the billions.

A similar reckoning should be made for the other platforms that Doctorow takes aim at. Apple and Google's app stores, Microsoft's office suite, Google's Search, etc. All of these products, while admittedly imposing nontrivial costs on individuals and society, also produced incalculable value. It's perhaps easy to see if you look back at when these behemoths weren't around.

In the not too distant past, say, 2004, computer users would regularly lose important work on account of software bugs. Viruses and trojans were as common as the common cold (and anti-virus software was expensive). Hardware faults were a constant source of headaches. A careless knock or a power outage could turn thousands of dollars of computer into a useless beige box.

All of that was made worse by how primitive computer interfaces were at that time--users had to deal with device drivers and PPP networking and disk fragmentation for example. And when something broke, and you weren't the type to spend a week paging through (paper) manuals and industry magazines, you had to call that awkward yet computer-savvy nephew. If you were unlucky to not have one, you'd have to fork over hundreds of bucks to an awkward geek at a nearby computer store.

I wish I lived in a world where more people found computers as fascinating and exciting as I do. But most people don't give a crap about SSL certificates or package management. For them, the big platforms which Doctorow hates were an on-ramp into cyberspace and all the magical powers it conveys.

To me, just this undermines Cory's later proposals for how to fix everything. Because if the bad guys aren't as bad as he makes them out to be, then perhaps the solutions aren't as good either?

For example, Cory rejoices about how the GDPR lead to a mass extinction event for small European AdTech companies. But he's silent on the effects it had on blockchain and AI development. And while it's popular to make fun of blockchain these days, it's not as easy to dismiss AI and the impact it may have on humanity. Shouldn't we at least consider the trade-offs there?

That's the sort of question we should be asking ourselves. But to do that, we need to embrace the grind of careful discussion. It's not sexy. Just consider how many man-decades have been invested into the topic of AI safety--without ever reaching a simple, clear conclusion!

That makes vibes tempting, what with how black and white they make everything, and how much firmness they lend to one's thoughts. But we know, especially from recent history, that good intentions don't guarantee good outcomes. The very same regulations meant to protect the environment are today being used to delay the construction of solar- and wind-power; the very same rent control laws meant to help low-income families have made city living unaffordable for many more.

While careful debate feels like an endless, thankless grind, it at least decreases the chance of catastrophic mistakes. Vibes, however, are coin toss--and the future of the Internet is too important to stake on that.


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