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Big Tech is Not Going to Save You
As Facebook and Twitter somehow get even worse, desperate internet users search for an escape to something better. Good luck with that.
Some days, I want to be an optimistic person — a hopeful person. Hope and optimism are good because they are fuels that’ll get you places. They may take you somewhere you don’t want to go and then leave you stranded, but by god, they’ll get you there! When it comes to facing down the climate emergency, I’ve read that hope is important because it’s more likely to motivate action than pessimism and resignation. If you think you’ve just settled your ass into the bottom of a fried chicken barrel, with no way out, just waiting to be gobbled up, then you’re not likely to extricate yourself from your fate. You’re just waiting to become someone’s greasy fingers and regret. If, however, you think there just might be a chance, then you’ll fight for something better. That’s great. But there’s a difference between hope or optimism and Panglossian credulity. With Big Tech, way too many of us opt for the latter. Frankly, it’s a little embarrassing.
Last week, Jacobin published an interview I did with author, activist, and tech expert Cory Doctorow. He has a new book out, Red Team Blues, and it’s a great read. A thriller noir that takes the crypto grift down a few pegs. I talked to him about artificial intelligence, platforms, crypto, and more. The whole interview is good, useful, and full of his insight. But his concept of “enshitification” stands out as a Big Takeaway.
Discussing Elon Musk and Twitter, he says “The pathology that I think that Musk is enacting in high speed is something I call ‘enshitification.’”
You love it already, right? I did. It explains exactly what is happening to us online.
“Enshitification is a specific form of monopoly decay that is endemic to digital platforms. And the platform is the canonical form of the digital firm. It’s like a pure rentier intermediary business where the firm has a set of users or buyers and it has a set of business customers or sellers, and it intermediates between them. And it does so in a low competition environment where antitrust law or competition laws are not vigorously enforced.”
Years ago, some imagined the internet would be an open, free space where people could connect, play, learn, etc., etc., etc. without being controlled by the limits necessary, or seemingly necessary, in the real world. But the mainstream internet became a monopoly space controlled by a handful of tech bros and companies who decided their profits were more important than your quality of life. In that way, the internet mirrors the real world and, indeed, has become synonymous with it such that there is no boundary between online and offline, and nowhere to hide.
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That leads us to a place where Big Tech bros can make internet life progressively shittier for all of us while maximizing their returns, just up to the point where we say ‘Fuck this’ and bug out — as if there was somewhere to go. Maybe sometimes these guys push things too far, and we get fed up, and we break out of their prison. Like Edmond Dantès in the Count of Monte Cristo. Except that guy managed to get out of his prison cell after decades, find a boat-load of treasure, and live like a king while seeking sweet, sweet, cathartic revenge.
We are sad, sorry bastards caught in an endless cycle of mainstream tech monopoly grifts. So, if we somehow manage to leap heroically from the ledges on which sits the Château d'If, we find ourselves landing on Devil's Island. Not great! We can’t catch a break because the mainstream internet is run by a handful of tech oligarchs who trade the privilege of extorting us and enshitifying our lives back and forth under the phony guise of “competition.” If you don’t like this shitty Ford, I’ve got good news for you! This shitty Chrysler is available, and it comes in RED! Or a different shade of blue.
I joined Blue Sky last week as I prepare to escape from Twitter and lock myself up somewhere else. Blue Sky is decentralized, a new protocol and culture and space and hope and dream and kitten in every pot. It’s meant to be better. Right now, it’s a lot of people agreeing with one another (on things like basic human dignity and rights, which is good), cracking jokes about Alf and skeets while trying to be the next Dril, and tech chat about the future of the platform (as if that’s going to be worked out in these spaces). Blue Sky is backed by Jack Dorsey, who now thinks Elon Musk maybe isn’t a great leader after all. (Welcome to the party, pal!) Believers say Blue Sky will be the next Twitter (well that sounds terrifying), but better (sure it will). Author and lawyer Ashley Gjøvik broke down the Twitter-rival’s terms of service in a recent viral thread. They’re not great, to start. But it’s early days I guess. Still, the structural problems we face remain.
The mainstream tech space is dominated by a handful of people who think the same and who want to, or will soon want to, maximize returns and thus enshitify whatever platform or space they create. A for-profit internet run by the same old jailers is always going to end up being terrible, exploitative, and probably full of Nazis and grifters. It’s a structural problem tied to the marketplace, the characters who run the internet, the cultural norms we’ve come to accept online, and the legal parameters we’ve set in law that make the whole thing possible. We have built a machine, our world, to churn out shitty tech spaces. No one is coming to save us. At least no anyone who operates in the old milieu.
I asked Doctorow if he thought something better was possible. “I think it’s Mastodon,” he told me. “I think it’s Mastodon for a bunch of reasons. One is that the Mastodon standard was developed when the tech platforms were totally disinterested and didn’t have their fingers on the scale. ActivityPub, which is the standard that governs Mastodon, happened in this moment of reduced scrutiny and interference. The people who made it were ideologically committed to decentralization and technological self-determination, and they made it without interference from large firms that otherwise would’ve found it relatively easy to capture the process.”
Mastodon, or at least the idea of Mastodon, holds some hope because it’s structurally different and truly decentralized and different from what we’re used to. Culturally, it seems a place apart from Twitter and Facebook and, I’m guessing, what Blue Sky will become. I could be wrong. Maybe Blue Sky will be viable and popular and true to decentralization and pro-privacy and anti-nazi and anti-free market monopoly grift, too. Maybe it’ll always show you the stuff you ask to see. Maybe it won’t shove annoying, useless ads in your face. Maybe it’ll be sunshine and rainbows and tall, cold ones on a hot, sunny day and apple pie and the American Dream™.
If we want something different and better from the internet, job one is to stop letting the same old Big Tech oligarchs run the show and enshitify online spaces for profit. Job one is to Think Different™. The list of roadblocks to utopia include the major platforms, entertainment companies with their intellectual property maximalism, Google and its garbage search, monopoly game and other developers, and whoever else exists to sell-out users to make a buck. These people won’t save you. I want to say they hate you, but that’s not true. They don’t care about you enough to hate you. You’re just there to maximize their revenue and keep the owners well-fed, and they’ll push you as far as they can to do that. For sure, they aren’t going to save you. So, let’s blue sky this thing. Let’s drop the sad, peristent delusion that the old ways will be our salvation and instead put our energy towards imagining what a better internet free from their depredations and abuse can be.