Cory Doctorow has a plan to wipe away the enshittification of tech

It's not just you – things really are getting worse

Opinion An apocryphal tale regarding the late, great footballer George Best being interviewed by a reporter just after getting suspended from Manchester United offers an apt description of today’s tech industry right now.

Best was the finest footballer (or soccer in Freedom Language) of his generation during the Swinging Sixties and was one of the first big-money athletes to transcend sport and achieve celebrity. He was handsome, ferociously talented on the pitch, and famously debauched off it. He was once quoted as saying "I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars – the rest I just squandered."

According to the tale, the journalist was ushered into his hotel suite – strewn with empty champagne bottles after a wild party. A former Miss United Kingdom was freshening up in the shower and George sat in an armchair with a cigar and a huge glass of Scotch in his fist. The journalist’s first question was: "So Bestie, where did it all go wrong?"

The same question can be asked of today’s tech industry which, like Best, experienced initial greatness but has arguably wasted the spoils with loutish behavior and cashing in on past achievements. The Cambrian explosion of business ideas that the invention of internet produced a generation ago have ossified into rent seeking, buying out the competition, and funneling huge amounts of cash to shareholders.

Facebook – once a great way to keep in contact with old acquaintances – has turned into a spam-ridden hole. Google won its place as the search champion on merit, but these days users must scroll past endless sponsored ads or SEO articles – something AI will likely make worse.

Meanwhile streaming services are jacking up their prices, having locked in their viewers. Uber and Lyft are cracking down on drivers and pricing after having "disrupted" the taxi industry. Food delivery services are also increasing prices and adding mysterious fees after having seduced an audience unwilling or unable to leave their homes to seek sustenance.

It's not just you

Attracting customers and then exploiting them is a phenomenon that's as old as capitalism, but it's become endemic in the tech industry where it has earned a new name: "enshittification."

The coiner of the term, author and activist Cory Doctorow, described it thus.

Here is how platforms die: first, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.

Doctorow gave a speech on the topic at last year's DEF CON infosec conference, and his analysis is gaining traction on all sides of the political and technological spectrum. With a few small portals dominating the technology landscape and either buying out or crushing the competition, it's looking like entrenched interests are ceasing to innovate themselves, and settling into just generating value for shareholders – customers and suppliers be damned. You can see the whole talk below.

Youtube Video

In an interview with The Register, Doctorow explained that the reasons for enshittification are complex, and not necessarily directly malicious – but a product of the current business environment and the state of regulation.

He thinks the way to flush enshittification is enforcing effective competition.

"We need to have prohibition and regulation that prohibits the capital markets from funding predatory pricing," he explained.

"It's very hard to enter the market when people are selling things below cost. We need to prohibit predatory acquisitions. Look at Facebook: buying Instagram, and Mark Zuckerberg sending an email saying we're buying Instagram because people don't like Facebook and they're moving to Instagram, and we just don't want them to have anywhere else to go."

The frustrating part of this is that the laws needed to break up the big tech monopolies that allow enshittification, and encourage competition, are already on the books.

Doctorow lamented those laws haven't been enforced. In the US, the Clayton Act, the Federal Trade Act, and the Sherman Act are all valid, but have either not been enforced or are being questioned in the courts.

However, in the last few years that appears to be changing.

Recent actions by increasingly muscular regulatory agencies like the FTC and FCC are starting to move against the big tech monopolies, as well as in other industry sectors. What's more, Doctorow pointed out, these are not just springing from the Democratic administration but are being actively supported by an increasing number of Republicans. He cited Lina Khan, appointed as chair of the FTC in part thanks to the support of Republican politicians seeking change (although the GOP now regularly criticizes her positions).

The sheer size of the largest tech companies certainly gives them an advantage in cases like these, Doctorow opined, noting that we've seen this in action more than 20 years ago.

"Think back to the Napster era, and compare tech and entertainment. Entertainment was very concentrated into about seven big firms and they had total unity and message discipline," Doctorow recalled.

"Tech was a couple of hundred firms, and they were much larger – like an order of magnitude larger in aggregate than entertainment. But their messages were all over the place, and they were contradicting each other. And so they just lost, and they lost very badly."

The curse of bigness

Doctorow suggested enshittification of services happens due to the kind of management that such mega-companies demand.

Traditionally, CEOs progress in a large company by taking a new idea and growing it into a valuable business unit. It worked for Microsoft's Satya Nadella in developing cloud platforms for Redmond, and Andy Jassy followed a similar route to success with Amazon after pioneering AWS. Meanwhile, Sundar Pichai oversaw the growth of ChromeOS before taking leadership at Alphabet.

Doctorow thinks that the same process might also harm innovation. Uneasy lies the head that bears the crown, and CEOs might be unwilling to promote major new innovations – he cited the failure of social network Google+ as a classic example.

Further down the chain there's a problem with getting too big and dominant: you run out of customers. Google has a 90 percent market share in search, and all the advertising in the world probably isn't going to convince the rest to shift platforms. Growth has to come from other efforts.

"Nobody sat down and said, 'Let's make Google worse,'" Doctorow suggested.

"You often hear people at Google being very sincere and saying, like, 'we're not deliberately making Google worse'. And they're not setting out to make Google worse. They're just only finding growth from raising costs, reducing value, and cutting back on internal structures."

While this is bad for customers, it can also be bad for security. As more changes are made by different departments, they can open loopholes in other areas where product shifts leave vulnerabilities.

These kinds of policies also have a knock-on effect on workers – another key area for wiping away enshittification. Tech workers, like most people, care about the jobs they are doing – it's demoralizing when they are forced to make cuts they know will be bad for end users.

In the past it was possible to put these to one side, Doctorow suggested, because the sector has very good pay and perks. But the endless need for more profit has changed in the last few years.

"Remember when tech workers dreamed of working for a big company before striking out on their own to put that big company out of business? Then that dream shrank to working for a few years, quitting and doing a fake startup to get hired back by your old boss in the world's most inefficient way to get a raise," he told the Def Con crowd last August.

"Next it shrank even further. You're working for a tech giant your whole life but you get free kombucha and massages. And now that dream is over and all that's left is work with a tech giant until they fire your ass – like those 12,000 Googlers who got fired six months after a stock buyback that would have paid their salaries for the next 27 years. We deserve better than this."

Ultimately, enshittification will be hard to flush away, but if events over the past few years have shown anything, it's that this change can come with surprising speed. And Big Tech really needs to change – because at the moment things are going from bad to worse and the folks at the top have little incentive to change.

There is power in a union

All of that cost cutting – it's estimated that around 400,000 tech workers have been let go in the last few years – might backfire.

For a start there are a lot of smart techies trying to decide what to do with themselves, and – despite some belt tightening – there are still plenty of venture capital firms keen to support what could be the next big thing.

More importantly, the past few years have seen a growing movement towards labor organizing in the tech industry – across not only coders and designers, but also blue collar workers like Amazon's warehouse staff. Collaboration among very different sorts of workers on this issue has reached unprecedented levels.

"We're so much closer to tech unionization than we were just a few years ago. Yeah, it's still nascent, and yes, it's easy to double small numbers, but the strength is doubling very quickly and in a very heartening way," Doctorow told The Reg.

"We're really at a turning point. And some of it is coming from the kind of solidarity like you see with warehouse workers and tech workers."

A cynic might say that it's only when your own job is at risk that you show solidarity with others – and there's an element of truth to that. But there's more to it, thanks to two factors: education and whistleblowers.

On the education side, there have already been big changes in both the Teamsters Union and the United Auto Workers in the US. In the case of the Teamsters, a group of Harvard adjuncts – poorly paid teaching staff – started to unionize but received no support from complacent Teamsters Union management. So they studied the rules and forced changes at the top and are starting to see major wins in pay and conditions, as the recent strike at transport company UPS demonstrated.

The same is possible in the tech industry, and we're already seeing some knowledge workers forming unions. Tellingly, this is occurring most quickly in some of the areas where staff have traditionally been massively overworked – the gaming industry is notorious for long hours.

As for whistleblowers, they are not always white knights, as Doctorow explained. While some will spill the beans based on genuinely offended morals, there are plenty of whistleblowers who do so after willingly participating in the system but who blow the whistle after a dispute or job loss. Both are very useful in showing how these corporations are operating.

In the end it should be possible to reverse the current trend and reintroduce a more competitive technology industry environment that can spur innovation, spread the wealth, and grow more efficient for users, employers, and investors. ®

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