Monday, February 26, 2024

The "enshittification" of the internet - we know it's bad for us but we're hooked

Photo by ROBIN WORRALL on Unsplash

I frequently consider leaving social media completely but can't quite bring myself to do it. As I have no doubt written before I have so many contacts in there that I would lose and I still get pleasure from the groups I belong to. But you will certainly have noticed over the years how what was once a place to see photos and comments from friends has turned into a stream of adverts and posts (often political or provocative) from organisations you don't follow. At first, the ads on Facebook were often hilariously irrelevant, based merely on stereotypes. As an older male living in a village I saw ads for chainsaws, tractors, hair restorer, Viagra (of course), crypto nonsense and the fact that hundreds of fascinating women are waiting to meet me. They're getting better at finding things I am at least vaguely interested in but the problem is that the platform has become just a random stream of stuff that I never asked for. Basically it has become enshittified.

Enshittification is a concept launched by Cory Doctorow last year in a post about TikTokTiktok's enshittification. In it he argues that all platforms inevitably fill up with garbage due to the greed of the owners. Even if he writes mostly about TikTok the principle seems to apply across the board. A new post, My McLuhan lecture on enshittification, is the script of a recent lecture where he goes into more depth on the phenomenon. In short, the enshittification process goes like this:

It's a three stage process: First, platforms 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.
This rings true for most if not all the tech platforms: Google, Amazon, Facebook, X (Twitter), TikTok,  etc. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter were very succesful in getting us all onboard to share our everyday events and interests and we quickly got hooked. But once we were all in there and the platform changed into an ad-based channel we were trapped. If you leave the platform you leave behind all your friends. It's virtually impossible to get all your Facebook contacts to leave all at once and meet up in a new platform. So we stay there even if we begin to hate the place and despite all the scandals and blatant societal damage. Then came the trolls and disinformation channels, destroying even light-hearted discussion threads with the result that more and more became passive users or simply gave up. But still it is so hard to leave and many of us stay in there. I gave up Twitter when it became X but amazingly it is still the default channel for serious media and organisations.

Doctorow offers four factors that could combat enshittification:
There are four constraints that prevent enshittification: competition, regulation, self-help and labor.
The problem is that all of these have disappeared. We could have regulated the tech industry and broken up the monopolistic monsters like the big five. We could have created more genuine competition. We could have legislated against monopolistic takeovers, exploitative labour practices and so on but we didn't. We believed the big tech mythology of the "new economy", cool laid-back leaders, flashy offices and mottos like "Don't be evil". We are no longer customers to these companies, have you noticed how none of them offer any customer service, not even a contact number. We are simply data to exploit. Doctorow sees some glimmers of hope in a renewed interest for privacy legislation, especially in the EU, current labour action against companies like Tesla and Amazon, attempts to curb monopolistic take-overs and suchlike. But we have allowed the industry go run wild for so long it's extremely hard to constrain them now.
The capitalism of today has produced a global, digital ghost mall, filled with botshit, crapgadgets from companies with consonant-heavy brand-names, and cryptocurrency scams.
The internet isn't more important than the climate emergency, nor gender justice, racial justice, genocide, or inequality.
But the internet is the terrain we'll fight those fights on. Without a free, fair and open internet, the fight is lost before it's joined.
We can reverse the enshittification of the internet. We can halt the creeping enshittification of every digital device.
I wish we could mobilise to fight this as Doctorow suggests but first we have to get people to look up from their screens and realise that something is seriously wrong. That is the biggest challenge. 

For more on this theme please watch this interesting discussion between Camille Francois (Columbia University) and Meredith Whittaker (President, Signal) on Al Jazeera, AI and Surveillance Capitalism. They discuss the surveillance economy, the effects of AI and how we can combat it.

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