This week on my podcast, I read a selection from my next novel, Red Team Blues, an anti-finance finance thriller about Marty Hench, a 67 year old hard-charging forensic accountant who’s seen every finance scam that Silicon Valley has come up with over the previous 40 years. Marty’s ready to retire, but an old friend pulls him in for one last job, an offer he can’t refuse: recovering the stolen keys to a hidden backdoor in a cryptocurrency system that are worth more than a billion dollars. Recovering the keys turns out to be the easy part: the hard part is surviving the three-way war that is ignited in their wake, between Azerbaijani money-launderers, Mexican narcos, and crooked three-letter agencies.
One evening, I got a wild hair and drove all night from San Diego to Menlo Park. Why Menlo Park? It had both a triple-Michelin-star place and a dear old friend both within spitting distance of the Walmart parking lot, where I could park the Unsalted Hash, leaving me free to drink as much as I cared to and still be able to
walk home and crawl into bed.
I’d done a job that turned out better than I’d expected—well enough that I was set for the year if I lived carefully. I didn’t want to live carefully. The age for that was long past. I wanted to live it up. There’d be more work. I wanted to celebrate.
Truth be told, I also didn’t want to contemplate the possibility that, at the age of sixty-seven, the new work might stop coming in. Silicon Valley hates old people, but that was okay, because I hated Silicon Valley. Professionally, that is.
Getting close to Bakersfield, I pulled the Unsalted Hash into a rest stop to stretch my legs and check my phone. After a putter around the picnic tables and vending machine, I walked the perimeter of my foolish and ungainly and luxurious tour bus, checking the tires and making sure the cargo compartments were dogged and locked. I climbed back in, checked my sludge levels and decided they were low enough that I could use my own toilet, then, finally, having forced myself to wait, sat on one of the buttery leather chairs and checked my messages.
The rise of gig work produced a massive surge of “craft” workers who toiled on their own premises, most notably the drivers for Uber, Lyft, Doordash and delivery services who worked from their own cars, assured that they were independent businesspeople, able to book the hours and jobs they wanted. If the scenery caught their eye, they could pull over to the side of the road, get out of their cars and touch grass — and no one would even know they did it, much less punish them for it.
The pandemic lockdowns accelerated this process, as bossware made the leap from the low-waged, precarious Black women who were trapped by Arise’s predatory home call-centers to all kinds of white-collar workers who were told they were working from home, but who were really living at work.
Bossware — technology that monitors every click, every keystroke, and the streams from your device’s cameras and microphones — is everywhere today. Even so, blue collar workers have it the worst: they are the chickenized reverse-centaurs, forced to pay for their own working equipment, then minutely monitored, down to their facial expressions, and minutely choreographed, down to their eye-movements, to make sure their bosses are getting every penny’s worth of value out of their bodies.
This week on my podcast, I read my recent Medium column, Twiddler, which further explores my theory of enshittification, and the factors that make it endemic to digital platforms.
The early internet promised more than disintermediation — it also promised endless configurability, where users and technologists could install after-market code that altered the functioning of the services they relied on, seizing the means of computation to tilt the balance of power to their benefit.
Technology remains intrinsically configurable, of course. The only kind of computer we know how to build is the universal, Turing complete Von Neumann machine, which can run all the software we know how to write.
That’s how we got things like ad-blockers, the largest boycott in world history. The configurability of technology is why things like free and open software are politically important: in a technologically mediated society, control over the functions of the technology you rely on is control over every part of your life — your job, your education, your love life, your political engagement.
While it remains technically possible to reconfigure the technologies that you rely on, doing so is now a legal minefield. “IP” has come to mean “any law that lets a company control the conduct of its competitors, critics or customers,” and that’s why “IP” is always at the heart of maneuvers to block platform users’ attempts to wrestle value away from the platforms.
This week on my podcast, I read my Pluralistic blog post, Tiktok’s enshittification, which sets out a kind of master theory of enshittification, illustrated by Tiktok’s platform dynamics.
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.
I call this enshittification, and it is a seemingly inevitable consequence arising from the combination of the ease of changing how a platform allocates value, combined with the nature of a “two sided market,” where a platform sits between buyers and sellers, holding each hostage to the other, raking off an ever-larger share of the value that passes between them.
This week on my podcast, I read my latest Locus column, “Social Quitting, about the enshittification lifecycle of social media platforms.
But as Facebook and Twitter cemented their dominance, they steadily changed their services to capture more and more of the value that their users generated for them. At first, the companies shifted value from users to advertisers: engaging in more surveillance to enable finer-grained targeting and offering more intrusive forms of advertising that would fetch high prices from advertisers.
This enshittification was made possible by high switching costs. The vast communities who’d been brought in by network effects were so valuable that users couldn’t afford to quit, because that would mean giving up on important personal, professional, commercial, and romantic ties. And just to make sure that users didn’t sneak away, Facebook aggressively litigated against upstarts that made it possible to stay in touch with your friends without using its services. Twitter consistently whittled away at its API support, neutering it in ways that made it harder and harder to leave Twitter without giving up the value it gave you.
When my daughter Poesy was four, her nursery school let us know that they were shutting down a day before my wife’s office closed for the holidays, leaving us with a childcare problem. Since I worked for myself, I took the day off and brought her to my office, where we recorded a short podcast, singing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (a frankly amazing rendition!).
We’ve done it every year since, except for 2016 when I had mic problems. Now she’s 14, and we’ve just recorded our tenth installment, and as always, it was a highlight of my holiday season. This year, our Christmas carol is back, along with a brief interview about her interests and hobbies, and a summary of a seriously creepy short story she’s writing.
Here’s this year’s recording, and here are the years gone by:
When Amazon bought Twitch, the story was that the new conglomerate would be more efficient and that would benefit everyone – streamers and audiences. That’s the story we hear about every anticompetitive merger, and it’s always a lie. more
This week on my podcast, I read “What is Chokepoint Capitalism?” a recent column for Medium explaining the thesis of my new book with Rebecca Giblin, which explains how creative labor markets got rigged, and how we can unrig them.