Scraping when the scrapee suffers as a result of your scraping is good, actually.
Mario Zechner is an Austrian technologist who used the APIs of large grocery chains to prove that they were colluding to rig prices. Zechner was able to create a corpus of historical price and product data to show how grocers used a raft of deceptive practices to trick people into thinking they were getting a good deal, from shrinkflation to cyclic price changes that were deceptively billed as “discounts.”
At first, Zechner worked alone and in fear of reprisals from the giant corporations whose fraudulent practices — which affected every person in the country — he had revealed.
But eventually, he was able to get the Austrian bureaucrat in charge of enforcing competition rules to publish a report lauding his work. Zechner open-sourced his project and attracted volunteers who started pulling in data from Germany and Slovenia.
This week on my podcast, I read my latest Locus column. “Plausible Sentence Generators,” about my surprising, accidental encounter with a chatbot, and what it says about the future of the bullshit wars.
When I came back to the tab a couple minutes later, I found that the site had fed my letter to a large language model (probably ChatGPT) and that it had been transformed into an eye-watering, bowel-loosening, vicious lawyer letter.
Hell, it scared me.
Let’s get one thing straight. This was a very good lawyer-letter, but it wasn’t good writing. Legal threat letters are typically verbose, obfuscated and supercilious (legal briefs are even worse: stilted and stiff and full of tortured syntax).
This letter read like a $600/hour paralegal working for a $1,500/hour white-shoe lawyer had drafted it. That’s what made it a good letter: it sent a signal, “The person who sent this letter is willing to spend $600 just to threaten you. They are seriously pissed, and willing to spend a lot of money to make sure you know it.” Like a cat’s tail standing on end or a dog’s hackles rising, the letter’s real point isn’t found in its text. The real point is the threat display itself.
The enshitternet wasn’t inevitable. It was the result of specific policy choices: the decision to encourage monopoly formation, which created the corporate power and concentration that led to even more policies, granting the monopolist unlimited freedom to abuse us, and denying us any right to defend ourselves.
Anything that can’t go on forever eventually stops. The disenshittification of the internet isn’t a nostalgic bid to restore the old, good internet. It’s a plan to build a new, good internet, and to make the enshitternet a bad memory, a mere transitional stage between the old, good internet we had and the new, good internet we deserve.
This week’s podcast is a special one: the introduction and chapter one of the audio edition of The Internet Con: How To Seize the Means of Computation, which Verso will publish on September 5, 2023. I made my own DRM-free audiobook for this, reading it under the direction of the incredible Gabrielle de Cuir at Skyboat Media. You can pre-order DRM-free audiobooks, ebooks and hardcovers (both signed and unsigned) at my Kickstarter.
Tech bosses know the only thing protecting them from sudden platform collapse syndrome are the laws that have been passed to stave off the inevitable fire.
They know that platforms implode “slowly, then all at once.”
They know that if we weren’t holding each other hostage, we’d all leave in a heartbeat.
But anything that can’t go on forever will eventually stop. Suppressing good fire doesn’t mean “no fires,” it means wildfires. It’s time to declare fire debt bankruptcy. It’s time to admit we can’t make these combustible, tinder-heavy forests safe.
It’s time to start moving people out of the danger zone.
This week on my podcast, I read a recent Medium column. “Ideas Lying Around,” about archivillain Milton Friedman’s surprisingly good theory of change, and how to apply it to progressive politics.
Enter Friedman: to people reeling in crisis, Friedman insisted that the missing oil was somehow the product of unionization, pollution controls, women’s lib, and the civil rights movement. Though this was transparent nonsense, akin to blaming witches for a crop failure, the crisis was so dislocating, and Friedman’s ideas had been lying around for so long, that they moved swiftly to the center.
This week on my podcast, I read my lastest Locus column. “The Swivel-Eyed Loons Have a Point,” about the unlikely – but undeniable – common ground I share with the most unhinged far-right conspiracists.
The swivel-eyed loons at the anti-15-minute-city protests point out that such a scheme constitutes a form of pervasive location-tracking surveillance, and that this surveillance could be leveraged to attack disfavored minorities. They’re not wrong. Just look at London, where a (again, perfectly sensible) system of “congestion charging” and “low-emissions zones” has made serious progress in improving the air quality, reducing traffic, and improving journey times for public transit.
London also uses ALPRs to enforce its traffic restrictions, and pairs this with a massive public/private network of street cameras aimed at pedestrians, backstopped by a public transit system whose Oyster payment cards are virtually impossible to use anonymously.
The thing is, the UK government has a long history of abusing this kind of power. The Metropolitan London police ran a 40-year covert operation to infiltrate, track, and disrupt trade union organizers and activists, from students to Members of Parliament. The Met also colluded with large construction firms to maintain a secret blacklist of union organizers who were denied employment and had their lives ruined.
This week on my podcast, I bring you some clips of Wil Wheaton’s recording sessions for the audiobook of Red Team Blues, my next novel, an anti-finance finance thriller starring the 67 year old forensic accountant Martin Hench, who specializes in high-tech scams.
I’m currently kickstarting this audiobook, pre-selling audiobooks, ebooks and hardcovers. I have to self-produce my own audiobooks, because Audible – the monopolist audiobook division of Amazon – refuses to carry DRM-free titles like mine.
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.