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.
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.
This week on my podcast, I read “View a SKU: Let’s Make Amazon Into a Dumb Pipe,” a recent column for Medium discussing how interoperability could flip Amazon’s monopoly power on its head and enable us all to coveniently shop locally.
This week on my podcast, I read “Why none of my books are available on Audible,”
a short audiobook I produced to be distributed through Amazon’s ACX platform, explaining how that platform’s sloppy rights verification and mandatory DRM screws over writers.