Pluralistic: 02 Feb 2021

Today's links

Criti-Hype (permalink)

There's a Yom Kippur joke I love: the rabbi and the richest man in town are praying, "Oh Lord, I am nothing, I am nothing!"

The synagogue's janitor sees them and joins in: "I am nothing!"

The richest man says to the rabbi: "Look who thinks he's nothing."

The humblebrag is a wild phenomena, and it's endemic to a certain kind of tech criticism. When a technologist – what Maria Farrell calls a "prodigal tech bro" – confesses that he's an evil genius, then "genius" is the point.

Think of the "AI" scientists who claim that they are about to be responsible for massive waves of technological unemployment, seeming to confess to a sin while actually overpromising on their AI.

Or the critique of "surveillance capitalism" that takes at face value ad-tech's outlandish boasts about how good they are at changing peoples' minds with data-mining, and then warns that we're all about to be enslaved to mind-control tech.

Or the hand-wringing over the "trolley problem" of self-driving cars, as though the issue with these cars will be their reliable fine-grained judgments, rather than their unreliability and anticompetitive fealty to their manufacturers.

This is what Lee Vinsel calls "criti-hype," criticism that actually builds on – and depends on – maintaining the halo of devastating potency that surrounds overhyped technologies.

While it's true that the social problems that technologies create have unique, subtle elements that require a fine-grained understanding of the underlying science, it's a mistake to assume this obviates historical lessons.

Like, blockchain and proof-of-work and cryptography do bring unique facets to the problems of financial engineering, money-laundering and fraud – but all the problems of financial engineering and money-laundering and fraud are still in the mix.

Ad-tech and engagement-maximization systems add new wrinkles to the problems of communications monopolies and the epistemological chaos created by corrupt institutions, but the chaos and the monopolies are still central to these problems.

The problem with many metacritics of tech – people who criticize tech critics – is their assumption that tech is irrelevant. The problem with tech critics themselves is their assumption that tech is dispositive.

The reality is that tech has formal characteristics – the universality of Turing completeness – that both expand the policy toolkit (the power of interoperability mandates) and constrain it (the futility of cryptography back-doors).

Criti-hype is real, and its remedy isn't to ignore technicalities and criticize tech as though it was just another industry – the remedy is to really understand what tech can and can't do, and to understand that the industry isn't run by super-genuises (evil or otherwise) nor science heroes (or villains).

Right to Repair is back for 2021 (permalink)

2018 was almost the year we won the Right to Repair.

Instead, 2018 turned out to be the year we lost R2R: 20 bills defeated in 20 state houses, and it was mostly Apple's fault.

Apple has a problem. As CEO Tim Cook warned his investors at the conclusion of his company's repair-killing lobbying spree, Apple's profits depend on people throwing away their devices, not fixing them.

By monopolizing repairs, Apple doesn't just get to gouge you on parts and service – the real action is in pronouncing your device DOA, beyond repair. Then you have to buy another one.

Other companies lobbied hard against R2R: John Deere, GM, and other monopolists backed Apple's play. But Apple wrote the playbook, coming up with risible bullshit like claims that blocking independent repair is essential to protecting privacy.

Apple's anti-repair FUD got picked up and amplified by Big Car in 2020, when they spent millions fighting an automotive R2R ballot initiative in Massachusetts, claiming that letting independent mechanics at your car would lead to your actual murder.

2018 is the year we lost Right to Repair, but 2021 might be the year we win it. We're only a month in and 14 states are already debating R2R legislation, with more to come. The Repair Coalition and PIRG are leading the fight, buoyed by massive R2R successes in the EU.

Independent repair isn't just fair and it isn't just good for the planet – it's also good for the nation and its economy. The average US family loses $330/year thanks to anti-repair practices, a $40b drag on the American economy.

Repair creates local jobs for SMEs whose earnings – from helping their neighbors – are taxed (not hidden in offshore tax-havens) and contribute to their communities. These are on-shore, dignified tech jobs – not slave labor in Xinjiang or coerced labor in a Foxconn plant.

Repair diverts ewaste from landfills. Each kiloton of ewaste creates <1 landfill jobs, or 15 recyling jobs.

But that same kiloton of ewaste creates 200 local repair jobs.

Repair creates a secondary market for low-cost devices that find their way into the hands of people on the wrong side of the digital divide – a divide that got starker and more consequential during the pandemic, and will only get more important in years to come.

Speaking of the pandemic: anti-repair laws meant that when PB840 ventilators (the most common ventilator, sold by the monopolist Medtronic, which benefits from the largest-ever tax-avoidance "reverse takeover" in corporate history) broke, they couldn't be legally fixed.

Instead, desperate med-tech people turned to a lone Polish hacker who built Medtronic defeat devices into old guitar-pedals and clock radios to get around the anti-repair measures in the ventilators that hospitals had bought and paid for.

R2R is a fight for justice. For the right to decide who fixes your stuff. For the right to set up shop and help your neighbors. For self-reliance and resiliency over profits. For on-shore small businesses over multinational cheaters.

Once again, a wave of R2R laws is sweeping the nation. The monopolists who profiteered off our misery during the pandemic will once again turn out to stop them. PIRG and the Repair Coalition need our support – as do their coalition allies like EFF.

The free market and rent-seeking (permalink)

When you hear the phrase "free market," you probably think of "a market that is free from regulation" but that's the opposite of the phrase's original meaning!

Adam Smith used the term to describe a market that was free from "economic rents" – money earned by owning things, rather than doing things. Smith recognized that markets attract parasites – "rentiers" – who seek to drain wealth by "investing" rather than building and doing.

Which meant that, in the absence of muscular state intervention, markets would become less and less free – more and more dependent on the whims of rentiers who used money to breed money by creating toll-barriers between parts of the productive economy.

For Smith, markets were only free if they were regulated. But that's the opposite of the way that we talk about free markets today. Today, a free market is a market where you are free to collect rents – passive income from owning things, at the expense of people doing things.

This is true in so many metaphorical ways, but it's especially true when we're talking about actual rent – actual homes that people need to survive and produce, whose primary role today is to serve as an asset class to be maximized, not a basic human right.

London is ground zero for the conversion of housing from a human right to a speculative asset, a city at war with itself, filled up with empty safe-deposit boxes in the sky, while productive workers – the "essential workers" of the pandemic – triple-up in substandard housing.

The conversion of London from a city to an asset was hugely profitable, primarily for offshore "investors," especially criminals who were attracted by London's veneer of respectability, which allowed them to convert their loot to legitimate earnings through property sales.

The overslosh of these tremendous cash flows has hopelessly corrupted London's planning authorities, who are absolutely helpless and hopeless at holding developers to their own promises – new builds get extra storeys and shed public concessions without penalty.

And just as the tax-authorities who despair of enforcing against the real cheats turn their efforts to everyday people who can't afford to fight investigations, London's planners spend their days making life miserable for homeowners trying to make minor improvements.

I spent two years fighting Hackney for the right to build a small, windowed greenhouse on my flat's balcony, finally giving up on growing my own veggies. Meanwhile, the for-profit "student residence" across the street replaced hundreds of small offices, overbuilt and busted.

Today, it's a failed Wework, while the four-storey "boutique hotel" across the street has been transformed into eight+ storeys, with multiple storeys of office space, all without any planning enforcement.

The conversion of London into a tradeable asset was a deliberate project. It started with the destruction of public council housing through Thatcher's Right to Buy program, which left low-income people at the mercy of concessions made by private landlords and developers.

Even before Thatcher, Tory local councils like Wandsworth's engaged in ethnic cleansing by purging their public housing in favor of for-profit schemes, with the explicit goal of replacing Labour-voting working people with Tory landed gentry.

Decades later, London's property markets are purely unfree, dominated by rentiers who have massively oversupplied the luxury property market, then engaged in fraud – relisting the same property every couple days – to make it seem like the market was thriving.

Planners give builders permission to make more of these empty, unneeded super-luxe "homes" on the condition that they supply affordable housing in the same development.

Builders like those behind the Battersea Power Plant conversion renege without consequence: they pledged to make 15% of the new units affordable, then slashed it to 9%, claiming "technical difficulties."

When they do make good on their promises, they do so in the most meanspirited, disgusting ways. Remember when the almshouse that Dickens based Oliver Twist's setting on was converted to luxury flats on condition that the builder supply affordable homes?

The builder produced "segregated housing" – homes around a greenspace where rich kids played, but which poor kids literally couldn't access. The poor wing of the development had no gates that accessed the playground.

A commonplace in these developments is the "poor door." The developer builds a high-rise with a fancy marble lobby and a doorman, then literally puts a shitty little door around the back next to the garbage bins for the low-income occupants.

The poor door – and its companion, the poor elevator, so the rich people don't ever have to see poor neighbors – inspired me to write UNAUTHORIZED BREAD, which explores all kinds of rentierism, from your toaster to your fridge.

Dystopian sf is a warning, not a suggestion, but London's luxe real-estate barons keep getting that wrong. In a wonderful, infuriating longread, The Guardian's Oliver Wainwright explores the literal structural inequality of London's Nine Elms.

The low-income residents at Nine Elms enjoy a uniquely cursed arrangement with the building. They "own" (that is, pay a mortgage on) 25% of their homes, while the remaining 75% is "rented." They have all the disadvantages of ownership and none of its advantages.

The building's management forces them into poor-doors, and denies them access to the pool, the gym and other amenities ("to keep service charges down"). Their neighbors – hereditary Emirati princelings – leave their flats empty most of the time.

But when they do show up, they import their performance sports-cars, which they park in the fire-lane and race up and down the street in the middle of the night.

Building management skimps on maintenance and sells poor tenants out to monopoly energy providers who practice merciless price-gouging on the people who can least afford it.

Tellingly, when Wainwright questioned local Tory councillor Ravi Govindia about the scams, cruelty, and meanness of his poor constituents, Govindia shrugged it off, calling it the free market in action and saying that "it's up to people to make their choices."

Govindia is more right than he knows. When we converted Smith's free markets – free from rentierism – into Thatcher's – free for rentierism – we made this kind of neo-Victorian class division inevitable.

Converting housing into property, human rights into assets, guaranteed millions of people would be coerced into abusive commercial arrangements just to survive – and that the profits from their exploitation would be laundered to elect Tories who'd accelerate the process.

A market that is "free" from anti-rentier regulation is a market where all the freedom is gathered into the hands of a few parasitic toll-collectors who get to exact ever-higher tolls from the productive sector.

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago Diane Duane’s crowdfunded publishing experiment finally concludes

#10yrsago Inside Sukey, the anti-kettling mobile app

#5yrsago Swatting attempted against Congresswoman who introduced anti-swatting bill

#5yrsago Exclusive: Snowden intelligence docs reveal UK spooks’ malware checklist

#5yrsago Ross and Carrie become Scientologists: an investigative report 5 years in the making

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Beka Valentine (, Naked Capitalism (

Currently writing:

  • My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 521 words (105723 total).

  • A short story, "Jeffty is Five," for The Last Dangerous Visions. Yesterday's progress: 263 words (2658 total).

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 30)

Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest book:

This work licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to

Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.

How to get Pluralistic:

Blog (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Newsletter (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Mastodon (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Twitter (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

Tumblr (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla